Recently India witnessed one of the biggest farmer agitations ever in Mumbai. Farmers walked for 180 kms to demand their rights and make several other demands. Among the demands was a request to waive off farm loans.
But is waiving off loans year after year a solution to farming woes? Aren’t we pushing farmers in loan traps by just waiving off the previous one? Aren’t we responsible enough to give them a permanent and sustainable solution for their problems?
These were the questions that haunted actor and activist Rajshri Deshpande when she heard about the constant farmer suicides in Maharashtra in 2015.
Rajshri, who was born and brought up in a farmers’ family in Aurangabad, couldn’t take this.
“My ancestors were farmers. Even though my father was a government employee, he farmed too. I have seen all the ups and downs of farming. We were cotton growers in Bhokardan near Aurangabad. But then water scarcity and drought made it difficult to farm. So my father sold our land and shifted to Aurangabad for work. My parents worked hard to educate their three daughters. I have seen their struggle,” she says, speaking to The Better India.
Rajshri started working at the age of 17 while studying law in Symbiosis Institute, Pune. After years of struggle, by 2003 Rajshri owned an advertising company, ‘Czar Content’ and had earned enough to buy all the luxuries of life.
“I was doing everything I ever wanted to do. But then there was something that was missing. I was not able to feel happy anymore,” she says.
With the support of her husband and parents, Rajshri quit her business and moved to Mumbai in 2009 to pursue a career in cinema and the arts.
At the same time, she also began travelling to various parts of the country to explore and began social activities through friends.
“I never said no to anyone who asked for help. I have worked for Dharavi Dairy, Boodhnoor Vaidyashala and SOS Papa – with whom I went to Nepal after the second massive earthquake.”
The ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’ actress then decided to drive to the villages which were witnessing drought.
As she belonged to farmers’ family, she first visited her relatives in Parbhani, Beed, Latur, Jalna etc. After absorbing some ground realities, she visited even more villages – ones that are never spoken about.
“I started researching on this issue and found out that there have been many projects going on with an investment as big as Rs 300-400 crore. But there was no real work going on in small villages, which lacked even basic infrastructure,” she informs.
Things changed in 2015 when Rajshri visited a small village known as Pandhri in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, the villagers took her suggestions lightly, saying that many people come and suggest many things but no one works for them.
This hit Rajshri hard, and she decided to start working in this tiny village with a population of 2000.
“Drought was the major issue there. I noticed that everyone in the village has a borewell. The water table was going down with every passing year!” she notes.
Rajshri had a saving of Rs 1 lakh, with which she could have arranged for water tankers for the villagers. However, she was not there to make a temporary settlement.
For her, a sustainable solution for these villages was essential. She took help from her friends in the film industry and raised some money.
Her friend Makrand Anaspure helped her with a Pokland machine (an earth mover), and this fiery lady went all alone to do rainwater harvesting in Pandhri.
“It took me months to earn the trust of the villagers. All I did was to sit and listen to them. When you listen only then you understand and only when you understand you can come out with a solution,” says the actress, who is going to portray the character of Ismat Chugtai in Nandita Das’s upcoming movie ‘Manto’.
After months of regular visits to the village and constant counselling, Rajshri had 50 villagers by her side who started working on rainwater conservation.
Today the village has enough water for the entire village for the whole year!
Rajshri, who is also playing the character of Savitribai Phule in the upcoming Marathi movie Satyashodhak, says she got the inspiration of transforming villages from the lady herself.
“I can’t tell you how happy I was when the well filled with water after the second rain. People didn’t realise its importance after the first rains, but when they had enough drinking water for the entire year, they were overwhelmed.”
The next task was even more difficult. The village hardly had any toilets, and the villagers were used to open defecation. Rajshri took up this task too and encouraged each villager to finish up the paperwork to get a subsidy for toilets. She then asked them to build their own toilets.
“I could have raised funds to build the toilets. But when you make something with your own hands, you value that more. Hence I asked them to build their own toilets.”
Once the toilets were built, she even went door-to-door to ask villagers to use the toilets and not to defecate in the open!
“Change is possible! Just go and talk to the person who needs you, that is also a huge work. Just doing your work in a village and going away will not make inside of them transform. Spend time with them, educate them, make them beautiful inside out. You need not even have to travel hundreds of kilometres to make a difference. Just see your surroundings. Help your house help, make the community workers feel good about their work. Don’t wait for a selfie zone or a beach cleaning drive, just make sure your building or your complex is clean,” she says passionately.
After working in villages for more years, Rajshri realized that more villages need her and thus she has registered her NGO recently, naming it ‘Nabhangan’, which means The courtyard of Sky.
“One person can do a lot. You can just sit at your place and make a difference if you do your work right.”
Currently, Nabhangan foundation’s focus will be on the work being done in Pandhari and Math Jalgaon villages.
Their immediate activities are as follows:
1) Pandhari village:
– Rainwater harvesting for a five-km patch.
– Construction of four rooms and six toilets for the school.
2) Mathjalgaon village:
– Rainwater harvesting for a seven km patch.
– ZP school needs fencing and eight toilets
– Banjara (Tanda area school ) needs six toilets and work on the existing building (roof repair for two rooms, building a new room, painting, windows & doors )
If you wish to help, you can donate through the details below –
Union Bank of India – Mumbai
A/c : 728301010050104
IFSC : UBIN0572837
Nabhangan Foundation is now a Section 8 Not For Profit company.
A Mechanical Engineer-turned-writer, Manabi finds solace in writing stories about unsung heroes. Nothing makes her happier than the impact emails from her readers. Other than writing, she loves listening to the stories told by her six year old daughter. Manabi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find her tweets @manabi5