Varoti is like a desert in the proximity of an ocean. Situated about 70 km from the fledging city of Pune, the village is surrounded by several high-capacity storage dams such as Panshet, Varasgaon and Khadakvasla. But the dams were built to cater to the growing water requirements of city dwellers, ignoring the villages around them.
Varoti is in Velha block, the most underdeveloped administrative block in Pune district. There was one state transport bus that was plying daily to this village, but it stopped recently. From each of the 55 families, at least one man has migrated to either Pune or Mumbai for work.
While Velha receives an annual average rainfall of 20 cm to 25 cm during the monsoon, being in the Sahyadri mountain ranges of the Western Ghats, March, April, May and June are months of drudgery and a familiar scene of long trudge for village women and girls to fetch drinking water. Fetching drinking water can take two to three hours of an arduous trek that entails climbing a steep mountain.
Successive governments have addressed the problem. About 25 years ago, the government designed and implemented a piped water supply scheme. It functioned for a few years but lack of maintenance made it dysfunctional. Efforts were made to revive the defunct scheme but all efforts remained either on paper or did not get approval from government departments.
Beginning in 2015, the villagers came together and took lead in addressing this long persisting issue. Eleven of the village’s youth working in cities contributed Rs 1,000 each to begin work on construction of a well. The site of the well was the dried up bed of the stream.
However, the budget for dredging was close to Rs 5 lakh. So, the villagers approached Jnana Prabodhini, a non-profit that has been working in the area for over 30 years and undertakes several developmental interventions.
Jnana Prabodhini decided to facilitate fund-raising only on the condition that the villagers had to be at the forefront of all efforts. The villagers readily agreed. Relevant sums were mobilised from the alumni of JP school and Persistent Foundation, the corporate social responsibility initiative of an Information Technology firm in Pune.
Over three seasons from 2015 to 2017, a well with a depth of 33 feet and diameter of 30 feet was constructed. The representatives of Persistent and the JP alumni came together in March 2017 to inaugurate the well. The occasion was aptly called Lokarpan Sohala (function to dedicate to the community). It was an occasion to celebrate a new model of corporate social responsibility engagement.
The Varoti model has demonstrated a different and active kind of qualitative engagement of all three stakeholders, active in the real sense of the term. Firstly, it is the villagers who led the activity right from the beginning. Secondly, it is the efforts of the facilitating NGO that insisted right from the beginning that it will play a subordinate role and that it was not under pressure to spend money if there was not sufficient support and participation from the community if the issue was not central to them.
Thirdly, the corporate foundation did not see its role merely as a funder. It saw an opportunity to educate its employees to be more responsive and participate actively, through the offering of voluntary labour.
For the Varoti village community, it took close to three years of patient waiting till everyone was willing to contribute and saw the benefit of having this activity in their village. For the facilitating NGO, Varoti was one among 15 such projects that were simultaneously happening in the pre-summer months. However, its volunteers made sure they did not rush the community to agree to something and promised funds because there was a compulsion to spend the funds before March 31 that would have been repeating the same mistakes and lack of ownership.
For the corporate foundation, the actions of the leadership set an example. The employees of the IT firm, both men and women in the age group of 25-35, offered labour on every Saturday and Sunday during the year. A total of over 120 volunteers travelled to the village during the year. In an encouraging development, employees from another IT company also joined in.
On a typical Saturday, one particular batch would travel to the village in the morning, work with the villagers and return to the city in the evening. While the blasting of the well and similar work was done using earthmovers and other machinery, the human chain formed by volunteers would then clear the debris on Saturday. Thus the work progressed with speed.
As a result, over three years of sustained action, the well-deepening work got completed. Subsequently, the well was dedicated to the village in the presence of some volunteers and the village community. The completed well assured that in the ensuing summer season, women would not have to trek far to fetch drinking water.
Taking the lead
What does Varoti model mean to the blue-collar workers in air-conditioned offices in metropolitan cities who are by the nature of their work generally removed from the stark realities of village life? It offers possible opportunities for employees to connect and, in the process, start developing empathy for the plight of citizens who are less privileged.
For Varoti’s villagers, especially women, availability of water near their homes and that too almost round the year is a dream come true. For long, they had waited for someone to alleviate their situation. But it was only when they took the matters in their own hands, that change happened. The breakthrough in Varoti positively reinforces the often-repeated cliché that self-help is the best help.
The effort that goes in these interventions is often relegated to the background. To the credit of the villagers, they did not stay behind in extending their help in terms of offering labour but also ensuring that the documentation of the well that was deepened was fast-tracked with the help of the facilitating NGO in the records of the government.
Varoti is a true model of partnership that builds bridges among the city-based urban youth through the CSR route, the facilitating NGOs and the villages so close yet so far from the mind space of the city elite. The partnership is equal in the sense that it does not overemphasise the importance of money channelised through the CSR funds.
Ajit Kanitkar is a Consultant for Tata Education and Development Trust and a researcher at the Centre for Development and Research in Pune. He taught at the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, from 1992 to 1995.
This article first appeared on Village Square.