Takeaway

View from a village

Tina Ediwn | Updated on: Aug 03, 2018
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The residents of Chaukul in Maharashtra have decided to open their doors to tourists. Enjoy the scenic beauty of the Western Ghats, they tell visitors, but do not kick up a ruckus

It is easy to lose count of the number of waterfalls on the way from Sawantwadi to Chaukul in the Sahyadri ranges of the Western Ghats during the monsoons. Some cascade gently down the hill, almost hidden by the dense vegetation, while others resemble curtains of water that fill the air with their roar. The hills are green and picturesque, with flowering vines adding splashes of colours here and there.

The Amboli-Chaukul belt, among the wettest places in India, is often described as the Cherrapunji of Maharashtra. And the rain accounts for its lush greenery, misty valleys and hilltops hidden in the low-hanging clouds.

Amboli is a popular weekend getaway, given its easy accessibility from parts of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. But Chaukul, which is about a 30-minute drive from the Amboli Falls, is not a destination in demand, despite its breathtaking and unspoilt beauty. It remains a quiet cluster of villages spread over about 1,600 hectares.

Chaukul discovered its tourism potential and the boost it could give the local economy only about six years ago. But the people were wary of too many visitors landing up and disturbing the serenity of their lives and the place. Now it has found the middle path — Chaukul is opening its doors to those interested in experiencing the rural way of life and exploring the natural beauty of the ghats.

Transforming Chaukul

Chaukul does not have a sustainable local economy because of the excessive rain it receives. It has rich vegetation, yet it is not suitable for cash crops such as cashew or mangoes and other fruits that grow in neighbouring regions. Paddy and banana are the few crops cultivated here. Much of the farming takes place after the monsoons withdraw. But since the produce is not enough to give the villagers a comfortable income, many of them move out to make a living.

Gulab Rao Gawde, a former sarpanch of the village, describes Chaukul — with its 925 households — as a “money-order economy”. The village has been dependent on cash sent home by men who joined the Army or took up work in cities such as Mumbai, Pune and Kolhapur.

But, increasingly, the villagers have been finding it difficult to get employment in the forces because of the growing demand for jobs in the military from across the country. “About 800 men from the villages served in the Army about 40 years ago. Now there are 400,” Gawde says.

People have been leaving Chaukul in search of jobs and to educate their children. They return for major festivals such as the 10-day Ganpati Puja, but their houses mostly stay locked through the year. Community ownership laws come in the way of individuals seeking to sell their property.

As villagers voiced their need for jobs, the Lupin Human Welfare and Research Foundation stepped in. The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) arm of pharma company Lupin had in 2011-12 proposed rural and ecotourism for the village. “The foundation made us aware that our village had a lot of natural beauty, and that the rich biodiversity would attract tourists,” adds the former sarpanch.

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Fact of life: The green keelback is among the 39 species of snakes found in the Amboli-Chaukul forest. Apart from wild boars, leopards and elephants, the forest also has over 150 and 250 species of birds and butterflies respectively

 

The foundation had been engaged in activities such as skill development and tourism promotion as part of its CSR work in Amboli since 2003. After informal discussions with the villagers at Chaukul, it presented an ecotourism proposal in July 2012. The villagers decided to go ahead with it at a meeting organised at the local temple. The temple is central to the lives of the people here and decisions made at the temple by the community are inviolable.

The proposal struck a chord with the people and they decided to open up 25 houses, some of them ancestral properties, to visitors as homestays. A master plan for gradual development was drawn up, listing all the possible activities that would be taken up over the years. Lupin Foundation was to assist Chaukul in various ways such as getting bank loans and dealing with different government bodies. It was also decided that the villages would seek to implement government projects, particularly the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (also known as MGNREGA), to build roads and thus improve connectivity.

Rural retreat

The 25 houses identified for homestays needed renovation before they could be let out to tourists. Installing modern toilets or commodes was identified as a priority. Getting bank loans to carry out renovation was not smooth — banks were not convinced of the plans. Lupin’s intervention helped and, gradually, the villagers were given loans. Small loans were taken to make adequate changes in the houses to provide the basic comforts and amenities that city-dwellers typically seek. The community was hesitant to make large investments until they were confident that their plans would succeed.

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Rains galore: The Amboli-Chaukul belt, among the wettest places in India, is often described as the Cherrapunji of Maharashtra

 

The first homestay opened in 2012, and tourists started trickling in. Initially, the village was a backup option for those who did not find accommodation in Amboli. With time, however, word spread and the number of Chaukul-bound tourists rose. Soon, people were contacting the villagers directly and seeking rooms.

The endeavour has met with success. People have been earning up to ₹1 lakh per family per season, which starts mid-May and goes on till the end of the year, says Mangal alias Babu Gawde, one of the first villagers to start a homestay. He has now built a new house, a few steps away from his old one, to let out. Arun Gawde, who has also built a new house, had a very good season last year, earning substantially more than ₹1 lakh. His house is at a higher elevation and provides a mesmerising view of the villages in the rainy season. It is booked for the weekends for the next few months, he says.

The facilities in these homes are basic. Not all homes have beds to sleep on, but guests are provided with thick mattresses and blankets. There are plastic chairs to sit on. The kitchens are equipped with essential utensils for those who wish to prepare their own meals. However, Chaukul has decided that the homes will not have a television set, for it seeks to dissuade the visitors from spending time indoors.

The locals would rather have the tourists walking around the village and interacting with the community. They can take guided tours of the forest and the waterfalls, learn to make local cuisine or attend the aartis and the lively bhajan-singing sessions at the temple in the evenings. For the more adventurous, night safaris to the forests are organised. This ensures that the villages on the whole gain from tourism rather than just a handful of people.

The Amboli-Chaukul forest is home to 26 species of animals including wild boars, leopards and elephants, it also has 39 species of snakes, including cobras, green keelback and vipers, over 180 species of birds, 27 kinds of frogs, over 250 types of butterflies and over 180 kinds of wild flowers, says Kaka Bhise, president of the Malabar Nature Conservation Club, Amboli. Bhise organises the forest safaris.

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Sacred house: The village temple in Chaukul. The place of worship is central to the lives of the villagers and decisions made here by the community are inviolable

 

Follow the rules

Visitors, however, have to follow certain rules. They cannot litter the villages with plastic, drink alcohol in the open or create a ruckus. They are barred from cutting trees in the forests and lighting fires. Chaukul is also very clear that it would rather host families than groups of bachelors. Researchers, however, are welcome. Those seeking more comfort can opt to stay at a small hotel called Dark Forest Retreat on the Amboli-Chaukul Road.

The tariffs vary between ₹750 per person per night and ₹3,000 for an entire house. Meals are included and usually consist of Malvani dishes such as bhakri , local dals, regional greens including spinach and chicken or fish specialities.

With tourism picking up, the villagers have been planning to take on development work. There is, for instance, a renewed interest in horticulture. People are considering growing capsicum and mushrooms, as Lupin Foundation has promised to buy some of their produce. There are plans to build roads to the higher reaches, where there are several waterfalls. The village will once again seek funds and work under MGNREGA for this. The community hopes that in a few years, people will no longer have to leave the village to make a living.

Chaukul will be their home — and their place of work.

(The writer was in Chaukul recently at the invitation of Lupin Foundation)

Tina Edwin

Published on August 03, 2018

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