With its first civilization going back to 2500 BCE, India is a virtual treasure trove of cultural and historical attractions. The myriad arts, crafts, people, cuisines and topography of the land create a kaleidoscope of color and energy that has always attracted people from all over the world. Though India still remains a cherished destination, its popularity among tourists has taken a beating in recent times due to issues of safety, especially for women. So if you dream of visiting India – whether alone or with companions – here are a few guidelines which will help you remain safe.
As you land in the country, it is better to ask for directions and take a prepaid taxi or even a radio cab from one of the registered counters inside the airport. Public parks or places around historical monuments may get lonely after the sun sets. And though the view might be great in the moonlight, its best to stay away from these places since a lot of unsocial elements hang around such places and chances of crimes go up. Also try and restrict evening entertainment to well-known venues, and avoiding isolated areas when alone at any time of day. In metro cities like Delhi and Mumbai you can use the women-only carriage on the metro and local trains. Walk with purpose so that men don’t feel that you are unsure about where to go. Avoid walking in the countryside on your own. If you must, always have a mobile to hand and a speed-dial number to call for help. Use it - even to make a fake call - as soon as you start feeling uncomfortable. When travelling by overnight train, choose an upper berth to avoid prospective gropers and have more privacy. Many travellers report better luck with more expensive train seats, which have fewer passengers per car. Ideally though avoid public transportation at night, and never ride in empty buses or trains at night. Use taxis with call services at night; don’t flag them down in the street, especially if you’re alone. In India unaccompanied women travelers at night are seen as sexually available or at least easy prey, so travelling with a companion helps ward off advances, especially if your companion is male. If you traveling alone, mentioning your husband frequently – whether or not you have one – may also help.
It would make sense to do an online search for hotels and places to stay before leaving for India. Even then it is best to get a first hand account of hotels from other travelers who have actually stayed there. Some of the hotels may seem economical in rates, but could turn out to be rather sleazy places – it is better to shell out a little more money, that get into hassles later. Even if you don't have a hotel booked, behave as if you do. Ask to be dropped off somewhere in particular and take it from there. Keep your hotel room number confidential and make sure hotel room doors have chains, deadlocks, and spy-holes. At the very least ensure that the room you are given has a proper bolt on the inside of the door. Some seasoned women travelers suggest carrying around a rubber doorstop to foil intruders.
Issues of women’s safety in India emerged as global news in the aftermath of an extremely brutal gangrape of a 24 year old woman right in the heart of the national capital, New Delhi1. Though the incident led to the country’s law-making body passing a new law with provisions for harsher punishments and quicker justice, women continue to feel unsafe on the streets of India, especially if they are on their own. Things are in fact worse for female foreign tourists because of the Indian male fascination for white women. Due to a variety of cultural reasons, popular media has largely depicted western, white-skinned women as sexually promiscuous and almost inviting male advances. The sight of white female tourists in India not only stands out as the visible sign of the Other – both to be feared and desired – but soemtiems it seems to arouse the worst of violent tendencies in men. In a recent incident, a 32-year-old woman from London was forced to leap from her hotel balcony to avoid the advances of the manager of a hotel near the Taj Mahal2. In another incident a 39-year-old Swiss cyclist was also gang-raped in the state of Madhya Pradesh3. While such incidents are in no way common, it is best to take precautions. Ask your hotel or guesthouse to book a taxi or auto-rickshaw for transfers to bus and rail stations, especially after dark. Don’t be too friendly with men who approach you at tourist spots or with hotel staff. If you wish to mine for local information, strike up conversations with Indian women instead. While confronting male misbehavior may be an effective ploy in preventing sexual violence in other countries, in India it is more likely to be seen as a come-on. Instead avert your eyes down and away. This signals that you have no interest in further interaction. Above all, never accept alcoholic drinks from strangers. Indian women rarely drink in public - even in hotel bars - so beware any man who invites you to do so.
More than outright sexual violence, it is sexual harassment that you may experience – more so in tourist towns and larger cities in the north of the country. Rude comments, voyeurism, stalking, and men ‘brushing against’ or groping women are all common. The more physical incidents tend to happen in busy areas, like crowded trains or markets, or during festivals like Holi, in which coloured powder – which can be temporarily blinding – is tossed about and is often responsible for sexual harassment of both local and foregin women under the pretext of celebrations. One of the best ways to avoid these is to take special care of how you dress in public and absolutely avoid revealing clothing. This includes strappy tops, long see-through cotton skirts (regarded as underwear by Indians) and shorts or cut-off trousers. A long tunic with full sleeves over loose trousers is far better. A dupatta or long scarf can be worn over T-shirts and helps deflect attention. At beaches, wear a T-shirt and long shorts over a bathing suit when swimming in the manner of local customs.
While it is best not to engage with strange men at all, if you are being harassed in a public place during daytime, make sure you speak up. Creating a fuss, especially on public transportation, will probably shame the creepy guy and will hopefully rally your fellow passengers to your aid. In situations that are just uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to find a new spot on the bus, or take a different train, bus or sidewalk altogether. If you have an uneasy feeling about your hotel room, firmly ask to be given another one. In situations that have become dangerous, call 100 which is the common number for police help in India.
Yet another useful way to stay safe is to take time to observe local customs during your stay. First-time travellers to India may want to consider starting trips off with a homestay, where you can learn invaluable lessons about culture and safety the easy way. Again if you are taking a long rail journey, you may find yourself 'adopted' by families who are your co-passengers. Watch how the women in these families behave and ask them for tips on local sightseeing or shopping instead of seeking information from strange men.
Though not as common as sexual harassment or sexual violence, the threat of terrorism could be another concern for foreigners traveling through India. Anti-Western terrorist groups are especially likely to target luxury hotels, upscale restaurants and market in large urban areas which are known to be frequented by western travelers. Even when threat perception is low, there is no harm in practicing good security. Be aware of your surroundings and keep a low profile. Monitor local news reports, vary your routes and times in carrying out daily activities, and consider the level of security present when you visit public places, including religious sites or choosing hotels, restaurants and recreation venues. Beyond the threat from terrorism and insurgencies, demonstrations and general strikes, or “bandh,” often cause inconvenience. Local demonstrations can begin spontaneously and escalate with little warning, disrupting transportation systems and city services and posing risks to travelers. Sometimes such disruptions are specificially planned at tourist spot in order to extract maximum media mileage. In response to such events, Indian authorities occasionally impose curfews and/or restrict travel. It is best you obey such curfews and travel restrictions and avoid demonstrations and rallies as they have the potential for violence. Most of all, monitor local television, print media or your country’s Embassy website for travel advisories.
Crowded places in India are perfect hunting ground for pickpockets and You may find your wallet missing very soon. Do not carry your passport and valuables in a carry bag but wear it next to your skin. So just in case, your bag gets stolen, your passport is with you. There can be nothing worse than losing your passport in a foreign country like India where a duplicate can take forever to come through because of red-tapism and corruption. Again it is better to divide your money into different places and never carry more than a few dollars or euros in your wallet. Ideally carry traveler’s checks, Instead of keeping a lot of cash. Keep a copy of all your important documents and phone numbers especially of your country’s embassy, with you in case of any emergency. Be cautious about displaying cash or expensive items to reduce the chance of being a target for robbery or other crime, and be aware of your surroundings when you use ATMs. Gangs and criminal elements operate in major cities and have sometimes targeted unsuspecting business travelers and their family members for kidnapping or extortion.
Keeping scamsters at bay
Another danger to be avoided by tourists in India are scams which can range from deceptively simple to extremely elaborate. Such scams perpetrated by con-men who are commonly found at airports, train stations, restaurants and outside hotels in popular tourist towns and sight-seeing spots. Beware of taxi drivers and train porters, who solicit travelers with offers of cheap transportation and/or hotels. People who fall for these scams may find themselves cheated with unwanted "tours," unwelcome "purchases," extended cab rides, substandard hotel rooms at overly expensive rates and even threats of violence against family members. Some scam artists have lured travelers by displaying their name on a sign when they leave the airport. Another popular scam is to drop money or to squirt something on the clothing of an unsuspecting traveler and during the distraction to rob them of their valuables. Tourists have also been given drugged drinks or tainted food to make them more vulnerable to theft, particularly at train stations. The best way to avoid falling victim to such scams is to travel in a group or at least to keep your wits about you. Never accept food and drink from unknown people and as far as possible, use guides and taxi drivers vetted by your hotel. Even if you wish to go sight-seeing on your own use only well-known travel agents to book trips.
Some vendors sell carpets, jewelry, gemstones, or other expensive items that may not be of the quality promised. Deal only with reputable businesses and do not hand over your credit cards or money unless you are certain that goods being shipped are the goods you purchased. If you wish to buy handicrafts and curios, most tourist places have official outlets of the Indian government where you can find authentic products. The US government website on travel guidelines4 mentions a type of scam perpetrated against foreign travelers, particularly in Goa, Jaipur, and Agra that target younger travelers and involve suggestions that money can be made by privately transporting gems or gold or by taking delivery abroad of expensive carpets, supposedly while avoiding customs duties. All these are completely illegal and if caught by law enforcement agencies, tourists can be convicted both in India as well as in their own country. Another common ploy used by scamsters is to target family travellers from the U.S., particularly older people who are then approached for funds to help grandchildren or relatives who claim to be in jail or without money to return home. The US government website advises its travlers never to send money without contacting the U.S. Embassy or Consulate General to confirm the caller’s situation.
Ideally make an appointent with your doctor four to six weeks before the date of your departure to India. Mention your travel destination and ask your doctor if you and your family need to be vaccinated against endemic diseases in India. Routine vaccines before every trip should include measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, and your yearly flu shot. Most travellers to India are advised to get vaccinated against Hepatitis A & B as well as Typhoid but if you wish to be extra cautious, you can also go for vaccines against Japanese encephalitis and Rabies besides carrying ant-malarial drugs.
Pack a stock of medications for common conditions like fever, cough, diarrhea, allergies, motion sickness, insect bites as well as cuts and wounds. Ask your doctor about the generic names of medicines you may need to purchase abroad and request photocopies of your kids’ health records if they have a medical condition. It may even be a good idea to carry a prescription from your doctor for certain common antibiotics in case you need to buy more in India. Carry enough supplies of mosquito-repellants, medications to treat tummy upsets, heat fevers and other common medical conditions. Bed-nets impregnated with insecticide can be another useful aid especially if you are traveling with kids to India. If you or your family have a pre-existing medical condition, ask for help in identifying a doctor in your destination who specializes in the same condition.
Also get in touch with local tourist officials in advance and ask if any specific precaution is required. Above all make sure you're covered. Find out what kind of health insurance coverage you have while traveling. If you're not covered, ask your travel agent or local insurance companies to give you names of carriers that can provide temporary coverage.
Carry hats, sunglasses and adequate supplies of sunscreen as the tropical sun can be quite harsh on the skin and eyes. Don’t forget to protect your feet too. Since most places in India have a humid climate, choose clothes made from natural fibers - sweat irritates delicate skins and can lead to prickly heat or sweat rash.
Most of all, take care of what you eat and drink. Carry water-purifying aids in case bottled water is not available. Check from before whether the tap water is safe to drink in the country of your destination; if not, you'll need to boil, filter or sterilize your own, or buy bottled water. If you plan to use bottled water to make up formula feeds, aim to get the lowest mineral content you can. Make sure you and your family don't drink from taps, including when brushing teeth. Keeping a bottle of drinking water by the sink is a helpful reminder.
India has extremely variable standards of sanitation and hygiene. So when eating out, always eat at busy places where the turnover of food will be fast. Freshly cooked light foods are safest. As far as possible avoid buffets as they often include stale food and thus tend to harbor the bugs that cause diarrhea.
Most travelers who return from India believe that the land brings about significant changes in their perspective and priorities in life. if you are to ensure that your trip remains similarly fulfilling, it is best you adopt certain measures for safety so that instead of ruing your decision to visit India, you return to your country with cherished memories.