Of the many demands that the Maoists put out, following the recent kidnapping and subsequent release of the two Italian men in Orissa, most analyses have sermonised on the consequences of exchanging imprisoned Maoists for the two foreigners. However, tucked deep in the same list is another stipulation that should receive greater thought than it ever has. This concerns their demand for a ban on foreign travellers in tribal regions, preceded by reports that the two had been nabbed for taking “obscene” pictures of tribal women. While an outright prohibition on foreign tourists may seem both unconsidered and biased, this recent incident does give us a reason to think over the less-than-ideal consequences of tourism in these tribal areas and come up with of ways to minimise them.
The harm that unregulated tourism in tribal areas can do was there for everyone to see after the January report this year about a video that showed Jarawa tribals being lured to dance by tour operators in exchange for food that the tourists were throwing at them. However, voyeuristic videos of semi-naked Jarawa women, ones most likely shot by tourists, have been available on video-sharing websites for years now. Soon after the Jarawa reports, articles about “human safaris” also emerged from Orissa. But exploitation of tribals for tourism is nothing new – it has always happened and continues even now, whether it is the more sophisticated kind that even the government indulges in, for example the ongoing Gujarat Tourism ads that feature dancing Siddhi tribals (as if dancing for others is only what they have been destined to do) or the more crude Andaman variety.
Tourism in Orissa has grown significantly; the number of foreign tourists coming into the state has more than doubled, from 23,723 in 2000 to 50,432 in 2010-11. An increasing number of them travel to southwestern parts of Orissa, where many of Orissa’s tribal groups reside. These include communities like the Bondas and Dongria Kondhs, by now rendered famous worldwide through several photographs of them that have been splayed across many glossies. This tourism influx has risen particularly in the last two or three years with the size of the vehicles getting bigger and arriving in greater numbers and more often, says Leon Mahoney, an Australian who lives in Koraput district, which adjoins Kandhamal from where the two Italians were abducted, and where he runs a resort.
But in Orissa, like pretty much elsewhere in the country, there is a complete lack of any control on who gets to bring tourists to tribal areas and the manner in which tourists interact with the tribals. The more isolated and “backward” a tribe, the more exploitative is their interaction with the tourists. As with the Jarawas, the Bondas are no strangers to orders from tour operators and middlemen from their community or area to put up a show for their guests, shows that are not limited to dressing up and dancing in return for a pittance. “This has allowed the tourists to encroach upon these vulnerable peoples’ privacy and dignity, quite possibly giving the Maoists an emotive reason for the abduction of the offenders,” says Mahoney, who makes a reference to other places like the US, South Africa and South America where tour operators are strictly licensed, the number of visitors controlled and guides required to undergo formal training in the cultures of indigenous peoples so that they can educate the tourists. “Presently, a car and a driver, with or without a guide and normally out of Bhubaneswar or Puri, is all that is needed, and this falls a long way short of protecting these vulnerable people,” he adds. Mahoney claims, his resort, on the other hand, is about “being amongst a community in an educated and informed manner” and witnessing how local trades and customs have been protected.
His may be a rare case but the economy generated by tourists, whether domestic or foreign, has left the tribals largely untouched. The ones who really have benefited from the inflow of visitors are the tour operators. To be taken around for a classic tour of the tribal areas in a MUV like Qualis, each visitor is charged around Rs 60,000 (ex-Bhubaneshwar). They are escorted to villages and markets where one may catch glimpses and a few shots of these “exotic species”. When this correspondent visited the Koraput district in January 2010 for a story on the Bonda tribals, he saw many of the elderly Bonda women demanding money each time they were clicked, even just begging for money around tourists. Recalling one such incident, Mahoney says, “It hit me hard. Tourism had reduced her to begging, something they do not need to do.” The fly-in-fly-out tour operators, who actually depend on the tribals for their livelihood, have little interest in their well-being. And the tourists, who are told little about the people they see, think of the tribals as little more than temporary showpieces with even less interest in the cultures and traditions they represent.
“What is required is an ethical structure to tourism,” says Claire Prest, another Australian, who along with her husband, runs a tour agency out of Puri. They take visitors to the same tribal areas but do so in partnership with indigenous communities. “Part of our responsibility is to educate the local communities and tell them about the travellers. For example, how their lifestyles differ and why is it that they come from so far to see their culture,” she adds. Likewise, the travellers get educated about what to do and not do. “This helps sets up parameters under which both parties are much freer to appreciate each other.” One of the most widely known forms of exploitation of tribal communities centres around their women who are seen as objects of sexual titillation, something that seeps through the widely circulated pictures of them dressed scantily (for us) but traditionally (for them). Mahoney has also had to repeatedly warn many visitors, including Indians, that tribal women should not be thought of as readily available for a fling or those with “loose morals”. “It’s just that girls in tribal societies are not stuck at home and are able to work more openly. The tribals have a less rigid society but very modest, not loose by any means at all.”
While local district administrations of Koraput and Rayagada issued a travel ban on foreign tourists mechanically and promptly, few have thought over how the government continues to exploit and commodify them through its numerous tribal fairs organised regularly in our cities. Such fairs continue to simply showcase and perpetuate tribal stereotypes for the amusement of urban dwellers. Referring to the latter, Prest says government tribal fairs should also be similarly scrutinised for their "insensitive approach to indigenous communities". This reformatory and condescending attitude is what drives even the Bonda Development Agency (BDA), a wing of the Orissa government that is mandated to “reform” their culture and develop their society. “My vision of the Bondas is that they should be members of the civil society just like any other, wear normal dresses, keep their houses clean and stop consuming food that is just boiled,” is what Jagannath Soren, the BDA project leader, had told this correspondent. “This doesn’t mean they have to forsake their traditions. Every year, we organise a festival of Bonda culture in Bhubaneswar to help preserve it,” was his defence.
But will this recent demand by the Maoist pave the path towards a more just tribal tourism? Unlikely, thinks Paresh Rath, a trained anthropologist and journalist based in Koraput. He says that even the Maoists rake up the cause of tribals as a fig leaf to appear just but that their real focus and interest is on their more strategic demands, like release of prisoners. “When the collector of Malkangiri was arrested in February last year, they had, like this time, issued a set of demands with many populist ones that had to do with laying of tube wells and assurance of jobs under MGNREGA but those haven’t been given a second thought,” he says. “The word tribal has simply become something that has to be capitalised on by everyone, including the Maoists.”