It is never easy to devote your life to work for others. But that is what Gaurav Mehta decided for his life at a young age when he noticed the development the nation requires and did the same with an unmatched passion. Since then, he has been trying in his own little ways to make positive differences in the lives of others.
Founder of ‘Project Dharma / Gajam India’ which has been responsible for rural development in several aspects, Mehta shared a few glimpses of his journey with Khusnuma P Ahmed in an exclusive interview.
Tell us something about your organisation. Why did you choose to work for rural India?
I really hope the readers find it interesting to know my journey (laughs).Well, my journey towards rural development started way long. I always had a keen interest to bring the best possible change I can bring with all my efforts. My dream came true in the form of my company ‘Dharma Life’ a social enterprise that works towards improving the quality of life in rural India through socially relevant products and services. Our focus is on six key identified causes that are the most significant in villages – health, hygiene and sanitation, education, access to clean energy, livelihood, indoor air pollution and nutrition.
I truly believe in the principle Mahatma Gandhi preached. Once Gandhi said that “the soul of the nation resides in its villages.” However, due to limited livelihood opportunities people from rural India are migrating enemas to the cities for better opportunities, ending up creating social disharmony both for self and urban communities.
Our mission is driven through this initiative to address the challenge of migration by creating livelihood opportunities within the village ecosystem and improving the quality of life of the rural communities.
What are the distinct finding of your research in rural India?
This excites me and where do I start? It’s been more than 15 years that I have been associated with the rural research finding and the research is still on. Each day has been a mix of achievements, challenges and undoubtedly opportunities to turn things on a positive high note. The beauty of this journey has been that it wasn’t a scripted narrative as you learn from the ordinariness of everyday from people in the remote western villages or deep inside the jungle in east, north or south.
Rural India is changing really fast, what used to be an exception has now become a norm. The biggest shift that we find is the movement from being a seasonal agriculture-based economy towards a service-based economy.
There is a steady increase in the purchasing power of rural consumers due to increase in procurement prices, good harvest and minimum job guarantee schemes (MNREGS). The impact of this can be seen in terms of consumption pattern of consumers where more and more consumers are moving from a basic product basket to aspirational products.
Any specific project or story you wish to share with us?
I choose to reflect on one experience which amalgamates achievements, challenges and opportunities. Although honestly, I alone couldn’t have come this far without the support of my team. We strongly believe that the true potential of a nation can only be achieved when the youth is educated.
To support the passion for lifelong learning we launched our initiative “Lighting up Young Minds” on 8th September 2015 on International Literacy Day. The three-fold objective of the campaign is – promoting reading among rural children, giving a clear voice to their aspirations and demonstrating the benefits of clean energy technology across the entire community.
In most villages, post sunset, activities cease because daylight is no longer available or people resort to kerosene lamps, which has significant detrimental health and environmental impacts. Dharma Life’s village entrepreneurs conducted interactive book reading sessions reaching more than 16,000 children across 260 villages in 6 states. The activity was focused on making story books more accessible, making reading fun and inculcating reading as a habit. To demonstrate the power of Solar Lights in improving the life of kids in villages, we installed a “Tree of Light” made of Solar Lanterns through which thousands of kids across villages were encouraged to read and share their dreams through a painting competition.
In addition, we also set up a technology-enabled experience zone for kids comprising a book library along with data enabled ‘Tablets’ to support the passion for learning in kids.
What are the main challenges you think are currently spurring in the rural industry?
The biggest challenge that we face in rural marketing especially for behavior change interventions is the frequency of engagement. It’s a proven fact that for any individual to adopt a new practice he /she needs to be exposed to the message multiple times. But more often than not, rural interventions are restricted to just a one off intervention which result in a short term impact.
A rural consumer takes time to adopt new behavior but the same way he/she also takes time to leave a particular behavior so a loyal rural consumer goes a long way.
What do you hope to accomplish as a development professional?
The work that I do must excite me and I must feel happiness within, doing things what matters most to me. I hope, whatever I do, I am able to influence the ability to bring a difference in the lives of the people and the constituency in the larger scheme of things. I don’t believe living in a matrix world. So, what next is always a difficult thing to respond. The world is changing rapidly and it has direct bearing on how we lead our lives, we are constantly measuring up how we are faring at work, at home, in our relationships etc. If I could play my bit in a small or big way for a big change that would mean more girls step out of the house to pursue education, jobs and live life without fear of violence and respected for their individuality, there’s far more greater tolerance for diversity and differences and poor people live a dignified life are some of the wishes that I hope will come true. I hope to conclude having lived a fulfilling life. For me, it’s difficult proposition to draw a separate boundary between personal and professional accomplishments because they cross-over and inter-connected with each other.
What are you looking forward the rural nation to be in coming years?
Rural is just a location where a consumer resides. An individual might belong to a different ecosystem but have similar aspirations towards a better life for self and family.
I believe, to truly have a prosperous nation we need to have a prosperous village and the first step towards that is to provide basic services at the grassroots level. Dharma Life through its various interventions seeks to address these challenges by providing various products and services that help a regular village evolve into a smart village that creatures, nurtures and supports local talent within the community.