Saturday, February 21, 2009

Poverty Tours in Resurgent India

Decried by many as "racist poverty porn" and condemned by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachan in his blog for showing India as "a third world dirty under belly developing nation (sic)", the movie Slumdog Millionaire has been greeted by howls of protests in India. But it has been widely acclaimed in the West. It is sparking international interest in the vast slums of Mumbai. “Slumdog” may take in $100 million during its run in U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Media By Numbers LLC. The low-budget movie had $43.9 million in receipts before collecting 10 Oscar nominations on Jan. 22, 2009. There have been charges of child exploitation against Slumdog producer and director which have been denied by Danny Boyle. “The actors were paid very well. We have not released any figures — either what they were paid or what they will receive when they complete their education — because it would make them vulnerable to certain elements, because they are quite large sums of money.”

Reports suggest the stars are entitled to a trust fund if they have remained in education for a certain length of time. The production company wanted to make sure the child actors would benefit from a decent education as well as the money, he said.

Slumdog is not the only Academy Award contender focusing on poverty, squalor and its effects in India. Another documentary "The Final Inch" -- which has also been nominated for an Academy Award -- takes a real-life look at India's slums. The film explores the final battle against polio, a largely forgotten disease that continues to ravage the world's poorest areas -- areas that the Hollywood feature so graphically depicts.

Poverty tours in India, Brazil and South Africa are not an entirely new phenomenon. Favela tours in Rio De Janeiro in Brazil and South African shanty town tours have attracted tourists for years. It is primarily the popular Slumdog Millionaire, nominated for 10 Oscars including Best Picture award, that is translating to more rubberneckers in the Mumbai, India, slum where it was filmed — and is re-igniting a debate over the ethics of "poverty tourism", according to USA Today. Chris Way, the co-founder of Reality Tours that operates the poverty tour of the Mumbai slum, estimates that sales are up by about 25% since Slumdog Millionaire's release. Though he credits some of the increase to a gradual rebound in tourism after terrorist attacks in Mumbai killed more than 170 people in November, publicity surrounding the film has played a big role.

The tours have come under criticism for exploiting poverty. But Way defends his tours as a way to help the poor in Mumbai. In India, "a lot of people think the movie is 'poverty porn,' " says Way, a Brit who has lived in Mumbai since 2004. But any criticism of his tours "comes from misunderstanding what we are trying to do … break down the negative image of slums, (and) highlight the industry and sense of community." Reality Tours charges $10 or $20 a person, depending on length of the tour, and pledges to donate 80% of after-tax profits to local charities. Though the business hasn't yet cleared a profit, it paid for a community center.

With the expected attendance of the slum child actors of Mumbai at the Oscars tomorrow in Los Angeles, Way's company and Mumbai tourism are likely to get a further boost in the coming months. There is speculation that Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, 10, and Rubina Ali, 9, both of whom were plucked from their homes in a Mumbai slum by director Danny Boyle and his team, will steal the show from the big glamorous stars of Hollywood.

Child poverty is not unique to India. MSNBC recently reported that the worsening economy in Pakistan is especially taking its toll on children and some are being abandoned by their parents. The report highlighted the case of three mothers who could not afford to feed their children. "The three women came together to my center," Bilquis Edhi of Edhi Center said. "They asked me to please take their children; they could no longer feed them."

"The mothers were sobbing as they tried to leave the children and the children were crying clinging to their mothers," Edhi said. "It was heart wrenching to watch."

While the news of abandoned or begging children offers only a small anecdotal evidence of the sorry state of Pakistani children, the official data paints an equally grim picture. Ranked at 136 on a list of 177 countries, Pakistan's human development ranking remains very low. Particularly alarming is the low primary school enrollment for girls which stands at about 30% in rural areas, where the majority of Pakistanis live. In fact, the South Asia average of primary school enrollment is pulled down by Pakistan, the only country in all of Asia and the Pacific with the lowest primary enrollment rate of 68 per cent in 2005. This is 12 percentage points lower than that of Maldives, which, at 80 per cent, has the second lowest rate in Asia and the Pacific. Low primary enrollment rate and poor health of children in Pakistan raise serious concerns about the future of the nation in terms of the continuing impact of low human development on its economic, social and political well-being.

According to Asia Children's Rights report, about 8 million Pakistani children, or 40 percent of the total population of children under the age of 5, suffer from malnutrition. About 63 percent of children between 6 months and 3 years have stunted growth and 42 percent are anemic or underweight. Poor nutrition leaves these children vulnerable to diseases. Pakistan is among the few countries of the world where Polio is still endemic. Poor conditions extend to the education sector as well. Over 23 million children in Pakistan have never been to school. The International Labor Organization data shows 3.3 million children, between the ages of 5 and 14 years in Pakistan, are forced to work rather than attend school. A quarter of a million of them work as domestic servants. The most recent United Nations Human Development Report indicates that the youth literacy rate in Pakistan is an abysmal 58 percent, among the lowest in the world. Sexual abuse is another problem. Homelessness of children is quite common. Over 10,000 children below the age of 15 live on the streets and sidewalks of Karachi alone. Many of them are forced to beg for survival. Most of these children say they left home because of domestic violence and family financial problems, according to Edhi Foundation which cares for some of them. According to a report by Amnesty International, there are more than 4,500 juvenile prisoners in Pakistani jails and 66 percent of them are being tried. Juvenile detainees are kept with adults, leaving them vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse.

I hope that the growing interest in Mumbai slums goes beyond a temporary fad and a fleeting voyeuristic exercise. This extraordinary interest should translate into action to help the people of the slums escape the abject poverty and squalor that define them and their daily existence. Jeff Greenwald, executive director of, put it well when he spoke with USA Today. "If one takes such a tour out of a genuine desire to learn and a passion for social justice, the experience can be valuable, eye-opening, even life-changing. If one goes as a spectator, it's little different than a visit to the zoo," he said.

This opportunity of global interest in child poverty should not be wasted. Instead, it should spur the Slumdog director to set up a foundation with some of the proceeds from the film to champion the cause of poor children with UNICEF in South Asia and the rest of the world.

A recent issue of San Jose Mercury News has a pictorial about grinding poverty in India done by John Boudreau and Dai Sugano. This heartbreaking pictorial illustrates the extent of the problem that India faces, a problem that could potentially be very destabilizing and put the entire society at the risk of widespread chaos and violence.

Here's a video clip from the Mercury News story:

Here's a video clip on world poverty:

Please make your contribution to the Hunger Project or Hidaya Foundation or Edhi Foundation or UNICEF to help alleviate child hunger and poverty in South Asia.

Related Links:

Mumbai's Slumdog Millionaire

Poverty Tours in India, Brazil and South Africa

South Asia's War on Hunger Takes Back Seat

Bollywood and Hollywood Mix Up Combos

Grinding Poverty in Resurgent India

Pakistani Children's Plight


Anonymous said...

Slums are a reality of South Asia and only hard work and perseverance will let one escape from there.

I was just reading a blog by a Bangladeshi whose life was so similar to the SM's hero except for that he was not on any game show but made it on his own.

In the wake of Slumdog Millionaire's release there were reports here in India on self-made millionaires from these slums who still prefer living there.

The politicians only have tall promises for the slum dwellers. But Realtors do have great plans for them which includes razing the slums and raising up a gated community in its place in the heart of Mumbai City!

These "poverty porn" tours are sure to be a passing fad till something else comes up. Hope some of the desperately poor benefits out of the now stingy Americans who still want to go on tours during these recessionary times.

Btw, Pakistan too should get these guys to operate tours to Pak slums so Pak economy benefits. Pak has great potential in organizing terror tourism provided Pak can guarantee tourists returning home intact...

Anonymous said...

Naveen - you could not hide your typical indian mentality in concluding an otherwise nice review to the blog post. That to me is a bigger challenge for supposedly a resurgent India. Poverty is a common enemy that becomes the root cause of many other social ills, for example, Hindu masses in Inida are converting because of poverty and thus becoming a direct victim of extremist organizations there. An overwhelmingly prosperous India (media vs reality) is less likely to have either of these problems.

The seafood export champ in Pakistan happens to be one such slumdog millionarire....who earned a name, a position, and of course earned millions through his sheer hard work.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's the final tally of Academy awards for Slumdog, according to ABC News:

After winning the hearts of moviegoers around world, "Slumdog Millionaire," a buoyantly hopeful romance set amid the poverty of Mumbai, India, won the Academy Awards for best picture, capping a night of wins including the best director Oscar for Danny Boyle.

A.R. Rahman won two Oscars for best song and best score in his highest accolade yet in a career that has taken him from provincial Indian cinema to the Hollywood red carpet.
Rahman presented "O Saya" and "Hai Ho" from Slumdog for the appreciative audience at Kodak theater.

With 8 awards, Slumdog came out as the top winning film on the Oscars night in LA tonight.

Anonymous said...

As a matter of pride, A R Rahman is Muslim, Dev Patel is Hindu and Freida Pinto is Christian.

Nice going Rahman! We're proud of you.

Anonymous said...

AR Rahman is a unique ambassador for Indian music and culture. In terms of stature he is even bigger than Danny Boyle. He is a music composer par excellence with more than 100 million records to his name. Frankly, SDM wasn't even his best. Some of ARR's best include the soundtracks for bollywood blockbusters like Roja, Bombay, Dil Se, Taal, Swades, Rang de basanti. The list is endless. He deserves all the plaudits that have come his way.

Looking forward to more from the Mozart of Madras (Chennai) in the future

Riaz Haq said...

Here's an April report in Wall Street Journal on new poverty estimates in India:

India's top policy-planning body raised its estimate of the nation's official poverty rate to 37.2% of the population from 27.5%, a key development as the government drafts legislation to give the poorest Indians a right to state-subsidized food grains.

The move by the country's Planning Commission, which wasn't announced formally but was confirmed by a senior government official, pegs the number of Indians in poverty at around 410 million—more than 100 million above the previous estimate. The change comes after critics said the earlier poverty estimate would leave too many destitute households out of the government's food-entitlement programs.

But the new figure is unlikely to please food activists and politicians who feel it still vastly underestimates the number of people in need of assistance.

"This is a very low, suppressed poverty line. We reject it," said Kavita Srivastava, an activist who has helped organize a "right to food" rally in the capital in recent days. The event has drawn more than 1,000 protesters from around the country. "As far as we're concerned, it still doesn't tell us the real number of poor."

Though India's economy emerged from the global downturn with solid gross domestic product growth of 7.2% in the year ended March 31, the country's poor are struggling to deal with year-to-year food inflation that is hovering near 17%.

Even before the impact of food prices, India was struggling with high malnutrition rates. The ruling Congress Party made food security a key plank in its platform in last year's national elections, in which it won a second term.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government has pushed for legislation that would provide 25 kilograms of wheat and rice per month to households deemed officially below the poverty line. They would pay a rate of about seven U.S. cents per kilogram. India already has a program in place to distribute about 35 kilograms of subsidized food grains to poor household but the rate is about 50% more expensive than what's being proposed now.

Moreover, there is no law that guarantees food subsidies—they are given at the central government's discretion. And the current program is plagued by corruption, with one-third of grains pilfered or rotting before reaching needy households.

Among the protesters at the rally in central New Delhi was 50-year-old Kesar Sahu, who lives in a slum in the city of Jaipur, in the state of Rajasthan, and supports herself and two daughters by sweeping floors and cutting vegetables at schools. The 1,000 rupees she earns in a good month isn't enough to make do, even with existing government subsidies, she said.

"We're only getting 35 kilograms (of food grains) now. We really need 50 kilograms to get by," Ms. Sahu said. "Everyone should get that much."

India calculates its poverty rate by estimating the percentage of households who can't afford to buy a basket of foodstuffs that would supply enough calories to meet basic nutritional needs. The new Planning Commission figure of 37.2%, which is based on recommendations submitted last year by a government-appointed panel, raises the poverty estimate in rural areas.