|Tribal areas are the new and happening tourist spots in India. But tribal groups gain little from efforts by tour operators and government departments to sell tourism in these underdeveloped regions, contends Sonia Sarkar|
“If you are able to approach a tribal armed with arrows and bow, without at once wanting to take a photograph… If you wish to realize true adventure trekking in uncontaminated places, but with the safety coming from experience… Well then come with us to Orissa!!!”
Those are lines from Italian tour guide Paolo Bosusco’s website. That’s not the only one inviting foreign visitors to the interiors of Odisha. A government website promotes Daringbadi as the “Kashmir” of Odisha and exhibits photographs of bare-chested Saora men dressed in breechcloth.
Bosusco’s site has pictures of indigenous Dhurwa women — with colourful tattoos on their arms, near their breasts and chin, and wearing brass metal earrings and neckpieces. The images come along with photographs of scenic hillocks, dense forests and muddy rivers in the tribal belts.
If you are tired of the usual tourist spots — mountains, monuments and markets — there is always tribal tourism. Private operators and government tourism departments — in Odisha, as well as in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand — are showcasing their tribal areas as the new and happening tourist spots.
Last month, Bosusco and fellow Italian Claudio Colangelo were kidnapped in Odisha by Maoists, just before the abduction of legislator Jhina Hikaka. On top of the Maoists’ list of 13 demands for their release was an end to tribal tourism.
“Adivasis are not commodities of tourism and adivasi areas are not recreation spots for tourists. Announce this clearly and arrest those who violate it,” it said.
Government departments have been for a while seeking to promote tourism in tribal areas. Of the 62 tribe groups in Odisha, the ones that are mostly put on show are 13 “particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs)”. These include the Bonda, Koya and Gadaba people of Malkangiri and Koraput, Kutia Kondh of Kalahandi and Phulbani, Dongria Kondh of Kandhamal and the Niyamgiri Hills and Saura of Gajapati. The Bonda women are held up as exotic for their ringa — a tiny skirt made of fibre — and strings of multi-coloured beads; Koya men for their bison horns.
“Foreigners want to catch up with the colourful tribals in the weekly markets. The barter system that the tribals follow to sell iron and brass jewellery, utensils made of pumpkin skin and dried fish also interests them,” says Kandhamal collector Rajesh Prabhakar Patil.
Foreign tourists come through travel agents operating in Puri and Bhubaneshwar in Odisha, and Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. A six-night-seven-day package usually costs Rs 30,000. “Foreigners want to know about the lifestyle, attire and food habits of tribes. What is wrong in that,” asks a senior tourism official of Odisha.
Quite a bit, say tribal rights activists, who see the promotion as an effort to exhibit the people like exotic animals. “Tour operators in Odisha often make the people sing and dance. It is disturbing that tribals are seen as objects of entertainment,” says human rights activist Sujato Bhadra.
On the one side of the debate are tourism promoters who see the exercise as beneficial to the state, to tribals and visitors. Odisha earned around Rs 161 crore from 50,000 foreign tourists who visited the state last year. Of this, more than Rs 20 crore came from 5,000 foreign tourists — mostly from Italy, followed by Holland, Belgium and Germany — who visited tribal areas.
But the outcry against the promotion has already led to some changes. Since last month, foreign tourists have to take permission from the district magistrate for visiting interior areas. The rules also restrict foreigners from taking photographs of the tribes and visiting the areas at night. “Tribal tourism should not be encouraged at all,” Union tribal affairs minister V. Kishore Chandra Deo stresses.
Since the kidnapping, foreign tourism has already seen a drop. Benjamine Simon, president of the Travel Agents Associations of Orissa, says it has received requests for 100 cancellations. “Only a few people will come to see Puri or Konark. The main attractions for the tourists are the tribals, not the temples and the sea.”
The issue at stake is not just that critics see tribal tourism as human safaris. What makes such tourism efforts risky is the fact that many of the areas are dominated by Maoists, whose cadres are mainly drawn from indigenous groups.
Now the Rayagada district administration in Odisha has barred the entry of foreign tourists into tribal areas for security reasons. “Rayagada is the gateway to Kandhamal, Kalahandi and Koraput districts for tourists but is affected by Maoists,” says district collector (DC) Nitin Jawale, who had earlier stopped tourists from taking cameras to the villages.
Simultaneously, however, government efforts to highlight local customs continue. Koraput DC Sachin Jadhav, for instance, has big plans. “We want to club our ongoing dance festival Parab with Malyawant in Malkangiri and Chaiti in Rayagada. Tribals of all three regions can come together to display their talent,” Jadhav says.
Maoist interlocutor B.D. Sharma, who was active in negotiating the release of the kidnapped men, finds the idea “obnoxious”. He says: “Tribals sing and dance for their own pleasure, but visitors should not be invited. This is an intrusion into their privacy.”
Experts point out that tribal communities gain little from the multi-crore business, which mostly benefits tourist operators and hoteliers. “At times, foreigners give away money generously. Otherwise, tribals have no earning from tourism,” says Sunil Pradhan, a pastor in Daringabdi, who belongs to the Dongria Kondh tribe.
What irk the activists most is that tourism is being promoted in neglected regions that lack basic amenities such as functional schools and primary healthcare centres and clean drinking water. “All four primary healthcare centres and over 200 schools in Daringbadi are almost dysfunctional. There are no proper roads either,” says Kailash Chandra Dandapat, who runs an NGO there.
Bhadra is more scathing: “It is disturbing that the government kept these tribals illiterate for years only to display them in front of foreigners.”
Writer Varavara Rao, who has been vocal on the issue of tribal tourism, believes it can only flourish if basic issues of land rights and exploitation by money lenders are addressed. “The perception that tribals are anti-development is wrong. They support the Maoists because the latter assure them they’ll fight for their rights. It is about time the government addressed the real issues.”
Anthropologist Jayaprakash Rao agrees. “If the government wants support in its tourism schemes, it should build up a long-term dialogue process with tribals and Maoists to take up developmental projects.”
Some believe that giving tribal communities a role to play in tourism may resolve the conflict to an extent. “We took the tribes into confidence. They sell tribal art and the money is put into a village fund for development. Maoists don’t oppose us,” says Jharkhand Tourism Development Corporation managing director Siddarth Tripathi, who started tribal tourism last year.
Is that the answer? The jury’s still out.