Close to 15 per cent of the population living in the mountainous regions of India depend on springs for their drinking and domestic needs. However, a third of these precious water sources are drying due to climate change, rapid urbanisation and changing land use.
The villagers of Akhegani in Panchgani, Maharashtra, were in a similar situation. They relied on water tankers to meet their daily needs during the summer months. But for over a decade now, the villagers have become self-reliant, as they have now revived and protected the dying springs.
Additionally, over 60 villages in the region have followed suit, benefitting thousands of residents who no longer walk miles to fetch water.
This is all thanks to Grampari, a rural and ecological centre nestled in the laps of the Western Ghats. The NGO is teaching villagers efficient governance by implementing government policies.
However, the founding pillars of Grampari were set way back in 1967, when Jayashree Rao, the Bengaluru-based founder, was only 18 years old.
“I joined an NGO, Initiative of Change (IOfC) operated by Asia Plateau — MRA Center, based in Panchgani, where I received an opportunity to meet members from the international community who were willing to bring positive change in society,” she tells The Better India.
The 72-year-old says she was highly motivated to work for the social cause and decided to quit academics. “I decided not to pursue my graduation and work for the development of the rural community,” she says, adding that she even started a school for children of construction workers during her decade-long stint with the NGO.
In 1976, Jayashree quit and moved to the UK for a few years with her husband. When she returned to Bengaluru in 1982, she started a trading company, JR Rao & Co. “My father was an industrialist making engineering tools, and I decided to use the knowledge and experience from the family to launch an engineering tools trading company. We procured industrial tools and equipment from manufacturers across India and abroad, selling them to the customers,” she explains.
However, around 2006, an incident changed the course of her life. “One day, the company bagged a Rs 1 lakh profit deal by selling machinery. It was a big achievement as our years of hard work had paid off.”
Leaving work that day, Jayashree recalls bargaining with a vegetable vendor for Rs 5. “The vendor agreed as I frequently bought supplies from him, and even though the bargain gave me instant satisfaction, I started feeling ashamed and guilty about my actions. I had just earned Rs 1 lakh profit and was not willing to give away Rs 5 that could help the vendor earn more for his family,” she says.
It was then that she decided to work for a social cause that she cared about deeply.
Springing Into Action
In 2007, the entrepreneur sold her company for Rs 25,000 to the nine employees working at various administrative levels. “I decided to quit and move to Panchgani to start Grampari and empower villagers by giving them lessons on efficient governance,” she says.
“I kept the fixed deposits from the company, which was not significant, but it helped me start afresh,” she says.
She says, “When I shifted, I decided to train villagers in governance as I believed it to be the most effective path for working towards the development of the rural community. The government appoints 19 officials at various levels in a village and has issued multiple schemes for benefiting the villages. However, the village head and government officials need to make effective use of them. I read a news article about a Sarpanch in Bihar implementing government policies to create a model village and I wanted to empower such villages in the same way.”
Jayashree says she started reaching out to men and women in the area to speak about governance. “It was a terrible failure. The villagers were least interested and found excuses for not attending the meetings. They were more interested in learning something that could earn them money. To build connections with the locals and serve their monetary needs, I started inviting them to prepare clay lamps for the Diwali festival and sell them at the IOfC centre,” she adds.
As they became more acquainted, the villagers shared their water woes with Jayashree. “The springs were either drying up or were contaminated. Coincidently, there was a US-based hydrologist Jared Buono at the IOfC who volunteered to help. He came up with a solution to clean and protect the springs from further contamination through unique concrete covered tanks. The tanks stored spring water and prevented contamination, delivering clean water to the villagers,” she explains.
This was how their first project was initiated in Akhegani, and it improved the health of the villagers dramatically. Inspired by the results, other villagers started requesting the same.
Over 60 such spring rejuvenation and protection projects have ended up benefitting over 40,000 villagers.
She adds that water scarcity often creates conflicts among people, and it can become intense in villages. “When residents approached us, we put forth the condition that everyone had to contribute physical labour to the project. So, in this case, the water became a unifying factor. Locals readily decided to resolve conflicts for the collective good,” she says.
Jayashree says that slowly, she started other livelihood projects for women and discussed governance issues with the villagers too.
‘Would Not Trade This Life For Another’
Since then, the NGO has been actively involved in sustainable development of the villages like working on self-governance, strengthening local institutions, grooming ethical leaders and empowering women. “We facilitate leadership development through training Panchayat Raj institutions and implementing the teachings in sanitation, hygiene, organic farming, conflict resolution and others,” Jayashree says.
Citing an example, Jayashree says that one of their hand sanitisation projects — Tippy Tap, helped reduce the spread of disease among children. “We implemented the project in 162 schools and saw an increase in handwashing habits among children by 80 per cent,” Jayashree says.
The various initiatives have impacted close to 1.22 lakh residents across 200 villagers, claims the founder.
Kamal More, a villager at Godavali and part of the livelihood project, says her life changed for good after being associated with Grampari in 2016. “My husband is a daily wager, and we always face financial crunches. The condition worsened to the extent that I could not afford educating my son and daughter. To overcome our financial crisis, I joined the NGO to start earning through various livelihood projects,” she shares.
She adds that since then, she has been earning a steady income which has helped her children study and build a career. “The financial condition of the family is much better today. Like me, there are hundreds of women who had never stepped out of the house before but now have become financially independent and living a better life,” she adds.
Looking back at her achievements over the years, Jayashree says that changing the mindset of the villagers was her biggest challenge she faced. “The villagers often expect immediate change. Also, they are not always willing to work for your cause and have their pace of completing the work. Perseverance is the value I learned the most among many others,” she says.
She adds, “The donations and institutions contributing for the social cause only helped to run the NGO and serve my basic needs. I could not live the lifestyle or travel the way I followed before working for the social cause, but I would not trade my life for anything else.”
Today, her daughter Archana and two other members Prathamesh Murkute and Dipak Jadhav, run the organisation.
The new generation of leaders say they plan to extend the work of protecting springs across the Western Ghats and implementing more governance policies across villages.
Edited by Yoshita Rao