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.
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.
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.
[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!
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!
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.
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