Voluntourism – travelling to poor communities to help make a difference – is sweeping the world. AMY MACPHERSON lends a hand in Delhi.

You wouldn’t know from Utpal’s beaming smile that the little boy had such a rocky start to life. Born into an impoverished area of India’s capital city, he suffered horrible burns as an infant after falling into a pot of boiling fish soup. Doctors at the hospital where he was initially treated sent him home to die. Now a happier and much healthier four-year-old, Utpal is one of the success stories of Project Why, a charity whose work in the slums of Delhi is making a difference to the lives of hundreds of children.

While its core work is educational, Project Why has also raised funds for the medical treatment of local children like Utpal who desperately need it. We never give up on any child,” explains the project’s founder, Anu Bakshi. Not asking for government money makes fundraising a struggle at times but also means the project has greater flexibility. “If a child falls in fish soup, I don’t want to be told that the money is for books,” Anu says.

Of the 14 million people in Delhi, about 3.5 million are slum-dwellers. Many of these are rural people who come to the city to find work, only to find themselves struggling in a city that simply hasn’t got the infrastructure to accommodate them. Slums can consist of a pocket of a few huts or a sprawling community of 40,000 people. Sanitation is usually poor, diseases spread easily and social problems like alcoholism are rife.

Organisations such as Project Why work at a grassroots level. They have a creche and facilities for early primary and disabled children, some of who have terrible stories of abuse and neglect, while older children get help with subjects such as secondary school maths and even computing.

Alongside those who pitch in daily at Project Why are a growing number of international volunteers. Whether they contribute for a few days, several weeks or longer, volunteers find themselves welcomed into the community and touched by the tangible difference the project makes.

The word ‘voluntourism’ describes an increasingly popular trend in the world of travel. It’s not a new concept but the phenomenon really kicked off in the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami, when the scenes of devastation prompted people to travel to the region and offer to help in any way they could, leaving behind the comforts of home to try to make a difference.

These days, you don’t even have to rough it to get involved – Hands Up Holidays, a travel company who work with charities including Project Why, conduct high-comfort tours that combine all the tourist highlights with a ‘taster’ of community development work.
But is voluntourism just a way of easing guilty Western consciences with a sense of ‘giving something back’, or is this a two-way transaction with benefits for both parties? Anu certainly thinks it’s the latter.

Everybody has something to give,” she says. Local teachers are not always confident with spoken English, and exposure to native speakers helps the children learn what is effectively the language of commerce in this multilingual country. Volunteers can help with ‘teach the teachers’ workshops, or just play with the children and help them realise that learning can be fun. “Their teachers are very serious,” Anu explains. Volunteers can also help out with practical tasks like painting buildings.

Across town in Trilokpuri, a shantytown in east Delhi, a group of Scottish university students is hard at work doing just that. They are decorating the interior of a new community centre alongside Asha, a charity that empowers slum dwellers – particularly women – to improve living conditions in their communities.

Programme officer Gary Kamaal explains that Asha works by first providing health services in the form of mobile clinics, offering vaccinations against diseases such as TB, giving classes in health and hygiene, and then training local women who want to become community health volunteers. Asha also encourages local women to form societies which can lobby local authorities to improve sanitation, water supplies and other essential services.

The two women’s groups in Trilokpuri have made great progress. Thanks to the Asha-trained health volunteers, immunisation rates are up, the infant mortality rate is down and the children are healthier thanks to improved nutritional awareness and antenatal care. There are also drains and pathways where before there were none.

The members of the women’s groups are dignified and confident. They proudly show off their homes, children’s vaccination certificates are produced and a new washing machine is demonstrated for visitors. Volunteering here – whether it’s by painting buildings or offering specific professional skills – is an opportunity to discover a side of India that’s a world away from the comfortable hotels and world heritage sites of the tourist circuit.

What’s truly inspiring, though, is the discovery that life in the slums is not unmitigated misery. It’s humbling to see how people with so little material wealth can radiate the sort of happiness and spiritual wellbeing that’s often a scarce commodity in the West. That’s not to suggest that slum-dwellers don’t want a better life for themselves and their children. But it does illustrate the fact that dividing society into the haves and the have-nots doesn’t do justice to life’s complexity.

From a traveller’s perspective, volunteering offers a chance to a catch a glimpse of the ‘real’ India. In the south Delhi slums where Project Why operates, we were invited to join in a religious festival in a local temple and drink chai with a family of seven in their tiny two-roomed shack. The people we met were friendly and incredibly hospitable.

“We often neglect the real side of a country, which is the people,” Anu says, adding that to many outsiders, “India is still the country of snake charmers, maharajahs and sordid poverty”.

There might be a lot of material poverty in the slums, but it’s a side of India that visitors are poorer for missing. “This is the real India. The people have nothing and they’re happy”.

• Amy Macpherson travelled to India with Hands Up Holidays (www.handsup holidays.com; 0800-783 3554). Their 12-day Taste of India tour starts at £1400 (flights not included).”