“The future of India lies in its villages,” was what Gandhi had said. Unfortunately, these villages are today dying a slow death because the lure of the city life seems more attractive.
Some estimates suggest that 30 Indians move from a rural to an urban area every minute. SaveAGram – a social enterprise established in 2014 by Amala Menon – aims at preserving the villages as is, and supplement their income of the villagers.
SaveAGram is aimed at sharing with urbanites this hidden world and at the same time; bring a means of livelihood to villagers who otherwise have to throng to crowded cities in search of subsistence income.
We at The Better India caught up with Amala to understand her motivation for starting SaveAGram.
For Amala, the Uttarakhand region was no stranger. While she was working in a corporate job, she often went on treks. In 2008, during a trek in the Gomukh region, there was a landslide and she had to spend the night at a villager’s house. That was the turning point for Amala.
“I remember the girl of the house running out to pluck a pumpkin from their garden. She whipped up a dish with that and made some locally grown rice.”
“Not only did that satiate my taste buds but was also so fresh and completely chemical free.”
All the houses in this earthquake and landslide-prone region are made of mud. One of the qualities of mud is that it is one of the strongest materials you can build a house with. Amala realised, as she got talking to them, that while she was marvelling at the mud house, the villagers were longing for a house made of concrete.
“As I did some of my own research I understood that the houses made of mud in an earthquake-prone zone last longer, are far more sustainable, retain heat in winters and are cool in summers. Unfortunately, nobody in the villages valued the fact that they had 100-year-old houses,” she says.
What is the first image that comes to your mind when you hear the word village? Amala asks.
“My own understanding of villages underwent a lot of change as I started spending time here. These people are ‘freaky’ clean. So much so that the girl whom I stayed with also cleaned the bottom of the basin. They all have Indian toilets; it’s just not flushable but functions just fine, a place to bathe and a washbasin to brush their teeth.”
Though they have so much going for them; good fresh unpolluted air, chemical-free produce year long, and a higher quality of life, they seemed to take great pride in telling people that their daughter would be marrying a city dweller. Their self-esteem was close to zero and that was what Amala had to work on restoring.
“A majority of the men and women at Garwhal village are farmers. They have the means for sustainable living, but their produce is not marketed well.”
“Which is why marketing and selling their organic produce are part of our responsible tourism initiative,” she said.
When asked why she chose to develop a home-stay model, she says, “I have been asked this many times. In fact, some people even suggested that I sell pickles made by the villagers. The first thing is – these villagers don’t make pickles and the second point is I am not good at selling pickles. I wanted to use their inherent skills and mine to make this partnership work. They are hospitable people, and that is what works in our homestay.”
The idea behind SaveAGram is to showcase to the urban dweller what the life in a village is like. They insist on serving food that the villagers eat; most often they are organically grown and sourced.
Amala speaks of the sustainable model of farming that these villagers have been practising for years. These villagers are not poor; they produce enough and more food throughout the year. So while food wise they are rich, they feel economically poor and hence have a very low self-esteem.
Amala feels very strongly about preserving the village lifestyle. She says, “We spend so much money and travel abroad to experience the country and village life when we have such a rich heritage right here in our backyards. It’s time that we explore this.”
What SaveAGram has done for the villagers in Garhwal region is to give them an additional source of income and an avenue to explore other job opportunities without leaving their homes. Many of the villagers have chosen to become tour guides, some conduct classes on the local art, while some others are happy driving the visitors around the village.
“If by establishing these home stays we can stop at least 5 or 10 people from going to the cities to search for jobs then I will consider this initiative as a huge success,” Amala concludes.
In 2015 SaveAGram also established home-stays in Wayanad, Kerala. If you are looking for an experience of a different kind then so check out their website and visit their Facebook page for more information.
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