Women take the wheel for safer tourism in Satpura Tiger Reserve

Image shows a woman sitting in the driver's seat of a jeep

Varsha Dadiba in her forest lodge jeep. Photo by Prashant Kumar Dubey

  • As part of the ‘Safe Tourism Destination for Women’ project launched by the Madhya Pradesh government, women drivers have been appointed to take tourists on safaris at the Satpura Tiger Reserve.
  • The initiative aims to provide employment opportunities to women from local communities, living in and around tourist destinations, while also ensuring the safety of women at these spots.
  • The women drivers face challenges to compete in a male-dominated line of work. But this initiative may change the social fabric by encouraging more women to earn a livelihood, in a region where child marriages are still a practice.

It’s early in the morning. Tourists visiting the Satpura Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, cross the Denwa river to reach the forests of Madhai. Gypsy cars (a model of off-road cars) are all set to take these tourists on an exciting safari through the jungle.

The tourists, however, are taken by surprise when they meet Varsha Thakur, will take them on this safari. Thakur is one of the two women drivers – the other one being Sangeeta Solanki – who have been appointed as safari drivers as part of a new initiative, Safe Tourism Destination Project for Women, which aims to make tourism safe for women.

The project was developed using the central government’s Nirbhaya Fund that was set up in 2013 to enhance the safety and security of women in the country. One of the objectives of the initiative is to provide employment opportunities to local communities, especially women in residential areas around tourist places and to ensure the safety of women at these spots. The Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board launched the ‘Safe Tourism Destination for Women’ project at 50 tourist spots in the state in 2019.

Gypsy car drivers ready for safaris at the Satpura Tiger Reserve. Photo by Prashant Kumar Dubey.
Sangeeta Solanki and Varsha Thakur atop their jeep in the Satpura Tiger Reserve. Photo by Prashant Kumar Dubey

Reactions from tourists, on seeing a woman in this primarily male-dominated profession, range from surprise to pride. “We never imagined that a female driver would take us deep into the forest inhabited by wild animals,” said Ekta Awasthi, a tourist from Bhopal. “It’s not surprising for me to see these female drivers. It’s a natural progression because women are taking new strides every day. It’s a matter of pride and joy,” said Richa Shivhare, another tourist from Bhopal. “We should welcome this initiative with an open mind as it will give strength to these young women and open up new employment opportunities for them. Women are usually cautious at tourist places but it’s definitely a huge advantage to have these female safari drivers around,” she added.

Vivek Shrotriya (IAS), Additional Managing Director, Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board, told Mongabay-India, that this project is still in its initial stage. “Through this project, along with security audits and infrastructure development, we are focusing on increasing the representation of women in tourism-related jobs. Hiring female car drivers is a result of this effort. It is a perfect example of local employment generation, women empowerment, safe tourism, as well as community participation,” he said.

In 2021, the initiative received the One to Watch award at the World Travel Market (WTM) in London and won ‘Gold’ at the International Center for Responsible Tourism (ICRT) in 2022.

Thakur and Solanki, the safari drivers posted at Madhai, are from Sehra, a village outside the tiger reserve. They are pursuing their graduate studies. They started driving for safaris in the tiger reserve in October 2022. Three months prior to that, they had never driven a vehicle before.

Describing their first meeting with Archana Das, the local coordinator of the Indian Grameen Services (IGS), the partner organisation of the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board for implementing the safe tourism for women project, Thakur and Solanki said, “In the survey, we were asked if we would like to become drivers. No one had asked us this question before and this was a new opportunity. So, while we did not say yes right away, we did not let it go either.”

“I would go and ask them again and again. I had no idea what these girls were thinking. Finally, 40 girls agreed,” said Das. Thirteen girls made it to the final list; five were from Madhai and eight from Pachmarhi.

Four criteria were taken into consideration while selecting the women for the safari project — they should be between 18 and 40 years of age, their residence should be within a 15-20 kilometres radius of the main tourist destination, their families should be dependent on forests, and they should have good leadership skills.

When asked why girls from Adivasi backgrounds were selected, Satya Prakash Pandey, Project Coordinator, IGS, said, “Adivasis are more dependent on forests. Our aim is also to conserve these forests.”

Forest ranger Sur Singh Kalvelia told Mongabay-India, “When we came to know that women gypsy drivers have also been given the training, we readily welcomed them on board. It is also our responsibility to ensure that the forest department should play an instrumental role in implementing this initiative. Right now, we have 24 gypsy cars and 22 drivers. So, we have taken two women on board. When we have more vehicles, we will also give opportunities to more trained women drivers.”

Other means of employment

Varsha Dadiba, also a resident of Sehra, is one of the five women selected from Madhai. She was hired by Forsyth Lodge, a resort. Like the other two gypsy drivers, she also takes the tourists to the buffer and core areas. At present, three women drivers have started working in the Madhai forest range and two more are looking for work.

Image shows a sign board with the words 'Satpura Tiger Reserve, Madhai' in Hindi
The entry gate of the Satpura Tiger Reserve, Madhai. Photo by Prashant Kumar Dubey

The Madhya Pradesh Forest Department has also recruited 10 women tourist guides. Before being hired by the Forsyth Lodge, Dadiba worked as a tour guide.

When asked how well-acquainted she is with the forest, she said, “I know a lot about the forest. No one has to teach the tribals. This is a community that lives amid nature. So, we have a lot of knowledge since childhood. The information shared with us during the training sessions was not new to us, but, we learnt many English terms. That knowledge now comes in handy because most tourists understand only English names of trees or animals. We now know and use terms like ‘teak trees’ and ‘spotted deer’.” 

Kalvelia also added, “We don’t need to train the tribals about forests. They have known all this since childhood.”

Read more: Ashden award winner paves way for women in clean energy sector

Competing in a male-dominated line of work

While learning to drive the vehicles and taking tourists deep into the dense forests on rough roads is a tough journey by itself, especially challenging is break out of the societal boundaries and traditional roles.

Thakur said that initially the male drivers would make fun of her. “Once or twice the tourists got off the car, upon seeing us and asked for a male driver. The forest department provides them with another vehicle. This attitude is disappointing. But I do understand that creating space for oneself in a traditionally set pattern is more difficult than creating a new pattern,” said Thakur.

Solanki added, “Many times we have overheard male gypsy drivers mocking us saying we know nothing about sightings. I would like to tell them that I spotted a tiger in my very first sighting and the tourists in my car were very happy.”

Speaking to Mongabay-India, Hamir Singh, a male gypsy driver, said, “We have welcomed these women drivers and this is a great initiative. They may not be absolutely perfect, but no one is. Gradually, everyone learns.”

Image shows a man and a woman standing outside their house in India
Varsha Thakur’s father Sunderlal Uike and mother Mamta Uike outside their home in Sehra village. Photo by Prashant Kumar Dubey.

While the aim of this project is to make women financially independent, an unintended outcome may be a change in the social fabric. The forest area of Satpura is a tribal-dominated area where child marriages are prevalent. Thakur’s father Sunderlal Uike and mother Mamta Uike told Mongabay-India their daughter has made them proud. “We proudly say that our girl drives a gypsy car,” they said. Now, they are not in a hurry to marry off Thakur and her younger sister Anju, which is a noteworthy change. They want them to finish their studies and earn a livelihood.

This story was first published in Mongabay-Hindi.


Banner image: Varsha Dadiba in her forest lodge jeep. Photo by Prashant Kumar Dubey.

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