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The rise of 'poortainment'

Romanticising poverty is appealing since it implies the poor can cope on their own

Aneel Karnani 

Romanticising poverty is appealing since it implies the poor can cope on their own.

A growing and trendy segment of tourism offers: Guided tours of a favela in Rio de Janeiro or a slum in Mumbai, a visit to the township of Sweto, see scavengers living off garbage dumps in Mazatlan, or observe street children live in and around Delhi’s main railway station. 

Fashion magazine Vogue India featured a 16-page spread of poor Indians wearing super expensive accessories by designers such as Fendi, Burberry, and Marc Jacobs. 

The movie Slumdog Millionaire recently swept the Academy Awards and has become an international box office sensation. The film chronicles the rise of the protagonist from the slums of Mumbai to riches and romance. 

The gap between the rich and the poor is getting ever wider. At the same time, the rich and the poor are coming closer together. The favelas are a short walk from the upscale beaches; the garbage dumps are located near luxury resorts; and the slums are growing next to posh neighbourhoods.  The media brings the poor into your living room every day. Moreover, it is not politically correct to just ignore poverty. The solution is to put poverty in a zoo, and sanitise it, even romanticise it. Then you can photograph the poor, film poverty, and even visit the poor. Entertainment and poverty have come together: ‘Poortainment.’  

Vogue India editor Priya Tanna told The Independent “For our India issue, we wanted to showcase beautiful objects of fashion in an interesting and engaging context. This was a creative pursuit that we consider one of our most beautiful editorial executions. Why would people see it any other way?” So, you can see the poor, but not really see them. Poverty is just a prop, a colourful backdrop for marketing to the rich.

But this is not real poverty.  The people in the Vogue photographs are not that poor, at least not by Indian standards, and seem quite happy and dignified. In spite of that, the Vogue spread provoked much criticism from both Indian and foreign commentators, ranging from distasteful and vulgar to callous and exploitative.  Surprisingly, the magazine was taken aback by the negative reaction to the photographs and asked the critics to “lighten up.” At a minimum, Vogue needs to learn the first rule of global marketing: Sensitivity to local culture and people. 

Maybe the photographs are too antiseptic for your taste. If you want to see real poverty in its gritty detail, the filthy grime, and even the revolting brutality, then Slumdog is for you. For the affluent with a weak stomach, poverty is made palatable by romanticising it. Anand Giridharadas of The New York Times claims the movie portrays “a changing India, with great realism, as something India long resisted being: A land of self-makers, where a scruffy son of the slums can, solely of his own effort, hoist himself up, flout his origins, break with fate.” The movie does convey the message that the poor can bootstrap themselves out of poverty. This is the romanticisation of poverty that makes for good ‘poortainment.’ But it is not a realistic portrayal of the poor in India today. 

This is the real poverty in India: 80 per cent of Indians live below the commonly used $2/day poverty line. 39 per cent of adults are illiterate. 10 per cent of boys and 25 per cent of girls do not attend even primary school. 49 per cent of children are underweight for their age. 9 per cent of children die in the first five years of their lives. 31 per cent of rural households and 9 per cent of urban households do not have access to safe drinking water. 81 per cent of rural households and 19 per cent of urban households do not have a toilet. 400,000 children die of diarrhoea every year.

There is no easy way to eradicate poverty. However, economic growth that generates jobs for the poor is the best starting point. The government also has a role to play by fulfilling its traditional and accepted functions such as providing public safety, basic education, public health services, and infrastructure. Expecting the poor to bootstrap themselves out of poverty is surely not the solution. But the illusionary bootstraps allow the rich to cope with the poverty they see. 

Another way to romanticise poverty is to claim that the poor are still happy. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy said he wanted Slumdog to convey “the sense of this huge amount of fun, laughter, chat, and sense of community that is in these slums.” This romanticisation hides the reality of depression, domestic violence, child neglect, and substance abuse.  Much research in development economics shows that the poor do not invest enough in their own future, and do not spend enough on nutrition, health and education, even taking into account their meagre income. 


A feature of all slums is the pervasive stench, and no movie can capture that. Dharavi (the slum portrayed in Slumdog) has no discernible garbage pickup, and one toilet for every 1,440 people. In one scene, the protagonist dives into a pool of human excrement. The viewers flinch, but do not smell the stench.  If you want that degree of reality, you will have to visit the slums — but that too can be arranged. Reality Tours and Travel offers several guided tours through Dharavi. Poverty tourism is growing fast in cities from Mumbai to Mazatlan, from Rio de Janeiro to Johannesburg. 

Not surprisingly, like other forms of ‘poortainment’, poverty tourism has come under attack as voyeurism. The tour organisers, of course, insist that their motive is to raise awareness rather than provide entertainment. Yet, they often end up romanticising poverty. For example, the founder of Reality Tours states that the Dharavi tour is geared towards showcasing the human enterprise and industry within the area — those bootstraps again. 

Salaam Balak Trust, an Indian charity for homeless children, organises tours that feature the children living in and around Delhi’s main railway station. The tourists are shown how the children scavenge for rubbish, sleep in between gaps on the platform roof, get high on Eraz-ex [a white correction fluid] and struggle to survive amongst the gang leaders and policemen. The Guardian reporter tells of one tourist feeling a little disappointed that they weren’t able to see more children in action. “It’s not like we want to peer at them in the zoo, like animals, but the point of the tour is to experience their lives.” Contrary to her protest, this is poverty in a zoo. 

This article does not suggest that the poor lack humanity, ambition and enterprise. Quite the contrary. But it is not enough. In spite of their ambition and enterprise, they are still poor caught in a trap, victims of circumstances and institutional failures, especially of the governments. That is precisely why the poor need and deserve a helping hand to climb out of poverty, not a motivational speech. ‘Poortainment’ leads one to believe the problem of poverty is not so bad after all and that it is improving without our intervention. Take off the rose tinted designer glasses: Real poverty is worse than we think it is and it will not improve without our intervention.

The author is at Ross School of Business, The University of Michigan.  

First Published: Sun, March 29 2009. 00:28 IST