BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
India is a land of extremes. It’s one of the most heavily and densely populated countries on Earth, with a rapidly rising economy that will likely push the population onto the world stage by 2020, but more than 20 per cent of the population lives far below the poverty line. Furthermore, almost 70 per cent of the country eschews India’s rapidly growing cities in favour of rural lives in the country’s vast wild spaces. This adherence to tradition provides another stark contrast, but also is a source of fragmentation in these rural communities.
The unique tribal culture that many of these villages espouse –- some of which may go back for thousands of years – is rapidly changing and, in some cases, eroding the carefully cultivated lifeways of rural Indians. On the other hand, embracing this encroaching technology is one of the few ways that rural, impoverished Indians can hope to secure better lives for themselves. A lack of alternative livelihoods has kick started a steady diaspora of villagers as young men and women head into cities and other states to work as menial labourers.
Engineer Yugabrata Kar grew up in the holy city of Puri, located on India’s northwestern coastline. The tropical climate and attractive waterfront real estate turned the city into a prime tourist destination. After Yubagrata graduated in 2015, he took a job as a sales engineer for a company that required travelling into sleepy rural towns to make pitches. As he toured many remote, disadvantaged villages, Mr. Kar realized that the mass exodus of young people meant that most of these villages weren’t going to survive the upcoming decade. Hoping to revive interest in the land between the cities, Mr. Kar formulated a plan.
His solution came after remembering his own brief stint as a tour guide. Using his talents for tourism, a loan from the Bank of Baroda and his own savings, Mr. Kar began a new project that aimed to bring fresh revenue into struggling villages. “Desia,” as he named it, aimed to begin a new trend of ecotourism into India’s wild, faraway villages and communities, surrounded by rugged and verdant lands long untouched by the hand of man. The first town to host this grand experiment would be the rural village of Koraput, a small farming hamlet only a short drive away from Puri.
Desia would start a branch in the village. Kar intended that Desia would eventually be owned and operated entirely by locals. Slowly but surely, he managed to gain their trust, and as the company grew he eventually ceded Desia to the people of Korpaut. In many ways, Desia is the opposite of today’s glossy, glassy tourism experiences. Koraput‘s modest wooden accommodations are decorated with authentic hand-crafted tribal art, emphasizing an off-the-beaten-path aesthetic that emphasizes personal responsibility and community values. In between walking, biking, and hiking, visitors to the village can partake in construction and land development for the locals, learn musical instruments, and even lend a hand on the farms. Desia has dubbed this new style of tourism “voluntourism.”
The success of Desia is only the first step to revitalizing India– a land of old and new, city and forest, tradition and innovation. In the coming years, Desia hopes to take what they’ve learned from Koraput and apply it to other struggling villages across India. Uniting the past and present is the best and only way to make sure that these unique outposts from an ancient history thrive and continue on.