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Traveling to the Heart of India

"No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness" - Aristotle

 A young man, fresh out of graduate school and armed with a degree in Rural Management from Xavier Institute of Management (Bhubaneswar) chose a path not taken by many of his peers.

Meet Inir Pinheiro – the man behind Grassroutes.

“It was in early 2006 when I met Crispino Lobo, the founding director and Marcella D’Souza, the executive director of the Watershed Organization Trust’s (WOTR) operations at Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Even at that time I was full of ideas and really wanted a platform to transform those ideas into reality,” starts Inir with uninterrupted enthusiasm, over a telephonic conversation from Mumbai – the place where he grew up and currently resides.

Incidentally, at that time, WOTR was looking to expand its livelihood generation activities to include eco tourism. And Inir had been harboring a childhood dream of promoting tourism in the villages along the Konkan coast. However, this time he envisaged tourism with a difference, explains Inir, amidst continuous phone calls from clients on the other line, “The main difference between mainstream tourism and this project is that it’s primarily led by the community by showcasing their lifestyle and culture, thereby providing learning and nourishment to the tourist.”

Inir’s idea was supported by WOTR and they proceeded to identify a village, which could serve as a pilot to promote this innovative model of livelihood promotion. It was decided that the pilot village should be relatively close to Mumbai so that tourists could reach the spot easily by road. But for that, the village would have to be equipped with bare necessities such as water and sanitation to support the tourist. And most importantly, the team felt that it was crucial that the village community feel that the tourism potential should aid their livelihoods rather than bind them and control them.

“But the ride wasn’t so easy,” chuckles Inir. The villagers of Purushwadi were familiar with WOTR and its personnel. But when the community tourism project was proposed, it was initially met with some resistance and, “The first few people to go there as tourists were my friends and family. And the villagers obviously did not quite know how to react,” adds Inir.

The team then called for a meeting with the villagers and discussed how community managed rural tourism can create more income earning opportunities and provide avenues for infrastructure development in the village. Some of the households volunteered to be a part of this exercise and joined in the pilot project. These participating people were given intensive training on hospitality and cooking to cater to the needs of visiting tourists. The training was essentially given so that the tour guides and housekeepers would be able to host visitors with acceptable service, and cook less pungent food palatable to the tastes of any tourist.

The participating households hosted a few groups of tourists before the monsoon season of 2006. The outcome was that urban tourists from different walks of life went back satisfied with the experience as well as this amazing concept. On the other hand, the families who hosted the visitors had suddenly discovered an additional source of income without migrating to the city for work.

Says Inir, “I feel that’s when the shift happened and the villagers saw actual potential in this endeavor.” When the community started working with WOTR on the rural tourism project, the infrastructure was very minimal. There were two rooms and one toilet to serve the visiting tourists. The existing grants were utilized for acquiring mattresses, linen and solar lanterns. Also, the number of tourists visiting Purushwadi was increasing slowly but surely. But to manage the inflow of funds in a systematic manner and to utilize it properly for community development, it was decided that the project will have to start working independently. A proprietorship was therefore launched in the name of Grassroutes, with a separate bank account and an independent website in 2008. This helped the idea take a solid shape and contributed in building the operations and infrastructure requirements of tourism in the village.

Today, there’s been a 15-25% increase in the average annual income of over 50% of the villagers, boosting local economies by Rs. 6,00,000 to 9,00,000 per year. In 2011-12, an audit conducted by the Grassroute’s team showed that 90 of the 105 households in Purushwadi were involved in tourism, earning anything between Rs. 5,000 to 15,000 per year.

Apart from being a valuable source of income generation for the villagers, for Inir and his team, the Grassroutes experience is all about, “Letting someone from the city live like a villager for a few days – try milking a cow, chop firewood, sow rice and wheat or even put cow dung on the floor. And return home with a renewed sense of respect for communities and their diverse cultures,” shares Inir.