Meet Amitabh Soni, The Man Who Left His UK-Based Job To Empower Indian Villages
Leaving behind a job in the UK Government’s Social Services department, Amitabh Soni returned to India in 2014. A strong desire to bridge the ever increasing rural-urban gap, prompted him to start Abhedya, an NGO responsible for nurturing and facilitating the knowledge and talent of the rural tribal community, which, for the longest time has been unexplored.
The main reason I went to UK was to understand how a vibrant western democracy works and then come back and try to implement some of those ideas on ground. I basically went there to understand their setup. The social services department I was working for required me to undergo several intense training programs conducted by experts. So, I learnt different things about how to manage people, how to interview them, in order to understand their requirements and serve them better.
Mr. Soni talks highly of the untapped knowledge bank we have in our country, especially in the villages. The way the people in the villages are still so connected to the nature, lead a peaceful life, where less is more, all of this and more, inspired Mr. Soni a lot. The idea of assisting the villagers to improve in areas like education, water management, technology and governance while retaining the already existing knowledge bank and values, gave birth to Abhedya.
Abhedya, The NGO
Interestingly, Mr. Soni says that the “motivation behind Abhedya was that organisation like us should not be needed in the first place, the villagers should be self sufficient that way.”
When Mr. Soni returned to India in 2014, he took Kekadiya, a small village situated at a distance of about 250KM from Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, under his wings. At present, five villages come under the umbrella of Abhedya. His team, consisting of 20 members and a core team consisting of six people, working closely with the tribal community of “Bhalalas” residing in these villages.
Of the many feats that Abhedya has achieved, the most recent one is that of introduction of organic farming in these villages. It was started as an experiment, with only four farmers. The experiment has proved to be very successful.
Earlier, our farmers would sell Fenugreek at Rs 150 per crate, but after starting organic farming, the produce has been so good that the supplier comes to the village and buys it at Rs 450 per crate and also pays for the labour charges, this way the middle men system is completely eliminated.
The other area that Abhedya is working extensively for is that of eradicating the problem of water shortage. Talking about the same, Amitabh Soni said,” The village clusters are located by the Satpura range, so whenever it rains, the water flows through the hills, into the village. Until few years ago, due to large number of trees, the water was retained and villagers used this water for their daily activities. But now, many of the trees have been cut down. We made them realise that this cutting of trees had to stop and we helped them in planting trees in that area. A year and a half ago, we did an intensive survey for about 45 days and identified few GPS locations to build small sub dams.”
Abhedya has also made some sincere efforts in improving governance of the villages. Mr. Soni says that the Constitution of India has provided the Gram Panchayat with lot of powers, but unfortunately, they are not aware of it. Abhedya has taken the onus of educating them about the duties and powers of the Panchayat. They have also included some of the youths of the village to manage the education and health section of the panchayat.
Mr. Soni talks about the strong and reliable network which Abhedya has formed over the years. He says that the organisation doesn’t depend on the government funding. All of the initiatives are crowd funded. He, very enthusiastically speaks of 18 girls coming from the tribal families of these villages, who are pursuing their studies in one of the reputed private schools.
“The girls have been performing very well. The school, apart from providing quality education, also allows them to pursue extracurricular activities. Recently, these girls have made us proud by winning the third position in the game of Kickball. When I requested one of the members of our network to financially assist us with the education of these girls, he accepted the request and sponsored the education of these girls. This is the importance of having a strong and a reliable network.”
Another boy, coming from a below poverty line family has finally pursued his dream of studying in the coveted National Law Institute University, Bhopal, all thanks to Abhedya, which brought together people who could financially and morally support him to clear CLAT and get admission in the Law college.
Willage Quest- An IT initiative for the Tribal, By the Tribal
One of the major reasons, which Mr. Soni thought was responsible for the huge urban-rural gap was lack of technology and its usage in the villages. The penetration of technology was found to be far less in the rural areas than in the cities and towns.
He found that the youth of the village, which had been to college had at least had basic knowledge of computers. He realised that with a bit of training, they could easily do jobs like data entry. The desire to create job opportunities at the village level and to curb migration from villages to the cities resulted in Willage Quest. It is an unique IT initiative for the tribal, one of its kind in the country.
We observed that the youth of the village would often move to cities in search of jobs. Now since they are new to the cities and unaware of its ways, they would more often than not end up doing clerical or catering jobs, although they are landowners in the villages. This would also lead to creation of slums within the cities. So our motive was not just to start an IT lab, but a business centre within the village, so that the village has its own economy. The families here are not very comfortable in sending the girls to cities, so this initiative of ours, enable the women to work, without having to leave their homes. We actually don’t own this company, the five young people of the village own it, we just facilitate them. Few of the students of the village are doing internship in a company called Srijan Technologies, where they are being given stipend as well. These students are trained in various technologies. After the training completes, they would come back and help other students of the village.
Challenges Faced and Long Terms Goals
Ask him about the challenges he has faced along the way, he says,” There are five villages which we are working with, right now, Kekadiya village is our focal point, apart from this, we work majorly with Samafgarh, Khakardol and Bhavarikheda. We want to reach out to other villages, but due to lack of resources, we have not been able to do that. Another challenge is to identify leaders from the locals who are self driven and would take forward our vision”.
Apart from this, he says, coordination with the governmental agencies also proves to be a major roadblock.
Despite the various challenges, he is quiet positive about the future. He aims to identify and nurture local leaders who would take forward the vision and mission of the NGO, Abhedya. He told The Logical Indian,” There are 51 districts within Madhya Pradesh. We are trying to identify 51 people from each district who would work independently. The kind of people we are looking for are the ones, for whom doing good for the villages and the community would be the sole aim, rather than money or fame. So, we would provide them initial training and later they would work independently on the ground. In few days we will be coming up with leadership module, to groom youngsters of these villages, make them good public speakers and help them strategise.”
Message to The Logical Indian Community
When asked about what he would like to convey to the Logical Indian Community, he had this to say, “People are now habitual of living in a world which gives them more in terms of materialistic comforts. I don’t have single property in my name, but when i go those villages, I can build as many houses as I want, purely because of the goodwill I have in the villages. I believe that true happiness doesn’t come from money, but from the relationships we build. I have got such an acceptance in the village that I am a father figure to some and a son to others. I feel this cannot be bought by money. I would encourage people to be selfless, because real joy and fulfilment comes only by helping and uplifting others. I would also tell them that if our intentions are pure, and if we are patient, we can bring change.”