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An IIT-ian's vision for rural India

By Amrit Barman
December 14, 2006 14:41 IST
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Diary entry: November 2022, Detroit: I am 55 today. In six hours, I will be on a plane to Pune, where my son Rohan works with Bell Labs.

And in 72 hours; I will be in Govindpur, 150 km south of Pune -- where I am to inaugurate an auditorium on Saturday. And, all said and done, where the only significant achievements of my life thrive -- the rest having being buried under corporate restructurings and market forces.

Fifteen years ago, in 2007, when I had browsed through the Web pages of the 'Plant a village' movement and willed myself to commit to $400 a month for the next 15 years, I had not imagined the magnitude of the decision. At that time, it was the equivalent of something that I paid for a single insurance policy; today it is nothing.

I had chosen the village at random from a list of villages in Maharashtra, my native state. Of course, they had also made me promise to visit Govindpur once every year for the period that I sponsored the village. Neat trick.

I remember that trip in 2008. It was cold, and hopeless. I found that I now had an office with an officer -- all of which cost me $50 a month. The officer was a 25-year-old Mihir who knew a splattering of English and has no job scope! And, I had none to offer him!

Still, I stayed in Govindpur for all of four days in a surprisingly nice cottage adjoining the house of the village head, was also the biggest landowner. I was generally relaxed and looking for small things that could make a big difference. But, in general, I was relaxing.

I realised that this was farm country and that agriculture was everything. And that the animals were thin and dirty. And so were the kids. And, that people were poor -- almost all of them. And that I was the typical hypocrite NRI.

In the next few weeks, I chose a few key areas -- farming and educating mothers. The 'Plant a Village' guys had it down to pat. They had connected me into Gramin Finance, had an agricultural advisory group and an education group too.

The principal of the run-down school was only too happy to collaborate and I offered him $50 a month from my $400 kitty to simply clean up the premises and to keep it very clean. And another $100 to start a parallel programme to educate all the mothers in the village.

The 'Plant a Village' guys had a course that was aimed at doing just that and we simply adopted it. With all the aais in the village literate, we reasoned that in a generation, we would have a fully literate village. How clear, simple and correct that vision turned out to be!

The agricultural division of 'Plant a Village' made a few recommendations and the micro-finance guys came forward to sponsor the few improvements needed. Of course, general disbelief led to resistance. So, in 2009, I decided to invest in a farm to serve as a role model.

A confident and hard-working lad, Mohan, was given charge of doing it the right way. It worked, and by 2011, the entire village was producing more than triple of what it had in 2007.

By 2010, my wife, Mamta was also hooked to Govindpur. She joined me on our annual trips and volunteered to work with the ladies and old folks to create a handicrafts industry. Her friends in the retail sector in the States helped and in three years, Govindpur was making a lot of money selling earthern pots and jute jewellery!! Wow. . . the ways of the world!

By 2012, most of Govindpur was a relatively prosperous place. But, then, there were two bad years -- drought followed by flood. Our efforts received a major set-back and for more than three years we worked with the 'Plant a Village - Disaster Recovery Group' to bring things back to where they were. Their insistence on setting up a 'Rainy Day Fund' had saved Govindpur from major disaster. In fact, as I learnt later, it had saved thousands of Govindpurs from disaster over the years.

Over the years, Govindpur has sweetly and neatly carved out a week off our family's annual calendar, sometimes more. We still have the farm and Mohan is now married and has teenage kids who run a motor car repair workshop in the now prosperous village. We also have a house there and it is connected to our house here in Detroit and we get to have almost face to face meetings with our friends there once in a while. Yes, Govindpur is connected to the world! And 100 per cent free of poverty and hunger.

The 'Plant a Village' movement that took off in 2007 has already found 15,000 sponsors (just like me) and has moved 15,000 villages to prosperity. It has given 15,000 of us the joy of really finding our roots and the satisfaction of having made a difference.

More importantly, it has made India confident of blossoming from within -- without the support of the global economy. I would rate that a contribution comparable to the IT revolution itself.

I am looking forward to meeting with Rohan. I am also looking forward to meeting with my extended family at Govindpur. This week, when they inaugurate the new auditorium, I will be there.

In fact, I will inaugurate the auditorium that would carry my mother's name. Initially, I had felt very queasy about the naming. But, finally, I felt that I needed to give my adopted family the opportunity of bonding with my blood family. And so, it will be, the Sumathi Jagtap Auditorium in Govindpur, Maharashtra.

Thank you, 'Plant a Village' for everything.

The author is a B.Tech (Hons) graduate from IIT Kharagpur. He is vice president (international business), Emerio Corporation.

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