What It Takes to Transform a Village
A tiny man taught us how to transform an entire village. Here’s what it takes: one piece of information and one insight.
We were eager to meet Rameshwar. We had heard he had transformed an agrarian village in the Himalayas. We had heard impressive stories, the kind you rarely get to hear about a person someone knows in real life, and so we were surprised to see a tiny man, no more than 5 feet 3 inches tall, greet us at Ashwini Ghat. We looked at each other and we wondered how he did it.
You expect heroes to be tall and wide and take up a lot of space in the world. You expect them to take long, purposeful strides in your direction, take your hand in both of theirs, and flash a smile that looks both friendly and intimidating.
Rameshwar’s warm, hearty laugh seemed to take up more space than he did. He scurried up to our car, folded his hands to greet us, and bowed a little. He started talking immediately, and went on till we parted ways the next day.
We were late. We were to meet him in the afternoon and interview him for about an hour. It was 8 in the night. He seemed unperturbed.
He told us the road ahead was a little dangerous, so we did as we were told. We parked our car at his friend’s place, and climbed into Rameshwar’s car. He drove down the mountain and up the next. It was late, he said, and insisted that we stay the night. We agreed.
At his house, we met his mother and his children. His mother was 67, but didn’t look a day over 50 and had the posture and vitality of someone in her thirties. His daughter was too shy and we didn’t stay long enough for her to open up to us, but his son warmed up to us almost immediately. He studied in class 12. He spoke at length about his plans to join the banking industry.
We talked and talked over a delicious home-cooked meal, cracking up from time to time over Rameshwar’s jokes.
When everyone had finished eating and talking and laughing, Rameshwar took us out for a walk and told us his story.
The village was made up of five families, and almost everyone was a farmer. Years ago, the village was in shambles. Tomatoes and green capsicum grew in abundance, and were almost the only agricultural produce from the region. Even though the volumes they sold were huge, the farmers remained poor because of the extremely low margins on these products.
Back then, the school in the village only offered education up to class 8. There was no proper healthcare. The village faced water scarcity each summer when the seasonal river flowing into it dried up.
Rameshwar used to make frequent trips to markets in Solan, Chandigarh and Delhi to sell his produce to traders. On these trips, he would notice that exotic vegetables sold at very high prices.
He saw that market demand could fluctuate as wildly as supply could, and that the resulting change in prices directly affected the farmers in his village. On top of that, traders delayed payments for extended periods, making it near-impossible for farmers to survive.
Rameshwar realised that their village had an advantage: living in the Himalayas meant he could grow exotic vegetables in summer, unlike farmers who lived closer to the cities in the plains. These exotic vegetables would be sold at high prices.
He set out to learn as much as he could about growing exotic vegetables. He got to know about polyhouses, and gathered as much technical know-how about them as he could. He then made inquiries about the government’s policies, and found the solution to all of his problems there.
A Piece of Information
Rameshwar discovered that the government gave substantial subsidies to farmers to set up polyhouses. So he applied for a subsidy and built a polyhouse for himself to find out the challenges involved.
That summer, he sowed seeds of exotic vegetables in his farm. Then he helped the farmers in his village get polyhouses of their own. That took care of the supply. Yield increased and only fluctuated a little. The farmers started growing and selling exotic vegetables, and made more money.
The farmers had, by then, formed a collective. With Rameshwar heading it, information picked up on his visits to the market began to trickle down to other members of the collective.
To maintain the trust his fellow farmers placed in him, Rameshwar often had to take financial losses upon himself. If he had assured the farmers a certain kind of produce would sell at a specific price, he made sure they were paid that price upon harvest. Even if it meant paying them from his own pocket.
Rameshwar was on their side. He had their trust and their love. A fairly steady income began to flow into the village and everyone prospered.
A Happy Ending
Over the years, the village has transformed before Rameshwar’s eyes. Farmers in the village and neighbouring areas grow exotic vegetables, and there are about 50 polyhouses that Rameshwar has helped set up. The region is a key supplier of exotic vegetables to Delhi’s Azadpur Mandi, the largest wholesale market for fruits & vegetables in Asia.
Rameshwar deals directly with traders from Azadpur Mandi, and gives the farmers in his region real-time information about market demand and prices, helping them decide what to grow.
He showed us the gram panchayat building and the local healthcare centre they’ve built. The village school now offers education up to class 10. The children are all sent to school, and there is proper medical care available for all.
He also oversaw the construction of numerous little ponds in the village to harvest rainwater. These days, the village has regular supply of water throughout the year.
The change started with an easily-obtained insight and a publicly-available piece of information. For years, the government has been trying — and failing miserably — to disseminate both to the right audience.
All it took was a man who realised the flow of information in the system was broken, and that it had to be fixed to make a difference.