Rural tourism bridging the Bharat-India divide

Pallavi Singh
June 3, 2011

[For Mint]

Last June, Dinesh Sakharam Rao, anticipating monsoons, waited for brown fields to ripen to green, rolled up his trousers in the muddy earth and helped his ageing father harness a modest crop in Talavali, a small village in Maharashtra’s Thane district. When the agricultural season would be over, he would be back to drawing Warli paintings, the traditional folk art of the Warli tribe he belongs to. But, like every unappreciated and ill marketed work of art, they wouldn’t sell.
“I studied rural development at a local college and even volunteered for village cleanliness programmes but my family income would still depend on agriculture. All the education didn’t ever land me a job. I couldn’t believe that making a living through my traditional art was possible,’’ he recalls.
In those days when Dinesh was thinking of ways to earn money without having to leave his old parents alone in the village, he met Inir Pinheiro, a young Goan from Mumbai. Inir often visited neighboring Valwanda village, 15 kilometres away, and was looking for a local Warli artist to teach the craft to the enthusiastic bunch of tourists he brought along from the city. Three months ago, Dinesh joined Grassroutes, an organization co-founded by Inir and three other friends to promote tourism in rural Maharashtra, as its in-house Warli artist. “Life has looked up since. I earn an average of Rs 1500 per week, and in peak tourist season, it could be much more than this,’’ he says.
And just like Dinesh, there are many villagers in India—from states such as Karnataka, Bihar, Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu, Uttaranchal and Haryana—who have now begun to benefit from a surge in tourism initiatives that promote destinations in rural India but also create jobs for people within the villages and promote their indigenous culture and traditional arts. While state governments have been tying up with local non-governmental organizations, private enterprises, though a handful, are now increasingly engaging in the business with their central offices in metros such as Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi.
“The idea is not just livelihood, but ultimately, to get communities – rural and urban– to connect with each other. Every day in India, we have farmers killing themselves. There are instances such as attacks on non-Maharastrians in Mumbai or the insurgency in the Northeast. Now I realize that the only reason why human beings kill one another is because of lack of opportunities. Why, when I don’t get my bread butter and beer every day, I get cranky,’’ says Pinheiro. “ Secondly, we are also losing ourselves in terms of identity and the only way to conserve diversity is to celebrate life at the local level.’’
Pinheiro’s Grassroutes is building a network of village tourism destinations across Maharashtra, where tourism is owned, managed and run by local village communities, the primary agenda of rural tourism initiatives as set by the Indian government in its National Tourism Policy. The policy looks at measures that can make tourism the catalyst in employment generation, environmental re-generation, development of remote areas and development of women and other disadvantaged groups in the country, besides promoting social integration. “Our vision is to conserve and promote local lifestyles, environment, economies and traditions by empowering the local communities with opportunities that are sustainable. I come from Goa; I know what tourism can do to a community,’’ he explains.
In Purushwadi, a village populated by Mahadev Koli tribe 220 kilometres northeast of Mumbai, where Pinheiro began in 2006, Balu Chinbhukondar has been managing tourist visits for the last five years. Himself from the Koli tribe traditionally known as rice cultivators and herdsmen, Balu, 28, says tourism has now become the mainstay of at least 75 out of 109 families in the village and stemmed 75% of the seasonal migration to the cities. “I don’t go out anymore because I have enough work here. Similarly, grocers, local transporters, small-time dairy and poultry-keepers have all benefitted,’’ he says.
Inir says that the average annual income of households in Purushwwadi has increased by 18%  in the last two years of regular engagement with tourism; In Valwanda where Inir launched the prograymme in September 2010, 20 out of 100 households are already involved in tourism.
“The way we intervene in village communities is through local non-governmental organizations or committed individuals. Right now, we have tied up with three villages and we begin with training the people in housekeeping, catering, local crafts, asset management, transport, tourist guides and other services. We also look at how we can retain the village communities’ innate sense of hospitality while retaining their privacy. In another six villages we have tied up with existing ventures that share the same philosophy.,’’ says Gouthami, who uses only her first name, co-founder and chief executive officer of Travel Another India (TAI) based in Chennai.

In Gujarat’s Hodka, 60 out of 600 families are engaged in tourism since the venture started in 2005. In Pranpur, close to Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh where TAI started work only recently, 8-10 houses have been roped in.  Channapatna, 50 kms outside Bangalore, and Ladakh where TAI works with a local NGO, PAGIR to receive guests using wheelchairs, are a few other destinations.

Apart from the economic benefits, social impact of rural tourism has been significant, says Gouthami. “Hodka for example is a very conservative village, where women are kept out of management. But recently, its tourism committee donated 2.5 lakh rupees to the Panchayat for girls’ education. This was direct fallout of tourism,’’ she says.

In some villages, it has translated into more mobility and empowerment for women. In Bihar’s Nepura where locals live with their animals in mud-brick houses, spend days without any electricity or tap water and engage in backbreaking work in the fields under the merciless sun, things have taken a turn for the best. The village Tourism Development Committee has a woman president in Rani Kumari since its inception in 2009 and her activism has begun to weaken the patriarchal mores of the village. “It all began with 14 women self help groups, who started holding weekly meetings. Gradually, with training in embroidery and appliqué, we are all earning an average of 2000 rupees a month now. Not just this, many of us have learnt Chinese since our village falls in the Buddhist tourist circuit,’’ Rani Kumari says.

Herself a postgraduate in political science, she stayed home due to conservatism until Bihar government along with the United Nations Development Progamme identified the village as a rural tourism destination in 2006. “ Every woman in the village now travels to exhibit her work, has a bank account and also train for similar projects in neighbouring villages,’’ she says.
All of this was achieved through almost two years of capacity building, training and the construction of basic infrastructure—water tanks, solar lighting, common toilets, among other things by rural tourism organisations. “We create three types of assets in a village—physical assets (solar power, toilets etc.), people assets (training people in services), social assests (institution that manages tourism in the village). We conduct potential visits and village communities are identified for the task. In the second stage, we get off to inviting tourists,’’ Pinheiro says.
Identifying a potential rural tourism village can be a challenge, but once it works, the next step is always to scale further.  Grassroutes is now looking at new villages in Maharashtra – along the coastline, in the middle of forests. “Environment, biodiversity, years of tourism function, social impact of such tours…these factors decide scalability,’’ he says, adding that increasingly, the city bred looking for weekend getaways have been contacting him for detours in the villages. Others turn to Explore Rural India, a wing under the Indian government’s Ministry of Tourism that directs them to villages across India—Pochampally, Jyotisar, Sualkuchi, Naggar, Banavasi, Kumbalanghi, Pranpur, Samode, Lachen, Thadiyankudissai and Mukutmanipur—where age old arts and crafts converge with crab farms and Deodar forests to construct charming rural getaways.
“We have organized tours for mostly urban crowd looking for a break from the hustle of bustle of cities. We take them to the ponds for fishing, treks in the hills, milking of cows, bird watching,” says Smriti Singh, sales and administration manager for Village Ways, the company that helps at least 2000 Indians reconnect with the countryside every year. “Such trips cost anywhere from Rs 1000 to Rs 8000,” she says.
Meantime, the soaring interest has also brought forth challenges. “ Any tourism venture, and we have seen this around the world, can have a negative impact. It can affect the local economy and environment as well as the social fabric. It is essential that the local community get involved in all decision making as well as get some help in forecasting and planning for the possible negative impact. Of course, they must also benefit economically from the venture. If I went in with the attitude that no local person will do this efficiently for me, then it would defeat the very purpose. Usually, it is assumed that the best is available in the nearby city. However, if we look for what is best locally, we could make a big difference.”, says Gouthami.

Travellers such as Vijay Anand, an engineer from US-based Columbia University who leads research and development for Mumbai-based Prana studios, were amply briefed about the don’s and don’ts in the villages. “Just before the Purushwadi trip I went for in 2008, organizers asked us to be polite to villagers and be very careful about littering. We saw trip organizers picking up everything we left which was amazing. The village didn’t have electricity so lighting was solar powered,” recalls Anand, adding that even though it was pretty dark, one could see the night sky. “One doesn’t get to see the milky way like this,’’ he chuckles.

And, then there were lessons for life. For Anand, who grew up in Tuticorin where wilderness was part of daily life and snake bites a real threat, visit to Purushwadi was almost reuniting with his small-town upbringing. “And, one thing I learnt and I still use it is this: always climb down facing the rock just as you climb. A villager taught me this,’’ he concludes. “and, now I realize, every penny on that trip was so well spent since it went for a good cause.’’

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