A village, located near a famous attraction in Gujarat, was not being able to capitalize on the tourist footfall there. But thanks to Ankush Jindal, the villagers are now beginning to gain employment and tap new business opportunities.
“After having worked in the hospitality industry for about eight years, I wanted to experience another side of life and to gain a new perspective. I wanted to start with a clean slate in a completely new environment. This is why I decided to join the SBI Youth for India fellowship programme and take up a project based on rural tourism, a subject close to my heart. I think India lives in its villages and rural tourism is a very good way to eliminate many problems. I wanted to contribute towards that,” says 30-year-old Ankush Jindal, who is now working in Waghai village in the Dangs district of Gujarat. His mission is to develop an eco-friendly, sustainable and community owned model of rural tourism.
This village is located close to the famous Giradhodh waterfall, on the way to Saputara, a hill station in Gujarat. Most tourists who visit Saputara usually stop near the waterfall for about 10-15 minutes to click pictures and enjoy the view.
As a result, the tourist footfall in the region is really high – specially during and after the monsoons. But, over the years, the villagers have not been able benefit from this attraction at all. Ankush’s idea is to develop different facilities, which will be owned by the village community and will attract more visitors, thereby providing the residents with employment and business opportunities.
“The land at the waterfall site is under the control of the forest department of this region and initially, there was extreme distrust between the village community and the department. The villagers had set up some makeshift shops to sell snacks and handmade bamboo items near the waterfall, but technically those establishments were illegal. So the department wanted to remove them. As a first step, I spoke to the authorities and asked what could be done so that no laws are broken and the villagers benefit from the tourism,” says Ankush.
The department informed him that the villagers should form an eco-tourism committee with the consent of at least 80% of households in the village. The committee would function under the forest department but would be composed of villagers only.
Forming the committee was the next step for Ankush but it turned out to be a difficult one. “There are 230 households in the village and only those people who own shops would benefit directly from this project, that is, about 60 households. The rest of the families did not believe in the project at all,” he says. It took several meetings and presentations before all the villagers agreed. Ankush explained how the project would be beneficial for all of them, as eco-tourism could provide them with a good source of alternate income, based on their advantageous location.
Currently, seven months into the fellowship, Ankush is concentrating on two main projects. One of them is to set up a restaurant at the waterfall site that will serve local tribal cuisine. He wants the women in the village to be involved in this and is working with two self-help groups – training women on the workings of a restaurant, how to keep it up and running, how to speak with customers, etc.
The forest department has already agreed to sanction land for the construction of the restaurant and Ankush is trying to gather the required funds to take it forward next month.
Secondly, he is working on increasing the earnings of bamboo handcrafters. The village has a community of 40-50 traditional bamboo handcrafters and this skill has been handed down in their families from one generation to another.
Until recently, they didn’t have any machines and all the work was entirely handcrafted. As a result, the artisans were unable to achieve high levels of precision in finishing, which further led to reduced demand in urban markets. Ankush, with the help and monetary contributions from the community members and the NGO, BAIF Development Research Foundation, procured various bamboo craft machines worth Rs. 1.5 lakh for the artisans. He is also helping them improve their skills by taking them on visits to other eco-tourism camp sites.
“Initially, they were working individually and selling some of the products near the waterfall. I helped them form a group so they can produce together and come up with a better business model,” he says.
Together with the villagers, Ankush has installed 33 dustbins near the waterfall site. All the villagers contributed money towards this effort by collecting a sum of Rs. 20,000 from amongst themselves. They also organized a clean-up session; six women from the village have been hired by the newly formed eco-tourism committee to keep the tourist site clean. He also led the construction of a new parking area near the waterfall and the eco-tourism committee collects parking fees now.
Public toilets near the site have been repaired and the committee charges for the use of the toilets as well.
After completing his Master’s in International Hospitality from the University of Perpignan in France, Ankush worked for eight years before quitting his Dubai-based job in 2014 in search of something new. An avid traveller at heart, he travelled for about a year before taking up this project in Gujarat. Here, he is working in collaboration with the non-profit organisation, Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, which helped him with the initial funding for the project.
According to him, the real impact of his fellowship has been in the change in perception towards eco-tourism that he has been able to create among the villagers and also for government officials.
He is hopeful that with the newly gained knowledge the villagers will be able to take the project forward without his help.
“One of the reasons why I gave up on my old life was because I was tired of planning all the time. So I don’t have any plans at the moment, but I might come back to this region to take the project forward and develop facilities for rural homestays in the village,” concludes Ankush.