Women entrepreneurs give tourism a boost in MP

I meet the reluctant Kiran Gond, 29, in a tiny workshop in Madla village, near Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh (MP). She sews cloth bags with tiger designs that are sold at pavilions in the park where tourists will buy them as travel souvenirs. The MP government funded this workshop to make “responsible” souvenirs that respect the environment and reflect the local culture. These are made by the local community – mostly women. PashooPakshee, a company formed by the articulate Savini Sonavaria based in Mumbai, provides technical support to the unit and offers market access.

Savini quit his lucrative job as an engineer to involve community women in tourism. She helped set up similar small workshops around tourism hotspots across India to make souvenirs. Savini says Kiran and his two younger siblings were day laborers before they were hired and trained for their jobs. Life seems much brighter for orphaned siblings.

Sisters-in-law Rekha and Kamla Kushwaha live in a joint family in the village of Ladpura Khas, near Orchha, MP, a tourist hotspot. They sell their agricultural products in the town of Orchha. When MP Tourism launched its rural homestay program, the ladies spotted an opportunity. They built two halls based on the design and the partial financial subsidy provided by the government. For Rs 2,000 per night, a couple can stay in serene rural surroundings. You can take an early morning walk in the fields and breathe in the fresh air. Pick a papaya or two if you feel like it or even a fresh bottle gourd that Rekha or Kamla would cook for you. They claim theirs are the best you can find. The sisters-in-law are satisfied. They can now interact with new people, broadening their horizons. And more importantly, as Rekha puts it, “If we have guests for even a hundred nights a year, that’s an extra income of Rs 2 lakh for the family. A valuable aid to support the expenses related to the education of children. Other women in the village also earn some money through rural tourism. Some are part of the village singing group, while others make simple clay figurines bought by tourists. A few of the women transport tourists in their e-rikshaws in and around this village. The partnership between a government agency and the local community adds to the local economy. And does wonders for the spirit of these simple rural women.

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The MP Tourism Board has this program prosaically named, “Safe Tourist Destination for Women in Madhya Pradesh”. The idea is to make the single tourist, or a group of women, feel safe while traveling in the state. Executing this idea has huge social ramifications, especially for women in the community. Mehroon Siddique is an energetic young lady from Panna, MP. His story is inspiring. She was working as an Anganwadi Sahayika, a helper who assists the Anganwadi worker. She has worked hard to grow in life and now runs Adhar, an NGO in Madhya Pradesh. She is executing this project in the Khajuraho-Panna region, which is a popular tourist destination.

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An essential ingredient of this plan is to make women in the local community more visible in the tourism sector so that the female traveler feels more secure. Mehroon’s responsibility is to find jobs for two hundred women in tourism. Forty-five women are already working a few months after the launch of the program in hotels, in souvenir shops, as tourist guides and even as drivers of safari vehicles in the Panna Tiger Reserve.

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In another initiative, about three hundred women were trained in self-defense. They serve as paid volunteers for various roles on major occasions, such as the annual Khajuraho Dance Festival. The back of their blue jackets had a clear message for the tourist. There is a silhouette of a woman – clearly a tourist – looking through binoculars and a large tiger. And the slogan: “Dil khol Kar ghoomo” (travel as you wish) and Hindustan ke dil mein aap safe hain (You are safe in the heart of Hindustan.) On the flight back to Bangalore, I thought back to the week in MP, which was full of intense and eye-opening experiences. I thought of the hundreds of women I have met and the change in their lives. It’s still in its infancy, but the potential for boosting the confidence and finances of ordinary women is immense. I’m sure Rekha, Kamala and Kiran Gond will agree.


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