In every village of India, there is a story that has escaped the notice of tourist brochures. An organisation called Grassroutes is working on empowering farmers, artisans, housewives and other members of village communities to share the centuries-old skills and traditions with visitors. What urban and international tourists and trekkers get is a chance to be a part of the authentic village experience. The initiative has succeeded in increasing revenue to village populations. The community in Purushwadi, for instance, earned at least Rs 7 lakh in June. Sushma Mishra, of Grassroutes, explains how they tapped the hidden potential of rural tourism through the example of Bajarwadi, their latest programme:
How do you structure the programme for rural tourism without alienating the villagers who live there?
In each village that we take up as a project, people go through this training process. They are the village service providers and the training programmes are on guiding skills, communication skills, hospitality skills, cleanliness and hygiene, emergency situation handling, safety training, snake and reptile awareness. The training is an ongoing process. New people, who were not convinced earlier and are willing to get involved in the project now, start coming in once they see the success of the programme.
We try to be a connect between what the city people would expect and what the rural communities need to provide. We also connect with the urban population, about what are the things that would be available. We tell them that, for instance, there is no fixed menu of bread and butter. We provide whatever is the traditional cuisine in the village, however the lady of the house has prepared it through the years.We bring the urban and rural parties on the same stage. Once the training has happened, the entire project is in their hands.
There is a village development committee that gets formed at the end of two years and they take a call and decide how much money should be charged for a trip and food, rental for the space, etc. Once the capacity building is done, we become the outsiders. We are clear that this is their project and not ours.
How does a visit to the village of Bajarwadi become a unique experience for city dwellers?
The beautiful thing about the villages of India are the histories that are hidden at their heart. Bajarwadi, for instance, was a marketplace for the soldiers in Shivaji Maharaj’s army. There is a fort called Rohida Fort that the great maharaj had visited and, according to legend, was surprised by the absence of a temple in it. That’s how the fort also got the name Vichitragadh. On a visit to the village, you can trek to the fort to stand on the watchtowers as the sentries did long ago. One of the amazing elements of the fort is a series of reservoirs.
At the top of the fort, the reservoir had drinking water. The next level was for washing vessels, the third was for washing clothes or animals and the last one was for washing the house. It was a step-wise construction that was huge and perennially filled. Even now, if you go in summer months, the first cistern is filled with water. I have drunk water from there in May and the water was sweet as it is filled naturally with groundwater or rainwater.
The value of a location increases if a visit to a historical monument is complemented with a sharing of lived experiences.
How do you enable this in a village like Bajarwadi?
That is one of the strongest features of the tour. You meet the older generation, which still has the sense of pride and attitude that dates to the time of Shivaji Maharaj. They still wear the old-style kurtas and pyjamas. The youngsters have changed because they have had exposure to the outside world. The elder generation has a treasure trove of stories about ‘Shivaji Maharaj ke time’. The visitors are constantly interacting with the locals, from the guide to the women and girls who work in the fields, cook and serve.
You live with them as they store rice in hundis, pound the grains to remove the husks and winnow the rice before cooking. You learn how wood is chopped and arranged to light the chulha and why houses that are plastered with cow dung are warm in winter and cool in summer. In Bajarwadi, there is aarti in the temple every evening, where everybody gets together. These are experiences that a city dweller would not have otherwise.
How challenging is it for Grassroutes, which is an urban organisation, to work on a project in a village?
In Bajarwadi, Godrej and Boyce has played a pivotal role in giving support to the organisation for the tourism project. The company has been working in Bajarwadi for 5-6 years for integrated village development under corporate social responsibility. The objective of Godrej, in partnership with Grassroutes Journeys, is to make income-generating situations available to communities in Bajarwadi through rural tourism so that they become self-dependent. We took up the project in March 2017 and the first step was to talk to the villagers and understand whether they wanted the project.
Did they think it was a good idea?
We try and build a rapport. We try to get feedback from them that they wanted the project to happen. Even if two people in the entire community are ready to get involved, we go ahead with the project. We take them to one of our other centres so that they can interact with those villagers, understand how that project has been successful. When they return with their feedback, we discuss their doubts. We spend a lot of effort in building trust. Besides this, we do not change anything on the ground. When the tourists come in, they are welcomed with aarti in the traditional way, but the local guide explains the rules to them about not drinking, smoking or indulging in any criminal activity or doing drugs. Visitors sign an indemnity form reiterating these points.
How did Grassroutes take up the initiative of rural tourism to empower villagers?
Grassroutes has been operational for 14 years and was started by Inir Pinheiro with the idea of creating livelihood for people in villages. We are in four states, doing much the same thing as in Bajarwadi. Initially, we started with an NGO — WOTR — which was working predominantly in Purushwadi in Maharashtra. We were trying to understand how to bring about a change in the lives of people and make them dependent on themselves. We considered tours as an option, and began working on building up the hospitality sector, and building capacity in the village, and making village residents skilled in catering to tourists, as this would ensure a stream of income.
Once the finances are met, work happens very smoothly. We started talking to people. Initially, there were four or five who were open to the idea that if tourism happens in their village, they will be able to earn more. We got these few people on board initially, out of a 105 households in the village. Now, we are working with 95 households where, in June, the entire village earned an income of Rs 7 lakh through tourism. This was distributed to different communities based on the services they were providing, such as guiding services, hospitality and cooking food, which is done by the women, housekeeping, campsite manager and supervisor, among others.