Break bread with ex-bandits - India's latest tourism gimmick
Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi
After 'slum tourism' and 'tsunami tourism', India is planning to offer the delights of the remote wilderness of the Chambal Valley, where tourists can relax over meals with reformed bandits in what has been dubbed 'bandit tourism'.
A part of this spectacularly beautiful and undeveloped region lies in the western desert state of Rajasthan, a popular tourist destination.
The Rajasthan government wants to develop the Chambal Valley and thinks tourism is the best tool. The area has been off limits because of the threat posed by bandits (known as dacoits) who have roamed the valleys and ravines for hundreds of years, like the highwaymen of old, robbing and killing people.
'It's incredibly beautiful, like something out of Indiana Jones - towering cliffs and narrow passages going through them and lots of wildlife. Bandits who have surrendered to the police can accompany tourists,' said Mahendra Singh Rathore of the tourism ministry.
Over tea or lunch, the reformed bandits can regale tourists with tales of their exploits or talk about the forests and wildlife.
The area is famous for rare birds and gharials, the crocodile-like reptiles that laze on the banks of the Chambal River.
Travel agents are already promoting the area as a wildlife paradise, an idea that has proved popular with domestic and foreign tourists.
'Meeting bandits - don't forget some of them are women with long criminal careers - will add a whiff of danger that will appeal to some,' said Devika Bhatti, a Jaipur travel agent. Phoolan Devi, India's infamous 'Bandit Queen', hid from the police in the Chambal Valley for years with her lover and gang. Their exploits garnered her worldwide fame and inspired books and a film about Devi's life.
Many locals regard bandits as rebels rather than criminals because they hand over some of their ill-gotten gains to poor villagers.
The bandits who will be enrolled in the scheme include those who have surrendered after becoming tired of living as fugitives.
'Some of them are anxious to lead a normal life but are unemployed. If we can give them jobs, it might also persuade others to lay down their arms and come back to society,' said Dr Rathore.
The fact that some bandits are still at large in the Chambal Valley is of some concern to travel operators.
Agra tour operator Deepak Aggarwal said: 'The idea is a bit crazy but, who knows, it might work. But you'd have to get the police to make sure the area is safe, and it's so vast and remote that I don't think they can give any guarantees.'