SUBJECT : Amala Menon realises that India’s beauty lay nestled somewhere between the Himalayas and its villages. 

Amala Menon

Kochi, 23 October, 2017: It didn’t take long for Amala Menon to realises that Indias beauty lay nestled somewhere between the Himalayas and its villages. Her mother lived there and frequent trips opened a world of reality to the retired telecom professional. And in 2008, when a landslide struck Uttarakhand, Amala and her daughter were taken to a house in Garwhal as a rescue measure. There, Amala was struck by the hospitality of the owners, who provided them with food from vegetables grown in their backyard, as well as fruits.

“They made dishes with pesticide-free beans, basil and pumpkin. It was very healthy. Also, these villagers were exceptionally clean. With all the beauty and grace they have been  endowed with, it surprised me that these people did not value themselves much and had low self-esteem,” says Amala. The visit left Amala pondering about how she could contribute her bit to uplift the villagers. The people’s constant exposure to floods and landslides was yet another reason why she felt compelled to help them.

A tourist at the homestay in Garwhal

Thus was born the ‘SaveAgram’ (meaning save a village) initiative in 2014, a social enterprise, aimed at providing a stable revenue stream to the villagers.  “All the men and women at Garwhal village are farmers. They have the means for sustainable living but their produce is not marketed well. Which is why marketing and selling their organic produce are part of our responsible tourism initiative,” she said.

Converting houses into homestays

The first step, Amala says, was to convince the people to convert their houses into homestays, so that tourism could boom. “For this, we spoke to 50 homeowners.  We told them how we were willing to arrange tourists to stay at their home for a few days as part of the responsible tourism initiative. But it was difficult to convince them. Only one homeowner has so far lent his home as a homestay, but now, many are coming forward,” says Amala.

Taxi drivers and guides for the tourists are employed from among the locals. “It is our way of empowering them. We teach the house owners and the guides on how to use Whatsapp and other modern technologies because that is the only way tourism can grow,” Amala said. The facilities for the homestay, including setting up a western toilet, providing mattresses, pillows, electric adapters, and mosquito repellents, are supplied by SaveAgram. “Our only demand is that they ensure that their house is kept in the traditional manner without any modifications,” she said.

A school in Garwhal has also been adopted by Amala and her team of volunteers. “The school is run by private individuals who are locals but not financially well-off. They cannot afford high salaries to employ teachers which is why we send our volunteers to teach,” she said.

Through the project, Amala has also adopted a village in Mananthavadi, Wayanad. “There, also we have tied up with the Residential Tribal School and also a homeowner who has converted his house into a homestay. We plan to preserve the indigenous rice varieties and coffee there through several initiatives in the future,” she said.

Source: New Indian Express