This is the second of a three-part series on the country Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of
March 9, 2020
What is rural enterprise? Ask this question and nine out of 10 answers will be “agriculture” or “horticulture” or “animal husbandry and dairy”. The tenth answer may be “crafts” or “cottage industries”. Very rarely would you hear “hospitality and resorts”. One must confess that there aren’t many rural hospitality enterprises in our villages, but there is tremendous potential. India has huge potential for catering to the many different segments of tourism that have now emerged, but we cater to very few. It does not take much to meet the demand and there are successful models too; what’s required is patronage and replication.
Women lead the way
Congested concrete jungles have given rise to a new kind of tourism: farm picnics and farm stays. In Ganeshpura, a village in Mehsana district near Ahmedabad, Sewa has brought together a group of village women and established a successful cooperative horticulture enterprise.
Three decades ago, Sewa volunteers began visiting the village and interacting with the women. After initial reluctance and suspicions, they managed to win the trust of a few women and formed a mandali. The women got the village council to lease them a barren, rocky, desolate piece of land on the outskirts of the village and set about turning it into a farm. After back-breaking labour, they today have a thriving farm enterprise totally managed by mandali members consisting of two generations of women – mothers and daughters and mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.
Their latest venture is a community radio station.
After transforming the barren piece of parched land, the women used to initially carry water in pots on their heads to irrigate their plantations. Now they have a borewell, they harvest rainwater and they have a vermiculture initiative too. They grow fruits, spices, vegetables and medicinal herbs and plants.
They have converted a part of their farm cooperative into an eco/farm tourism destination. They host groups from cities for day picnics. Visitors get to see a working farm, relax in the serene orchards, children have a play area and the ladies of Ganeshpura cook them a delicious rustic village meal largely from the produce of their farm. The women entertain visitors with traditional songs, providing a complete farm experience. The Ganeshpura experiment is very successful and is now becoming a replicable enterprise.
Now a new chapter has been added to this rural hospitality enterprise – an AirBNB-type of rural home stay option. Managed by women of the villages where you get to stay in a refurbished village home along with a village family, and a certain level of comfort and hygiene standards are ensured. This initiative too is run by the village women and provides excellent hospitality.
Family enterprises work
In the Konkan, 20 miles from the rail head of Kudal, is the village of Parule. A couple of kilometres away from Parule is a model rural family enterprise, Maachli. An ancestral coconut and betel nut plantation has been expertly turned into a farm stay resort.
The Samants of Parule – father, mother and son – own and run the resort. The son is a trained former hospitality industry professional, the father is a gentleman farmer and the mother is a master chef. They have combined their expertise to create a champion enterprise. It is pretty unbelievable.
You could drive past it without noticing it. The state highway is less than a stone’s throw away but you can’t see it even if you are parked right next to it on the road. A short walk away, exactly 145 steps across a bamboo bridge over a gurgling brook, one is engulfed by a plantation in which nestle six well-appointed farm shacks. This description is not a plug for the resort or a travel review; it is to illustrate how cleverly an ancestral farm has been utilised to create a supportive business.
The plantation, with its coconut and betel nut palms, jackfruit, mango and banana trees, must be earning handsomely but the Samants have very cleverly capitalised on the ambience and the need of the urban populace to get away from the concrete jungle to detox from a relentless and remorseless urban corporate race to offer an ideal therapeutic getaway.
Both, the Ganeshpura mandali and the Samants of Parule, have converted a successful enterprise and diversified into allied ventures that cater to the urban populace. This is rural enterprise at its best – in both places, people from neighbouring villages are getting gainfully employed, doing what they know and do best. They haven’t had to sell off their land to factories in the hope of employment. Both enterprises have restored pride to the rural populace.
At Ganeshpura, if one goes during the harvest season, the women allow visitors to join them in harvesting. At Maachli, which means farmer’s abode, visitors are invited to witness the coconut and betel nut harvest. It helps the urban populace understand and respect the labours of the rural communities.
Create and earn
Anvi Pottery, in Vighavali Village near Mangaon, is another unique village enterprise. It is a potteries and ceramics studio, and training centre. Sandeep Manchekar, a self-taught master potter and ceramics expert, established it in the midst of a farming community in Raigad district of Maharashtra. Today, it is a thriving pottery studio, school and production facility and it has sprouted copycat enterprises in the neighbourhood.
Sandeep initially trained women of the village to work in his studio and production facility; today, they are all skilled craftspersons. Now they create artistic pottery and ceramic products, and train urban citizens wanting to learn the craft. Anvi is run as a training centre and as a production facility. They burn waste wood or firewood grown on their farm and have created a retreat where creative people are encouraged to stay over and create. This is another model of rural social enterprise that is sustainable.
These are models of rural enterprise that must be encouraged, mentored and nurtured. India has the potential in its traditions and culture; we don’t need to copy others. Some out-of-the-box thinking and compassionate patronage is all that rural enterprise requires and then the rural populace will, on its own, stand up and stand proud.
These are examples of what Bapu called ‘going back to the villages’. All three are rural profit centres, gainfully benefiting the neighbourhood and catering to urban populations. Both encourage going back to the villages.
One is a cooperative based on the principal of trusteeship; the other two are private enterprises that along with profits for the owners give gainful employment to the village population in the neighbourhood and celebrate their skills and abilities. Both empower rural communities and make them self-reliant. Village Swaraj in the true sense.
Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation.
Top picture, courtesy Anvi Pottery.