Inir Pinheiro talks of a ‘noise’ in his head; a disinterest in a typical ‘successful’ corporate life, and an urge to help others. A voice that eventually lead him to set up Grassroutes, a venture that promotes responsible rural tourism, by developing villages as tourist destinations.
“The basic cause of our problems is the lack of opportunity, which leads to exploitation and violence. So our aim is to create sustainable opportunities so a person can provide for themselves, their family and then their community,” says the 29-year-old MBA graduate, adding, “We’re doing this through tourism because it is the largest economic multiplier. Plus, if the local community is at the centre if tourism, they will protect the land better.”
The Grassroutes concept is simple: city-dwellers in want of a relaxing weekend, a taste of rural life and a fresh environment to stay in, travel to villages where they are taken care of and housed by locals, for about Rs 1,000 a night. In return, the villagers see an influx of business and money, and a livelihood. The attempt is to keep everything organic and preserve local culture and resources.
There are currently two villages on the Grassroutes trail, Purushwadi (250km from Mumbai), and Kohane (230 km away), both with predominantly tribal populations. The tourists are mostly Indian – from Mumbai and Pune – and the trips last two or three days. And though bookings are made through Inir and his team, a village tourism committee – made up of locals who have been trained – supervises the trip. Any number of people, from one to 40, can go on a trip.
“In the past three years, there has been an annual inflow of about Rs 5-6 lakhs in each village. Average income has gone up to about Rs12,000-16,000 and 50 of the households have benefitted directly from tourism,” says Inir. Plus there are the non-monetary benefits: “The Purushwadi tribals used to migrate for livelihood, but they stay put now. Their local tamasha had died out, but is now being revived because of tourist interest. The youngsters are now occupied, have access to opportunities and have the confidence to go after them.” Inir says the model deliberately engages with youth and women, because “men are dumb and power-hungry; it’s the women who know people’s needs and are interested in growth”.
The initiative has also had a boost from Unltd India, an organisation that acts as an incubator for social start-ups. “They have been brilliant. The funding has been a blessing, but the non-financial support is more important,” says Inir. “You get to learn from top industry experts and other mentors, and you have a peer support group, as you meet other investees who are going through a similar journey.”
But it’s not been easy. Grassroutes had and continues to have its share of hiccups – there was the problem when they trained two landless labourers, only to find them too set in their ways to open up a to a new concept; the team had to overcome a big gender gap while interacting with the women, who are ones who cook and manage the houses; in July 2009, operations were shut down for two months because of political unrest. Inir says, “I have lost my hair, money, relationships, confidence, but I know what it is to pursue a dream.”
And he’s dreaming big: By 2012, Grassroutes plans to have a network of villages in Maharashtra, each with a different attraction, from Warli art to jungle trails. By 2020, Inir hopes to replicate this network around cities all over India. We can’t wait.
– Aditi Seshadri
For more information, go to www.grassroutes.co.in
To know more about Unltd India, go to www.unltdindia.org