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Changing Lives of Tribals in Gujarat
April 12, 2015
Changing Lives of Tribals in Gujarat

Located amidst picturesque and dense Polo forest, the tribals in Vanaj village, about 150 km north of Ahmedabad, for centuries survived on subsistence farming and labour. Most of these tribals have land holding of less than a bigha (little over one-third of an acre!).

12 April 2015

Sunil Raghu, Ahmedabad: Their lives are at the cusp of a change, courtesy project “Rainbow Hills” taken up by the Ahmedabad-based NGO

National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL). A project that aims to refurbish not just the ramshackle huts of tribals into bright, sparkling abode ready to welcome guests from India and abroad but help landless tribals earn livelihood and respect.

“I happen to travel to Switzerland last year and saw hordes of Indian tourists. The influence of Indians is such that even they had hoardings in Hindi! I felt that if they can attract Indian tourists in such a large numbers, what if we provide similar infrastructure in our own backyard,” NCCL head Vinai Saxena asked.

This, he said, set him thinking. “I could think of only one place--Polo forest, a place I had frequented more than once and always found it to be a feast for the eyes. It is no less beautiful than any other locale in the world. Though rich in fauna and heritage, poverty was starkly visible. The poor dwellings of tribals on the beautiful hills were an eyesore and painful,” he said.

So, he decided to bring about a constructive change. He approached the local administration to help him put his thoughts on ground. He conceived a project that provides for basic amenities to the poor tribals without disturbing their lifestyle, traditions and surroundings. It also entails providing these tribals with an alternative livelihood option by converting their dwelling into a habitat with comfortable facilities that urban tourists yearn for.

“We wanted to marry rich ancient traditions of tribals with facilities that would provide uber comfort to tourists wanting to experience bliss amidst nature’s bounty,” the NCCL chief said.
His and local administration’s search zeroed in on a small cluster of hillocks in Vanaj village in Sabarkantha district. Vanaj, a small cluster of 58 tribal families, stood anonymous next to a lake surrou­nded by hillocks. The only big advantage Vanaj has is that it is located next to one of the best weekend getaways from Ahmedabad – Polo Forest.

Descri­bed as a “quick getaway into the serene wilderness with an Ancient touch”, Polo forest has many secrets for tourists to unravel. It was once a hiding place for rulers, who wanted to escape from enemies, their citizens or even their wives! Its ancient temples, some built over 1,500 years ago, still have the verses of pujas resonate deep within this dense jungle.

A forest decorated by fig trees, home to endangered Grey Hornbill, Brown-headed Barbet, woodpeckers, fruit birds and prey birds, especially during a particular half hour in the afternoon, is eye catching and soothing to ones nerves. And for those who seek to be near to their god, a Jain temple at Rani Talav, Vijaynagar, Vadali and Keshriyaji centers a mere 45-minute drive away. The famous Ambaji temple too is just an hour away.

And the modest huts of the tribals could be home away from home. “Given its natural bounty, Vanaj once developed, would be no less than Switzerland,” feels Saxena. To begin with, the NCCL decided to adopt and renovate a dozen houses belonging to landless farmers. But the going was not so smooth initially. The tribals felt that the local government wanted to grab their homes and uproot them to be handed over to “Hindi-speaking” outsiders.

“We could convince tribals primarily due to efforts of mamlatdar (officer in executive charge of a taluk) of the place Vishnu I Prajapati. He had a persuasive dialogue with locals for over a month and finally found a taker in Katara Bachubhai Shankarbhai, a person who belonged to the local Dungari Garasia tribe (Tribe of gypsies from hills). He, along with his brother, later brought 10 other families on board,” the NCCL head said.

Prajapati, on his part, said that his motivation was that locals would benefit by better infrastructure and employment opportunities. “I chose Vanaj as most of the residents here had legal houses, which is a must for any scheme to be launched in a forest area. Moreover the location, too, was convenient as it was next to main road and looked pretty with hillocks and lake,” Prajapati said.

An average of Rs 1 lakh was spent to convert each dilapidated mud-structured huts in to tourist-ready houses. The houses have electricity and water. The kitchens would continue to function as usual and the new exhaust pipes will now help make these houses smoke-free.

Modern toilets are now being fitted in the freshly painted houses, keeping in mind the sensitivities of visiting tourists. The colours were chosen keeping in mind Swiss experience of project implementers in mind, bright and exuberant.

The NCCL is now trying to train locals in renting out the rooms and lessons in eco-tourism. They are also being trained to keep their surroundings clean and keep the area completely free of plastic.

Once ready by May first week, these Vanaj abodes would act as homestays for eco-tourists, Prajapati says. In the pipeline are Aadhaar card numbers and bank accounts for the house-owners.

Additionally, kiosk for village tribals to sell tea, homemade snacks and packaged food to tourists are also being set up. The tariff for the homestays could be around Rs 1,000 per room per night. But the money, according to the project heads, will surely go to the families in Vanaj.

“We would also be putting up hoardings near the village and at the Polo camp site nearby to help tourists book these huts,” Prajapati said.

The Vanaj example having been set, the NCCL has now set its sights on setting up a similar cluster of eco-tourism huts in Bhavnagar district. A district in Saurashtra region of Gujarat, known more for its ship-breaking facility at Alang, port, defence and ship-building hub of Pipavav and much-touted mega industrial zone Dholera Special Investment Region. This time, it hopes, other NGOs and corporates will follow suit.