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. Read part 1 of my journey here and part 2 here.
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 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.
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.
For me, this week in the villages was meant to be an immersion, a challenge and a refuge...
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.
As I drive back from Jawhar to the city, a fear of returning to reality from this relative calmness grips me. Tears well up...
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.
Namrata Tanna is a former television journalist who switched over to the social sector to use her journalism skills to create social impact. She has worked with several Mumbai-based non-profits through the initiative co-founded by her--Creatives against Poverty--and currently works with Concern India Foundation.
Also see on HuffPost: