Experience India. The message was loud and clear and for four busy days, New York resonated with the colour and flavour of the world’s largest democracy. The India@60 extravaganza that kicked off at the Big Apple last Sunday was a success. A beaming Amitabh Kant, joint secretary in the ministry of tourism and the architect of the campaign, said revenues from tourism are expected to soar to over Rs 50,000 crore in the next three years. It’s a rosy picture and a believable one too. Most tourists will say India is an incredible country. But how safe a host it is remains debatable.
Delhi, March 2004:
Jodhpur, May 2005:
Alwar, March 2006:
Pushkar, May 2007:
Daruhera, August 2007:
Just a day before the campaign took off in New York, two Japanese women tourists lodged a case of rape against three men in Agra at the Indira Gandhi International Airport police station. This isn’t the first such case by foreign tourists visiting India. There have been others that certainly don’t qualify India as the perfect host: rape, sexual harassment, theft, assault, bag-snatching and even murder.
A sari state of affairs
Hannah King’s welcome to India on September 21 wasn’t exactly about atithi devo bhava. As the 24-year-old British medical student walked towards her guesthouse in Paharganj, a gang of women covered her with their saris. Within seconds, they picked the lock on her bag and made off with her passport, cash-card and travellers’ cheques. A rattled King went to get help at the Paharganj police station. But her experience there left her even more shaken.
“In some ways, the police treatment was worse than the robbery,” says King, who waited for four hours before an officer spoke with her. “He was rude and claimed I was lying,” she says. He finally accompanied her to the scene of crime, and later “grudgingly” gave her a police report confirming her version of events.
Paharganj Station House Officer Ashwani Jaswal says he’s not aware of the details of the incident but apologises for any discomfort caused to King. Alok Kumar, DCP, Central Delhi, says sometimes the police become suspicious of foreigners making claims about stolen goods. “Foreigners who have been here two or three months approach the police barely three hours before their flight. It can look suspicious,” he says, insisting that a case is always lodged regardless.
DCP Kumar stresses that cases involving foreigners are processed quickly “as embassies become involved”. He adds that foreigners visiting India are at times also perpetrators of crime. In the last reported rape against a foreigner in Paharganj, the man arrested was Polish.
The recent complaint by the Japanese tourists was the fourth one this year involving the Japanese in Agra. The police are still to trace Kota, a Japanese student who has been missing since September 2006.
Tourism officials in UP and Rajasthan say Japanese tourists often fall victim to lapkas (illegal guides), some of whom have even married Japanese girls. Shigeyuki Shimamori, spokesperson for the embassy of Japan says one reason why Japanese backpackers may be perceived as easier targets is they like making friends with the locals. “In that sense, they may trust more locals which may enhance their vulnerability,” he says.
“Women tourists are soft targets. It’s not so bad for the men,” says 35-year-old Suzuki Ichiro a tourist from Tokyo. “Misguided youths do try to take undue advantage in crowded places or buses,” adds Yoshiko Murata, another Japanese tourist. “People seem to feel that foreigners are easy game. Perhaps, that’s why incidents of sexual harassment and rape are increasing,” she says, adding that she speaks from experience.
But it’s not just the Japanese who are soft targets. A group of five South Africans visiting Meerut as part of the Rotary Club’s Group Study Exchange programme became easy ‘prey’ recently. A woman Rotarian complained that her host fondled her twice. An attempt was also made to get a male member of the team to watch pornography.
The victims complained to the Rotary International headquarters in the USA. The alleged fondler was sacked from the club. District governor MS Jain termed it “a shame”. In an e-mail from South Africa, the victim said she is satisfied with the action taken.
Still a dream destination
As shocking as these cases are, do they indicate a broader trend of insecurity among visiting foreigners? The British High Commission doesn’t think so. With over half-a-million visitors last year alone coming to India, the UK is the country that sends the most tourists here. Dan Chugg, spokesperson for the High Commission says, “In peak season, when tens of thousands of British tourists are arriving all the time, we become aware of maybe one or two cases a week.”
“Rape and molestation are not India-specific problems,” says Sparkle Hayter, a producer and journalist from Canada, who visited India earlier this year for four months. “Rape is a problem for women everywhere,” adds the 39-year-old who found India an easy, safe and enjoyable country. “My friends were molested on a train in the south of France. I was robbed in New York and fought off an attempted rape in Atlanta,” Hayter says.
Down south, tourists say they feel much safer. Hoda Desuaki, an Egyptian taking in the sun on a palm-fringed beach near Kovalam, Kerala, agrees. This is her second visit to God’s Own Country, which recently surpassed Turkey’s annual growth rate in tourism.
After her maiden visit last year, she claims at least 50 of her friends and relatives visited the southern-most state. “I find it safe. People are full of warmth and everything is natural here,” she explains.
“Kerala Tourism has brought in place several stringent measures to check the growth of unauthorised activities and unethical practices in the field of tourism, as in the case of Ayurveda, houseboats and home stays,” state tourism minister KC Venugopal, says.
Damage control is on elsewhere as well. In Agra, the rape of the Japanese women has prompted the state to set up Uttar Pradesh’s first tourism police station. At the inauguration of this specialised police station which is yet to find a permanent address the state police chief apologised to the Japanese women and assured tough action. Anything to ensure that Destination India remains incredible.
(Inputs from KS Tomar in Jaipur, GC Shekhar in Chennai, S Raju in Meerut, Naomi Canton in Mumbai and Ramesh Babu in Kerala)