The two sides of tribal tourism

Not all engagement of tribals with tourists is exploitation, though the Jarawa videos prove that some can be

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Puja Bhattacharjee | February 2, 2012



December brings with it the end of the year, a welcome chill in the air and the Christmas vacations. So, last December vacation, off I went to explore India’s largest biosphere reserve with my family. After a four and half hours’ bus journey, most of which I spent dozing, we reached Gotkhali. There we boarded a steamer which took us through the Pitchkhali river to our destination — the Sunderban Tiger Camp in the island-village of Dayapur just across the tiger reserve.  The camp is ensconced within high walls fencing it off from the rest of the reserve. But for two successive days preceding our visit, a tiger had strayed in the village at night and killed some cattle belonging to the villagers. The unique flora and fauna and the local tradition steeped in folklores had us captivated. On out first evening, we were entertained by the local tribal dancers. The women were dressed in traditional red and white sarees, with white and red flowers in their hair as matching accessories. The men wore white dhoti and kurta with red scarves tied around their waist and forehead — each of the headbands had a feather sticking out. 

This display and appreciation of tribal culture would have seemed perfectly fine but for the Jarawa controversy that erupted a few weeks later followed by the recent Orissa tribal fair debacle.  Tell a tribal from the Sunderbans about the recent controversy over the display of tribal men and women at the Orissa tribal fair and he or she will probably shrug indifferently.  Some of them make a living out of exhibiting their culture and their way of life to the tourists and have no qualms about it. Owing to years of government neglect, the recent boom in the tourism industry has come as a boon to these people. The deltaic forests south of Bengal are becoming increasingly popular among foreigners. Lenka, a Czech citizen was enamoured with the natural beauty. “I like the tranquility of this place. The culture is so different, it makes me curious to know how these people who have so little can be so happy’ said Lenka, referring to the ever-smiling faces of the locals. These tribals get handsomely rewarded for their performances (tribal dance and jatra-Bengali folk theater). “We are grateful that our incomes have improved slightly. Previously, a lot of people used to migrate to bigger cities. At least now we have choice to stay at home and earn a little more”, said Subhas Mondal a farmer who doubles as a guide for the tourists. So, the recent hullabaloo appears a little disconcerting to someone who has heard the tribals expressing gratitude for the alternative source of livelihood.  Most of these people rely on agriculture and honey-and-wax-collecting for livelihoods. The latter requires them to venture into the forests where they run the risk of encountering the Royal Bengal tiger. Naturally, performing for strangers becomes more preferable as it provides a steady source of income. For a few traditionally associated with farming, fishing, and woodcutting, it serves as a part time job.

The poorer a community gets, the more vulnerable it becomes. And this is exactly what happened in the Andamans.  The exposé by a British newspaper showing a Jarawa woman being forced to dance for food is a disgrace for our country. What surprises me is that an entire unit shot the footage without the government having any inkling about it. The government has a zero-contact policy with the tribals of Andaman. The sting exposes the glaring loopholes in the enforcement of laws to protect the marginalised indigenous people. The mainlanders have pushed these people to the brink destroying their natural habitats and putting pressure on the resources they depend upon. Maybe the woman was desperate enough to dance as instructed. Similarly, the tribals of Orissa too might have been tempted to put themselves on display, nervous or not, just to earn one extra rupee.  It is undoubtedly wrong to parade semi-clad tribals for a paying tourist’s sensual pleasure or to lure them with the promise of food or money but looking at the bigger picture here we should ask why have these people become susceptible to such exploitation. Why not eliminate the cause? Maybe then the effect can take care of itself.

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