Even the gods make way for progress. Waghdev, who guards Purushwadi village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district from wild animals, and the tribal goddess Zakoobai, who, villagers belive is so powerful that she upturns idols of Maruti into the river, have now learnt to share space with new gods like Shiva, Ram and even Nirankari Baba.
Off the Ghoti-Sangamner highway, a winding road leads to the remote lair of Pur Oonch Wadi (Hamlet on the hill). Here Dattatraya Kondar, or “Dattaji”, 24, in an XLRI Jamshedpur tee and jeans underneath his kurta-dhoti, welcomes guests with a tray of kumkum and hibiscus. “Welcome to Purushwadi. I am your guide,” he says in rehearsed Hindi. Then, he cranks a rechargeable lantern and guides us in the fading twilight down hilly paths, passing by the river, the fields and the huts of the 109 families of his tribe.
The hosts: The villagers of Purushwadi pull out all the stops to welcome guests. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
In the pitch dark, they tell you tigers come. They make you switch off your lantern, close your eyes and reopen them to get accustomed to the dark. The blanket of shooting stars makes you forget the toilets are still primitive here. Pitch a tent under a banyan tree. Only in the morning do they let you know you were sleeping on a 200-year-old ancestral grave.
The Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), a non-governmental organization (NGO) for water conservation, had been working in Purushwadi for five years when Grassroutes won a grant from WOTR and registered itself as a service-oriented private limited company (Grassroutes calls it an “UnLtd” company)—in 2006. For local boys like Datta, who tried to be a courier boy in Mumbai eight years ago, it meant not having to leave the village in search of employment again.
An XIM Bhubaneswar class field study recently indicated Purushwadi’s average household income rose 20% over a two-year period since 2008. Grassroutes invests Rs 17 lakh and two-three years to make a village tourist-ready—setting up toilets, tents, training villagers. Then, it markets the village to tour groups. Grassroutes has three villages in Maharashtra—Purushwadi, Walvanda and Shiroshi.
Inir Pinheiro, a founder-member of Grassroutes and an awardee of the Karmaveer Puraskaar for Social Justice and Citizen Action 2008-09, explains why they follow a “for profit” business model: “For sustainability, you must have environmental, social and financial sustainability. Village systems are socially stable because the community is at the centre.
Environmentally, the community ensures people don’t tear down fields to put up hotels. Financially, ventures depend on grants. Once a grant dries up, you have to make sure the tourist returns to ensure this sustains.”
Forty-five per cent to 50% of the money from each tourist goes towards paying “service providers” such as guides, housekeepers, and cooks—functions villagers share on a rota basis; and into a corpus fund for the village. The rest of the money pays Grassroutes salaries, marketing costs, etc. “The fund is in a joint bank account with our NGO partner (WOTR),” Pinheiro says. Villagers can apply for the fund for anything except religious or political purposes. It also ensures that villagers who don’t participate directly in tourism benefit.
A village committee ensures the villagers have a say in all processes—including deciding their rates. “I get Rs 60 as a guide, Rs 50 is my per day labour when I work in the fields,” Dattaji explains.
The village police liaison, “Police Patil” Poppatrao Kondar, 50, a committee member, says: “The biggest benefit has been to women. They also get money for their cooking now—Rs 3 for tea, Rs 10 for breakfast, Rs 30 for a meal.”
Some villagers stayed aloof. Ramnath Kondar, who once opposed it, now leases his house to Grassroutes for tourists to sleep in. “Everyone understands money,” Pinheiro says. The corpus fund is now Rs 1.45 lakh over four years, Police Patil says.
Komal Kondar, 14, a class IX student, wants to be an engineer. She runs to meet the women bankers and engineers on holiday. “I can also be like them,” she chirps. An old man demands a lantern of his own, and wants Pinheiro to buy one for him. “What do you think? I don’t have Rs 1,000?” he asks, offended. Thanks to the tourists, now they do.