JHAJJAR, India (Reuters) - Pradeep Singh is at ease as he lounges on a charpai, a makeshift rope bed, smoking a hookah in the courtyard of his ancestral house. His male cousins sit beside him while the womenfolk demonstrate the art of milking cows to guests from the city.
For many Indians who live in western-styled, air-conditioned houses in urban areas, this pastoral setting in the northern Indian state of Haryana is an alien lifestyle, one that Singh packages and exhibits as a tourist attraction.
“People need a change from regular outings,” said the 48-year-old landowner. “And I was always a bit of an entrepreneur.”
For years, a vacation for middle-class Indians meant a trip to a hill-station or a beach resort. But with rising affluence and evolving taste, there is a growing inclination to explore the “other India” and return to their roots.
Their prosperity has not yet trickled down to rural areas. Many villages still do not have access to electricity, sanitation or clean drinking water and this has led to the emergence of starkly different lifestyles.
While city dwellers are increasingly westernised, Indian villages still abide by centuries-old agrarian customs.
In 2006, Singh converted his farm into an amusement park of sorts. Here, tourists can ride a tractor, plough fields, cook on an earthen stove or make cow dung cakes while interacting with the local community.
“People want their children to connect to the rural side of the society,” said Singh. “And they want to reconnect with their own roots.”
Rural or farm tourism is a relatively new concept in India, allowing urban Indians and foreign tourists get a taste of rustic life. They can live with a family or independently, and assist with day-to-day village activities, while learning about agriculture, wildlife, traditional art and culture.
India’s Ministry of Tourism website says it supports over 150 such rural projects in the country.
“The aim is to not let the rural lifestyle die,” said Subhash Verma, president of the Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India. “Also, to showcase and economically support village handicrafts and artists.”
While Singh, a wealthy landowner, is in this business to make money, his farm in Jhajjar, an area famous for its pottery, is giving many villagers stable employment.
“I have been able to send all my children to school,” said Kalavati, a widow who cooks millet rotis for guests at the farm. She was earlier a construction labourer with no fixed income.
Rural tourism has also helped people like Sukhbir Nath.
Men in Nath’s family had been snake charmers for generations until the Indian government outlawed ownership of snakes. While many from his community lost their livelihoods and were forced to take up menial jobs, Nath now plays the snake charmer’s flute to welcome tourists at Singh’s farmhouse.
“Tourism is great because it is one of the largest economic multipliers in the world,” said Inir Pinheiro, whose company Grassroutes promotes village tourism in Maharashtra.
While environmental activist Ashish Kothari is wary of outside operators using the village community as a selling point for their tours, he supports community-managed farm tourism.
“Farm tourism is the new buzzword,” he said. “If managed by and for the local community, then it will benefit them.”
Urban Indians are keen to embrace village life, but few such tourists leave the city behind entirely.
“Our children are not acquainted with the village life at all, so we thought it would be entertainment, plus we will know of the other India,” said Delhi-based advertising professional Rakesh Budhiraja, while watching his son take a mud bath.
Special toilets were built on Singh’s farm so that guests didn’t have to answer nature’s call in the open.
“(On a village trip) we get hand sanitisers, sunscreens, our own water, biscuits for our kids in case they don’t like the food here,” said Vandana Shah Irani, a tourist from Gurgaon on the outskirts of New Delhi.
The gap between the city dwellers and their hosts has caused friction, and the impact of the flood of tourists is worrying for some. Singh has stopped taking big groups of tourists into the village and avoids organizing home-stays.
“In the past, we had school children who were disgusted by the cow dung, made faces at the villagers and laughed at the dialect,” he said.
It is not just village pride that is threatened by tourists. The business can also jeopardise the ecological climate.
While rural tourism is supposed to be eco-friendly, environmental activists such as Kothari believe that most places merely pay lip service to the concept.
“Ninety-nine percent of the tourism in India ignores the impact it has on the community,” he added.
Singh, for his part, now takes only serious study groups to interact with the village community.
“We can’t take 1,500 children into a village,” he said. “If you can contribute to the culture, and take away from the culture, we organise tours.”
Pinheiro’s company also does not allow more that 40 tourists in a village at a time. They are asked to take their waste back to the city.
“The community packs the garbage in a plastic bag and hands them to the tourists,” he said. “Garbage does not belong to the village; it belongs in the city.”
Reporting By Diksha Madhok; editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Elaine Lies