Rashmi Bharti, one of India’s innovative women achievers, shares how simple living and high thinking helps Avani empower people in the Himalayan villages.
Interview by Anne John
Nestled in the hills of Kumaon, Avani is a voluntary organization working towards developing sustainable livelihoods in rural communities. Rashmi Bharti, one of the co-founders of Avani, talks to us about the increasing interest in alternative lifestyles, the need to preserve our local traditions and resources and how community living can benefit all of us.
Anne John: Tell us a little about your journey towards an alternative lifestyle. How did you come to embrace it?
Rashmi Bharti: My husband and I met in an ashram where life, work and meditation were one seamless whole. It was not compartmentalised where you go to work and then have a separate life. That was the taste that was with us of what life should be.
As we came out of the ashram to work in a city, we found that it was a question of being a misfit in the urban lifestyle. We also discovered that we did not want to become part of the rat race of “earning more” to “spend more”. This led us to exploring the possibility of living and working in a village with NGOs. Until then, we had no idea that something like this existed where you could contribute while you learnt on the job and also were able to live a different lifestyle.
What is the story behind settling down in the hills and starting Avani?
Rashmi Bharti: Both my husband and I loved the mountains and we decided to look for options that would allow us to do that. We worked with different organizations in the mountains and then with tribals in Orissa. This gave us the confidence that our ideas were workable and that we could contribute in villages without having had a formal training in social work.
However, the love of the Himalayas was pulling us and we knew that when we settled, it will be there. We came back to the mountains in 1996 and started living in a small house given to us by a Gandhian ashram. It was in the middle of a thick oak and rhododendron forest… beautiful and an experience to remember. You could hear the seasons change and the leopard came calling occasionally.
In retrospect, I think we were simply crazy. But it changed me fundamentally. I became a much stronger person, living so close to nature.
For me, a girl who grew up in Delhi, one travelled to the mountains for holidays – not to LIVE!! It was life changing. I Iearnt to chop wood, cook while sitting on the floor… It was freezing cold when we shifted to this little house that had no water, no electricity, no toilets and the window panes were broken; and we shifted in winter when it was snowing.
In one year we had repaired the house and made it really comfortable with a woodstove and flowers around. I learnt to tolerate the leeches in the monsoon and the wet cold. Somehow, I survived all of this with not much difficulty. In retrospect, I think we were simply crazy. But it changed me fundamentally. I became a much stronger person, living so close to nature. I would do things despite my fear; becoming comfortable with staying alone in the middle of the forest when my husband was travelling. Physically as well, I am amazed that I took all the hardships in my stride. I am still here and really enjoy my solitude and the creativity in the work that I do.
So far, which achievement of Avani’s are you most proud of?
Rashmi Bharti: Building the capacity of local youth to manage all affairs of the organization. They have all learnt on the job and have really grown with the organization, exploring their creativity and for some it was a great discovery when they found their métier and not just a job…That flowering and growth of the people who have been working with us for more than 12 years has been Avani’s biggest achievement.
What is the biggest challenge that you face when running Avani?
Rashmi Bharti: Today, as we are expanding and increasing our enterprise, the biggest challenge is getting skilled professionals to come and work at Avani on a long term basis as we are located in a very remote area. We are 100 kms from the district headquarters, so there is no entertainment and the people who stay have to have a lot of inner resources to be with themselves and they need to love the mountains because mountain life is romantic but tough.
How has the response been from Indian tourists to volunteer tourism?
Rashmi Bharti: For the past two years, we have started receiving some Indian urban professionals and they have really contributed a lot in the short time that they were there. This is a sector that is growing as there are a lot of young people who are disillusioned with their artificial lives. Many are voluntarily looking for options; that is a very good indicator.
How is the awareness of indigenous products in the local market?
Rashmi Bharti: Avani’s products have a very good Indian presence. We sell 60% in the domestic market and 40% we export to different countries. More and more Indian consumers are becoming aware of quality products and would like to support artisans/farmers/enterprises through NGOs.
However, the local market in the hills is more difficult as cost is a factor. In our hills, the access to urban fashion is recent and that is what hill youth would like to follow. The local hill people are not looking at what is traditional – food, organic soaps, natural fibres. We have not been very successful here. But, we are still trying. The latest product is organic kumkum that we are reviving from a traditional recipe and encouraging local women to use. We are also promoting soap nut as an organic detergent (this was traditionally used and is now mostly exported).
How scalable is Avani’s model of communal living?
Rashmi Bharti: We feel that small communities are an answer to increasingly nuclear living. As an organization, we feel that our work is more intense because we are re-learning the values of living as a group and supporting each other – not because we are related by blood but because of a human relationship. It is challenging but definitely scalable. There are now a lot of urban people who are interested in a lifestyle like this. We are hoping that in the next few years we will have more people from the city come to live and work with Avani.
What are your future plans for Avani?
Rashmi Bharti: Avani will continue to expand its work with creation of sustainable livelihoods in remote rural areas of Kumaon to reach more people. Avani is slowly establishing itself as a resource centre where we would like to train people from other organisations. Our work will expand through the two institutions that we have helped establish – one based on textiles and natural products, Kumaon Earthcraft Self Reliant Cooperative and the other on pine needle gasification – Avani Bio Energy. We will continue to do research and development of new ideas and products and may venture into health and education in the next few years.
*Photo credit: Rashmi Bharti.