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Cigarettes To Kids, Making Them Dance: How ‘Tribal Tourism’ Is Exploiting India’s Tribes

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By Ritika Potnis:

Members of the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain, which they worship as their living god, to protest against plans by Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite from that mountain, near Lanjigarh in India's Orissa state February 21, 2010. Vedanta has denied allegations that its planned bauxite mine in eastern India would violate the rights of thousands of poor indigenous tribes people, saying that all its projects are conducted within the law and using international best practices. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause (INDIA - Tags: SOCIETY BUSINESS ENERGY) - RTR2AN9U
Image credit: Reuters/Reinhard Krause.

In February, earlier this year, the government of Odisha decided to once again allow foreigners to visit areas with a tribal population after a gap of three years. In 2012, Odisha barred access to tribal areas for foreign tourists after tourism websites used pictures of scantily dressed Bonda and Dongaria tribals in a bid to attract tourists. The kidnapping of two Italian tourists by Maoists the same year also led to the decision to curtail access. The state government barred ‘physical proximity’ of tourists to tribals and entry into their homes. It asked collectors not to allow entertainment of tourists by tribals while banning them from clicking their pictures or shooting videos.

In the past decade, India has seen a revolution in tourism, and tribal tours have become extremely popular among tourists from all over India and abroad. As per the 2013 survey by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, tribals form 8.6 percent of the total Indian population.

Tourism in India is a booming industry as it accounts for an average of around 6.7 percent of the nation’s GDP. In 2012, Indian tourism generated 6.4 trillion rupees as calculated by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

‘Tribal tourism’ as defined by Terry Ward, journalist and travel writer, is “a new form of travel in which tourists visit tribal villages in order to be exposed to a culture completely different from their own.” In India, states of Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Nagaland, Himachal and Chhattisgarh see maximum tribal tourism. Tribal tourism has been instrumental in creating various financial opportunities for the tribes living in the hinterlands. It has helped foster awareness about the indigenous people in India, many of whom face oppression, lack of opportunities and social exclusion.

While tourism may seem to be doing good for the society, it also is creating social and psychological consequences for the tribals that are more detrimental than beneficial. In the past decade, many tourism companies have mushroomed offering tours of tribal areas.

The thing is that these ‘tribal tours’ offering travel agencies are money making giants that do not take a culturally sensitive and ethical approach to tourism. They work on mechanical business principles such as ‘Unique Selling Point’ to run their businesses and do not bother about social consequences. As reported by The Guardian, some agencies are willing to ‘force’ contact with Mashco-Piro (isolated indigenous tribe in Peru’s Amazonian rainforest), if the customers are willing to pay enough money.

History has seen the far-reaching consequences of indigenous tribals interacting with tourists. In Andaman and Nicobar, since the Grand Andaman Trunk Road connected the city to the hinterlands, Jarawas, a pre-historic indigenous tribe came in contact with the tourists. According to reports, tourists would give naked Jarawa men and women money, throw empty water bottles at them, and some offered cigarettes to small Jarawa children. This led to the Jarawa children becoming addicted to smoking and the adults dancing naked in exchange for money.

Research studies have reported the consequences of reckless tourist activities in tribal areas. These include culture-shock, exploitation, objectification, humiliation, undermining one’s culture and an increase in inter-tribe conflicts. The question still remains: what can be done to make tribal tourism ethical and protect the indigenous tribes from exploitation?

‘Responsible tourism’ that is guided by ethical practices and cultural sensitivity is the need of the hour. Visitors must be educated on the negative impact tribal tourism can have on the indigenous communities. Travellers participating in any form of tribal tourism should be sensitised about the community they are visiting. On a more formal level, the government must lay down fundamental rules regarding activities carried out in tribal tourism. Rules should also delineate the role of travel agencies and companies and the extent to which they can participate in tribal tourism activities. Moreover, every tourism activity in indigenous and protected areas must be monitored and sanctioned by a team of professionals that will evaluate the risks of the same.

The Hornbill festival of Nagaland is an excellent example of tribal tourism. This festival is an initiative of the Government of Nagaland to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Nagaland and its people. People from all over the world come together in the first week of December to take part in the celebrations. This festival is one of its kind because it opens up the areas with ‘restricted entry’ into protected areas for visitors without compromising on ethics and traditions.

Similar ethical tourism festivals are catching up in the rest of India. The Daman and Diu festival, and Maharashtra and Odisha’s tribal tourism initiatives are slowly moving towards responsible tourism.

Carefully formulated tribal tourism can act as a powerful medium towards social and economic inclusion of tribals. Similarly, it would also provide for the tribals to have a sense of belonging to the nation and live a life of dignity and respect.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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