A week-long immersion into rural Maharashtra with a grassroots NGO after a particularly difficult personal challenge proved to be a transformational journey for me. This three-part series showcases the challenges, successes, strategies and innovation of a unique organization that is trying to bring a holistic change to the villages of Mokhada and Jawhar talukas (districts)--much as I'm trying to do in my personal life.
Driving away from Mumbai I feel a weight lifting off my shoulders. As we leave the bustling city behind and drive into a greener, quieter and simpler India, (simpler in many ways--but complex in others) the stress of the past few days and months slowly seems to be fading away. I breathe in the fresh air and take in the quintessential village sights outside my window--women wearing saris and weary faces carrying stacks of firewood on their heads and walking for miles; sweat-drenched men in dhotis and turbans working on road building projects; naked children eating ice cream from the local kulfi vendor with big sloppy smiles; an assortment of farm animals running across the village with abandon.
Life has been surreal lately. A month ago I had a different life, and now I am stepping out of a comfort zone created out of years of fear and denial. On some days I feel liberated and brave and on others the fear creeps in and I want to lie in a ball in a corner and wish everything away.
The village setting I have chosen pushes me out of my comfort in so many ways--here I live in a simpler way without basic amenities like hot water, western toilets, mobile coverage and television.
But the villages and villagers are beautiful. I wake up to the sound of birds and breathe in fresh country air. I plan to spend the next week speaking to villagers about their lives, and changes they have undergone since their association with the NGO I am volunteering with Aroehan. Can there be anything better?
The day begins with sunshine streaming in through the curtain-less window and the sound of birds interspersed with the sounds of the sleepy town of Jwahar waking up. As I wake, a feeling of excitement pervades my being as I ready for the day ahead.
We visit a group of seven farmers in the village of Khoz. In 2010 when Aroehan began their livelihood generation intervention, these seven villagers were the first to take a leap of faith and begin vegetable cultivation (apart from their traditional crops of rice and ragi) with Aroehan.
Entrusting their future to the organization they began in earnest with the cultivation of okra on a small part of their lands as an experiment. Today the land they once thought to be useless and burdensome is yielding them great profits, and affording them a better standard of living. Their children now go to school, their homes are made of stronger materials, they don't have to earn meagre incomes through backbreaking daily wage jobs in large faraway cities. Instead, they have savings in the bank, and confidence in their own agricultural decisions. Today there are 35 such farmers in Khoz that earn a living by making productive use of their land.
The farmers' stories and the natural beauty of the village filled me with happiness and hope but I couldn't help but wonder about the incredible contradictions that exist across our vast country.
A small village like Khoz had a perennial water source right next to it for over 35 years. However, the inhabitants of the village never could use the water to till their lands until Aroehan showed them how to five years ago. How does a government that works on isolated solutions expect development to take place? Why are there such glaring gaps in our system? What is the future of India if we address issues piece meal?
This, and many such organizations across the country work tirelessly to create sustainable solutions for development problems. But imagine the possible impact if we shift our thinking and address the larger problems.
As I think of the possibilities of such change, a feeling I haven't felt in a long time surfaces, so new that I think I'd almost forgotten what it was to feel it--I'm inspired!
Today, I made my way to the village of Chas, where Aroehan, the NGO I was volunteering with, faced a unique challenge--the men were just not interested in working towards the development of the village.
It was the women who took the initiative to bring water into the village.
In these parts, the procurement of water for household purposes is solely the responsibility of women. The women of Chas spent most of their day filling 3-4 matkas(pots) that were used sparingly through the day. In the summer months, the river invariably dried up, which meant they had to go even further to find water.
The group of women before me tells me about how last year, six or seven women convinced the rest of the village's 60-odd women to contribute their labour, and work with Aroehan to construct a rainwater harvesting bund that would ensure that the water supply lasts through the year.
Seeing the efforts of the women and the benefits it could bring their village, the men joined in as well. After three months of backbreaking work, the river bund was finally ready.
The women tell us how their lives have become easier as they spend less time searching for water for their families. They tell us how they've changed since they decided to take charge - they are more confident and can speak up for what they want. Now that they see the quantity of water that still remains as the summer months approach, they dream of using it to water their fields where they can learn to grow vegetables and sell them for a profit in the market as they've seen in the other villages Aroehan has worked with.
I am struck by the courage, confidence and determination of these women. I see this in so many of the women here--in Madhvi who is working with Aroehan into the eighth month of her pregnancy, in Madhuri and Vaishali who take their toddlers with them as they continue to conduct their village interventions, in Shraddha as she tirelessly works to motivate her team and keep the work going to create lasting change in the lives of so many villagers.
It is the silent strength of such women that is slowly turning the wheels of change in these villages.
I've eased into a comfortable routine at Shraddha's house in Jawhar. The house is always buzzing with people but in the quiet early mornings, sunrise can be seen from the bed, with coffee and bucket baths to follow. Soon enough, the Aroehan staff pours into the house, making plans for the day and setting off in different directions, to different villages.
Shirasgaon, one of Aroehan's first interventions, is a village that has benefitted from health and education interventions over the years. The hour-long drive on bumpy, narrow and unpaved roads makes you wonder how resources ever reach places like these.
The meeting today is on the construction site of a bund on the river bank where all the villagers are donating their labour. This bund is being built by Aroehan to harness the water supply and bring the water to their fields for irrigation purposes.
Another bund, a few metres away from the construction site, was been built a few years ago by the government but is in a state of complete disrepair and the villagers say it stores less than 2 feet of water! It seems that the government builds bunds without the provision of vents that would allow the soil eroding from the surrounding hills to pass through it. Soon enough, the soil starts collecting below and with no one to clean it out, the water level lessens with each passing year until the bund is defunct. Dozens of such ill-conceived bunds have been constructed through the region.
At Aroehan a team of engineers from IIT Mumbai are consulted every time a rainwater harvesting structure is to be installed. Keeping in mind geographical and community needs, a solution is designed to fit the identified problem.
The inhabitants of Shirasgaon are excited to finally have a functional bund close to their village and share that they already have plans to expand their vegetable cultivation so that they can profit from it.
The village is a united one and you can see that their thinking has grown since their association with Aroehan. They talk of how health was once a low priority--infant and maternal mortality rates were high because of malnutrition and children were always falling sick. Today, the malnutrition numbers have reduced significantly. A woman tells us about how educating her daughters was never a priority. Today, thanks to increased awareness, she believes girls must be educated so that they can at least have practical knowledge such as being able to read bus numbers. This might seem like a small shift to us, but is a huge change in mindsets for communities like these.
The dynamics of villages like Shirasgaon are complex and require complex but well thought of solutions. Over endless cups of sweet milky tea we talk of the current challenges and possible solutions for a better future. Our discussions waver between idealism and practicality, disillusionment and inspiration, confusion and moments of clarity-much like my own life these days.
Today's visit is to document the integrated development model that Aroehan, the NGO I'm working with, has successfully implemented in the village of Amle. Over a five-year period, Aroehan, with CSR funding from Siemens India, worked with the inhabitants of this remote village on education, health awareness, access to water for drinking and irrigation, leveraging of government schemes, and improving agricultural practices so as to create local livelihoods and stem migration.
Amle is unique in that it is completely cut off -- the only way to access the village is by wading through river water, which is neck-deep in the monsoons and knee-high otherwise. For years, no government support has reached Amle despite several promises by local government bodies. This had made the villagers untrusting and suspicious of anyone who says they want to help. A large part of Aroehan's work focuses on building the trust of the villagers, which obviously took longer than usual in Amle given its history.
The first intervention was to install a solar-powered drinking water filtration system so that the villagers would have access to clean drinking water, thereby reducing deaths by water borne diseases -- a pressing problem in Amle.
Another focus was on the creation of village-level committees (samitis) for education, health, water and livelihoods. These committees are taught to liaise and advocate with the relevant government bodies to ensure that they have access to the schemes and grants they are entitled to.
In 2014, with the help of Aroehan, the villagers advocated with government bodies to build them a bridge for better access to the village. Over the years, the inhabitants of Amle have become more confident and aware, and know what they want for their future. They also now know how to work the government machinery to get the benefits they are entitled to, be it in education, health or agriculture.
Great strides have been made through the agriculture intervention. The solar panels generate enough electricity to power the drinking water filter as well as to lift water from the river to irrigate the farmers' lands. Thus far, these farmers had resorted to taking up construction or road-building jobs in large towns or cities for a minimum daily wage of ₹160-180, barely enough to make ends meet; they only managed to do the traditional cropping of rice and ragi in the monsoon season. Agriculture was entirely rain-fed and was for subsistence purposes alone.
Today, the farmers not only have water to irrigate their lands in the summer but also have relevant training on vegetable cultivation, group farming techniques, and an understanding of what vegetables to grow, their crop cycles and how to go about selling them in the vegetable markets for the best price.
Income levels have risen significantly for these farmers, as has their standard of living. Of the 55 families, only two now migrate for jobs. All the children of the village -- boys and girls --- go to school and many of them are now pursuing higher education. Malnutrition is almost non-existent as awareness about health and health services is high.
Over the years the Amle villagers' dependence on Aroehan to show them the way has reduced, with the NGO slowly phasing out its interventions having empowered this village on every level. It is heartening to see the confidence of these villagers that understand their rights and know how to get what they are entitled to. It is equally heartening to see an organization whose approach is to truly empower a community to make independent, well thought out decisions and take charge of their own destiny.
My last day with Aroehan proves to be one of long conversations with the staff as well as time for some quiet reflection on the days passed.
Shraddha and her team speak to me at length about the strategy of Aroehan and how it has evolved over the past 10 years. They speak of the challenges they faced and how they tweaked their solutions to fit the problem better -- be it in the area of health where they once followed a group awareness method only to switch to an individual focus approach, or in livelihoods, where they better understood the link between rainwater harvesting and agriculture and then created a combined strategy that enabled both (rather than addressing these areas separately).
Each area of work has evolved and become more nuanced but the core idea remains the same. "Aroehan" means to rise or grow, to find solutions from the bottom up, to empower communities to find their own voice -- and that undoubtedly remains the strength of this organization.
For me, this week in the villages was meant to be an immersion, a challenge and a refuge -- an immersion into what I love doing (working with grassroots communities, photography and filmmaking); a personal challenge as to whether I could live in unfamiliar, harsh and the most basic of conditions; and a refuge so I could create some space for myself and my thoughts to help put the pieces of my life back together after the breakdown of existence as I knew it.
As I drive back from Jawhar to the city, a fear of returning to reality from this relative calmness grips me. Tears well up, and I realize I haven't cried at all in this past week. For a moment I wonder if I can or want to go back. I then recall the people I have met in this past week -- the women of Khoz, the farmers of Amle, the strong and courageous women of Aroehan.
It dawns on me that strength comes from facing life's challenges, not from running away from them -- and that's exactly what I plan to do.
Aroehan was created as a project of the Nirmala Niketan Institute of Social Work in Mumbai, to address the issue of malnutrition in the Mokhada district in 2006. Having done an assessment of the needs of the community, the project realized the importance of an integrated approach to development and has over the past ten years worked on bringing education, health, governance and sustainable livelihood opportunities to farmers across Mokhada and Jawhar districts.
Article & photograpy by Namrata Tanna