"I will choose 5000 over 15000"
Updated: Nov 8, 2019
Experiences of a rural youth who migrated to Mumbai in search of a better life but ultimately returned back to find it in his own village.
Once extremely hesitant to strike a conversation with the tourists visiting his village, Duttatrey Kondar has now trained around a thousand villagers across four states in India on managing operations in the context of community-based rural tourism. His transformation from being an ordinary rural youth who had migrated to the city in search of job opportunities to becoming a ‘master trainer' empowering rural communities to develop their villages into sustainable tourism hubs is inspiring for anyone interested in the rural development space.
Popularly known as Dutta, Duttatrey Kondar belongs to the Mahadev Koli tribe hailing from a remote village called Purushwadi in the Akole block of Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra. While this region of Maharashtra receives very heavy rainfall during monsoons, its undulated topography causes water runoff making sustainable agriculture extremely difficult. This has led to increased distressed migration of the youth to nearby cities in search of job opportunities.
Pursuit of a better life
Intrigued by Nature and mocked by his friends for being a dreamer, Dutta was inspired to explore the forests around his village. Failing to clear his tenth grade exams,he had dropped out of school in 2000. He started contributing in the farm along with other family members, occasionally dabbling in part-time plumbing related jobs with fellow villagers. Like others in the village he too sought opportunities for acquiring skills commensurate with a job in Mumbai .It was through an NGO working in his village – Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) – that he learnt about the free certificate courses offered by an industrial training institute (ITI) in a neighbouring town. His interest and experience in plumbing encouraged him to take up a year-long course in plumbing. On completion, he migrated to Mumbai in search of a job and a better life.
Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan
It took Dutta almost a week in Mumbai to locate his first job with a contractor who provided hospitality management services to various residencies and corporate offices.
“It might have been easy to find a job as security guard,” smiles Dutta, “but owing to my lean physique I got rejected every time!”
Based in Kalyan, he was assigned to work near Goregaon, the western suburbs of Mumbai. The daily commute of almost 47 kms would last more than four hours in crowded local trains -something he had not anticipated before coming to Mumbai! Yet the urge to earn a living kept him going.
On 1st January 2004, while Dutta was on his way to work from Kalyan by train, a foot overbridge collapsed on a second class compartment of his train killing two persons and injuring six. All trains on that route were immediately suspended. Dutta, without anticipating any trouble ahead, went straight to his office. While returning from work he found, to his dismay, that there were very few trains available. He was unable to get on to any train even after having struggled for two hours amidst raging crowds. Desperate to reach home, he climbed up on the coupling between two train compartments and travelled till Thane from CSTM without worrying about his safety.
“I understand that everyone is facing similar issues, but this is not how we live in our villages. There is more value to an individual’s life”
he says. Reflecting on his experience, he realized that he had never actually asked his fellow villagers about their struggles in Mumbai. This was certainly not how he had imagined his life would turn out. Packing his bags he made his way back to Purushwadi the following day.
A new beginning:
The incident made Dutta realize that earning ₹ 5000 in his village was far more profitable compared to earning ₹ 15000 in the city.
Things began to look up for him in 2006 when Inir Pinheiro, founder of Grassroutes Journeys, a social enterprise based in Mumbai, in partnership with a local NGO, reached out to the villagers of Purushwadi. Pinheiro mooted the idea of setting up a community-based rural tourism programme as an alternate livelihood opportunity in the village. The idea took time to appeal to young minds as most were hesitant about interacting with tourists and urban dwellers in a language other than Marathi! The assurance of handholding support and training encouraged Dutta along with three others. Multiple training sessions, practice, and empathetic handholding paved the way for the project.
Come 2008 and tourist footfall gradually increased in the village. By then Dutta had become well-versed in engaging the visitors, providing them with an extremely comfortable and homely atmosphere. It did not take long for him to become the most favoured and popular guide of Purushwadi. His knowledge of the village ecosystem imparted a story-like feeling to his ‘guide-speech’ narrative while his ability to gauge client needs fetched him more brownie points.
In 2009, Grassroutes organized its first firefly festival based on a natural phenomenon just before the arrival of monsoons with millions of fireflies lighting up the forest and valleys around Purushwadi. Anticipating more tourists the following year Dutta, along with two others, was entrusted with the responsibility of identifying neighbouring villages for hosting tourists. His ‘dreamer’ image often dissuaded people from taking him seriously. This made him hesitant to approach neighbouring villages. Having decided to back out initially he put in his best efforts later, however. This change of heart came about on reflecting how this alternate livelihood initiative had helped him and others in the village. He successfully managed to set up a neighbouring village for the next firefly season.
Transformation from guide to trainer:
In January 2016, an NGO approached Grassroutes for conducting a similar intervention in the forest fringe villages of the Pench tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh. Dutta was selected as master trainer for training the villagers who belonged to the Gond tribal community. This was his first assignment outside Maharashtra. Dealing with language and cultural barriers he adjusted to his situation within a month. Building a good rapport with the community, he mobilized and trained its members in all the key aspects of community-based tourism. As a result, he was looked up to as both a mentor and coach in those villages. Apart from the empathetic support of Sushma Mishra, operations head of Grassroutes, the natural forest setting and his ecological knowledge served to bring out the best in him, not to mention his coaching and mentoring skills. This was just the beginning as a trainer for Grassroutes. Till date, he has administered training sessions in the villages of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. He has also conducted a session for senior officials from the forest department on livelihood opportunities along the forest fringe villages at the Institute of Rural Management Anand.
Building capacities at the grassroots:
Dutta got married in 2012 and is blessed with a son and daughter. During his free time, he likes to explore the forests and collect things he finds interesting. Realizing the demand for indigenous and organic food in the cities he has started cultivating indigenous varieties of rice and mangoes. He also wants to set up a training centre in his village for grassroots’ entrepreneurs interested in community-based rural tourism.
Dutta’s struggle as a Mumbai immigrant finds resonance with many rural youths who leave their villages in search of better prospects without being aware of the challenges ahead. Dutta’s strong realization that he doesn’t want to live in the city and his decision to return was not easy given his financial circumstances and social environment replete with pressures. His transformation into a confident trainer and mentor for rural youths highlights the need to build capacities at the local level and create a basket of options, like rural tourism, to help improve livelihood opportunities in villages while reducing distressed migration.
Bhavesh Sawariya is an aspiring entrepreneur in the community based rural tourism space. He currently works with ISEED and is associated with a rural tourism initiative in villages of Kerala called Graamya. He has worked with Grassroutes Journeys after completing his fellowship with India Fellow, a 13 month long leadership development programme. This blog is based on his interactions with Dutta and Grassroutes team members. Views are personal.
Edited by: Mrs Indrani Talukdar
Pictures courtesy: Abhishek Thakur (Dutta's portrait), Manal Jain (Fireflies) and Grassroutes Journeys Pvt Ltd. (Rest)