India: No country for women tourists

Apr 14, 2013, 09:11 IST | Dhiman Chattopadhyay

The Indian government talks about making tourism one of its biggest money-spinners by 2020. But with rising instances of foreign tourists being robbed, molested, raped or murdered India is no longer considered a safe destination. In recent months, several countries have issued travel advisories asking women to stay away from India, resulting in a 35 per cent drop in tourists in the last three months. Is there a way out of this painful mess, asks Dhiman Chattopadhyay

Before we begin, here’s a disclaimer. None of the six foreignnationals we spoke to —both tourists and those living in India for a few years — agreed to have their photographs printed in the newspaper along with their quotes. Not even one! And unreal as this sounds, all seven, unknown to each other, gave us the same reason for remaining incognito: they said the only result of their photographs appearing in print would be cops knocking at their doors to harass them and that changing the mindset of people would need more than six quotes!

Illustration/ Amit Bandre

Last week, British national Jane Kettle was in Mumbai on a holiday. On her second day out in the city, a young man in front of the Gateway of India approached her as she emerged from a restaurant nearby. The man claimed to be a government-approved tour guide and offered to show Kettle around South Mumbai for Rs 5,000 a day.

When the Lancashire-based journalist politely refused saying she could manage by herself and would rather save the money on something else, the “tour guide” revealed his “side business” and said he could introduce her to well-heeled men for a good time, for the same Rs 5,000. “I have travelled pretty much around the world and women do face such men everywhere.

No place for tourists? Most tourists SMD interviewed, spoke about being ogled at in public places, being subjected to sexually explicit comments because of their clothes and feeling unsafe on the streets. In many cases, they said cops harassed them, too. Pic/ Bipin Kokate

So I was not too worried,” recalls Kettle. But all that changed when she decided to complain to the cops standing nearby. “They took both the man and me to the police station and while the man was let off after a scolding in Marathi which I did not follow, I was kept back at the station for two hours.

State Tourism Minister Chhagan Bhujbal

The cops not only questioned me about my reasons for visiting India and names of friends here but also asked insulting questions about whether I consume alcohol, why I had so many tattoos and what I was doing alone in the evening. It was as if I was the culprit and not the man they let off! Finally they let me go with unsolicited advice about my dress sense and smoking habit. It was humiliating and I haven’t faced this in any other country,” says Kettle. For the record the 36-year-old has visited 22 countries so far, half of them in Asia and Africa.

Kettle’s experience is by no means a unique one. Tired of dealing with not just dirty roads, people spitting like natural springs and open urinals, but also badly-behaved men, ogling bystanders, unhelpful cops and a recurrent fear that if attacked, mugged, molested or abused by a local, they would be unlikely to get help from the protectors of the law — tourists are deserting India and they are doing so in hundreds and thousands.

Better than the rest: Most tourists agree that Mumbai is still one of the safest cities in India. Cafe Mondegar (pictured above) is one of the several places where tourists and foreigners living in India meet regularly. Pic/ Shadab Khan

Hall of shame
Consider the following: The United Nations has named India the most dangerous nation in the world for a girl child. Last week the Business Insider website visited by a staggering 45 million visitors every month, named India one of the eightmost dangerous nations for women travellers.

If you are quick to dismiss these as biased and motivated surveys conducted by developed countries with an agenda to malign India, here is what our very own The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) has to say. In a survey carried out last month (and reported widely in newspapers and magazines across the world) ASSOCHAM researchers spoke to 1,200 tour operators to find out that there had been a 25 per cent drop in tourist inflow in the first three months of 2013 compared to the same period last year.

Worse, there had been a 35 per cent drop in female tourists during the same period after many countries advised women not to travel to India. Why? Because, universally, tourists feared for their safety and security in India! Unfounded fears? We think not.

A Swiss cyclist was gang-raped in Madhya Pradesh last month, while a South Korean tourist was drugged and raped in the same state in January by the son of the owner of a hotel she was staying in. In Agra, a tourist jumped out of her hotel window to avoid being raped. A British tourist was killed soon after. “These incidents have raised concerns about the safety of female travellers to the country,” DS Rawat, secretary general at ASSOCHAM said, while releasing the report.

Perhaps these tourists are not overreacting. According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures, a woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. That makes it 26,200 rapes a year. What’s wrong?

What’s rotten?
Jacques Martineau, a financial consultant who has made India his home for the past 10 years, jokes when we ask him to explain the reasons for tourists skipping India this year. “India is becoming expensive. Costs are spiralling. Maybe that’s why less people are visiting the country,” he says.

Then he launches into a tirade. “Honestly, for any foreigner, India is increasingly becoming a frustrating country to visit or live in, especially for women. Getting robbed, mugged or harassed is common in many countries. But tourists don’t shy away because of that. The US and South Africa records more rapes than India in any given year. But in most countries, you know you have the law to run to for help.

That if you reach the police station or the tourist information bureau somehow, you are safe. But sadly in India the protectors of the law often become the biggest source of fear. If a foreigner approaches a policeman, the first thing he asks for is money, even before asking what’s wrong or running after the culprit.”

Maria, a 21-year-old who has been in India for the past six years with her parents, echoes Martineau’s sentiments. “To get a driving license in India I had to pay bakshish (bribe). Why? Only because I am a foreigner. It is not correct that every foreigner is a millionaire. If you are foreigner, especially a white woman driving a car, you will surely be stopped by traffic cops at every other intersection and asked a bribe,” she says, speaking from her own experience.

The insecurity therefore is not just about stalkers, wolf whistles, crude comments and potential rapists. The biggest insecurity comes from the feeling that they have little or no protection. “You cannot rely on a system that is rotten to the core. There is corruption in many countries, but seldom at the cost of human lives,” adds Mia Berg, a Norwegian tourist who is on her second visit to India but says she won’t recommend a trip to her women friends any longer.

A mindset revolution
But isn’t it unfair to push all the blame on cops? How much can a police force do in cities and towns where a not-so-insignificant number of people beat up women at home, think using abusing language is their birth right and generally treat anyone seen drinking or smoking as easy targets?

“The laws are strict but they need to be enforced and executed. Punishments should be swift. Above all, rapists and molesters will stay away if they see policemen and policewomen patrolling the streets or in jeeps. If I see six cops on the street, I will feel safer. But where are they?” asks Kusum George, a Kenyan of Indian origin who is on a trip to visit her grandparent’s hometown, Mumbai.

As others point out, it is the average man-on-the-street’s perception about “foreigners” that has to change. “Just like foreigners who come to India thinking that every Indian street has a cow or believe in the Indian rope trick need to change their stupid mindset, similarly the perception that if a woman is seen enjoying a drink or walking alone at night, she is available, has to change! Wearing a spaghetti top doesn’t make one a slut and a man sporting long hair and wearing shorts is not necessarily on dope,” says Joe, an advertising professional from Texas who is in Mumbai on work. Joe says he has been offered hashish or called a “hippie” by total strangers at bars, and his girlfriend has received offers of a different kind, simply because of the way they look and dress. Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

A way out?
Admittedly Mumbai is no Delhi or Haryana. By and large tourists have less complaints about the financial capital compared to the national capital which, according to the NCRB records the maximum number of rapes every year. But then again, Mumbai is no angel land either. Over 250 rapes were recorded in the city last year alone, over and above 350 cases of molestation. A small but not insignificant number of victims were foreign tourists.

So what do those who make laws and execute them have to say?
State Tourism Minister Chhagan Bhujbal feels Mumbai is the safest city in India for women and he quotes a recent survey to substantiate his point. “Maharashtra is safe for women. When it comes to tourism, the way the media portrays a city is crucial for a tourist. I feel non-stop media coverage about the recent incidents of rape has certainly had a negative impact on the industry. But the scene is not that bad today. There were certain wrongs that happened but it is for the media to assist us to project Mumbai as a safe tourist destination,” says Bhujbal.

But what is the government doing so that the media can project a better image? “In a bid to improve our image, the department of tourism is doing its best to provide better facilities at major tourist attractions such as Aurangabad. The situation is not such that women have been under constant threat of sexual assaults. But, to create a sense of security among tourists we have introduced the concept of tourist police. This safety umbrella can be strengthened further, by providing a dedicated police force at major tourist sites. But, it must be noted that in a country like India it’s not possible to provide police security everywhere,” he says. Not much hope there!

But finally he hits the nail on the head when he says: “What we need to do is to encourage locals to behave nicely towards tourists with a sense of Atithi Devo Bhava. Because, a tourist also brings with him or her a surety of business for the locals. This has to be driven in.” Bang on, sir!

Predictably, Leader of Opposition in the State Assembly Eknath Khadse, takes a dig at the state of affairs today. “For a tourist, the knowledge that he or she is safe to visit a place comes first. He cannot roam freely in an atmosphere of threat to safety. Foreign tourists provide huge opportunities for business.

They become our tourism ambassadors when they return home. So a sense of insecurity is a threat to the tourism industry. My experience tells me that in most foreign countries, police, as well as locals are alert and always helpful towards tourists. Any problem for a tourist is bad for the image of a nation. It is high time we learnt a few lessons in manners from some of these popular tourist destinations,” he says.

He too believes that respect towards tourists, foreign or domestic, is a key to successful business. “For women tourists, a sense of security attains highest importance. But sadly, we rarely offer respect and priority to tourists. This is common courtesy and essential to promoting tourism. We need to understand that any bad treatment or a bad experience will harm our business prospects and create a bad image for us,” he concludes.

At the receiving end of much of the anger, the Mumbai Police force however, has proved itself to be more helpful and more courteous than its counterparts in most other metros. Speaking to SUNDAY MiD DAY, the force’s official spokesperson, DCP, Satyanarayan Chaudhary says, “Honestly, we have been taking many corrective measures pertaining to crimes against women. All cases of crimes against women are being supervised by officers with the rank of deputy commissioner. We have been sensitising our staff as well on how to handle cases pertaining to women in the city, irrespective of their nationality. As you may have noticed, the presence of police personnel has also been increased on the streets in the last few months.”

Chaudhary says the force has undertaken various innovative campaigns for the safety of women since this March. “We have been promoting our helpline numbers for women by displaying these numbers all over the city. We are also setting up special teams to constantly monitor areas known as tourist spots or those identified as unsafe areas after dark.”

Clearly, Mumbai’s conscience has been pricked. But while efforts from the government and its police force are a welcome change, it is the man on the street who has to reform himself first. Perhaps, as Jacques says, “It is only when a community understands that every time they assault, misbehave, cheat or rape a tourist, one member of their own family loses his or her job because tourists stop coming, will a mindset change take place. Once that happens, India has the potential to become a genuinely incredible tourist destination, with a variety on offer that no other country in the world can boast of.”

Goa takes the lead
goa Tourism has announced strict measures to ensure tourist safety, especially for women Millions of tourists from across the world land up in Goa each year, most of them flying in via Mumbai. In the aftermath of multiple incidents involving crimes against tourists in the state and travel advisories issued by multiple countries against India, the Department of Tourism, Government of Goa has constituted strict measures to safeguard tourist safety, especially women travellers.

One of the initiatives taken by the department specifically for women is setting up of a Tourist Police Force comprising 200-250 IRB (Indian Reserve Battalion) Police. Around 50 of them will be lady constables. Tourism Minister of Goa, Dilip Parulekar has said that the department is also contemplating formation of an all-women police team for night patrolling to instill confidence among women tourists and to intervene in emergency situations.

Apart from this, the department has also appointed night patrolling teams with one team deployed each in North and South Goa. The team comprising one PSI (Police Sub Inspector) along with supported staff of six to eight constables will operate from sunset to midnight every day of the week. Other measures include constitution of two flying squads, one each for North and South Goa. “They have been conferred Executive Magistrate Powers which means they have the power to take action or pass orders on the spot,” Parulekar said. 

With inputs from Ravikiran Deshmukh and Bhupen Patel  

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