The PLENTI Project
We are inviting expressions of interest in this PLENTI Project (which derives from Purpose, Learning, Engagement, Nature and Travel in India, all of which are key words for the project!). We are looking for people who may be retired or heading towards retirement, or any who otherwise have a little more time on their hands, who might like to spend at least a month in India in the winter months, partly just enjoying the place, but also having a rewarding time, bringing some of their skills and experiences to a family of charities and the people they serve. These are the community of 25,000 ‘adivasis’ from four tribes, who have forever lived in the forests of the beautiful Nilgiri Hills in South India.
The Adivasi people in the Nilgiri Hills
The Nilgiri Hills are part of the long stretch of one of India's oldest mountain ranges, and one of the world's greatest biodiversity hotspots - the Western Ghats, The PLENTI project is located in Gudalur in Tamil Nadu where it borders Kerala.
Some 8 per cent of the population of India are Adivasis, indigenous aboriginal people, also known as tribal people or (because they are identified in a schedule of the constitution of India) as the scheduled tribes. The tribal people of Gudalur live in their traditional villages, within a forty mile radius of Gudalur, many some distance from any main road.
The Adivasis have a rich culture. Each tribe is different, but in all cases there is a closeness to nature and a remarkable community spirit. However there are many social issues surrounding these communities: health, education, land rights, employment, household income, housing. There is a challenge on the one hand to provide opportunities in the main stream of society for young members of the community and on the other to assist each community in its desire to remain in its village and to continue its traditions.
The ACCORD group of charities
Working with the Adivasis in the Gudalur area, the group of charities led by three inspirational couples who came to work here some thirty years ago, cover a range of different charitable activities, all under the umbrella of the tribal AMS organisation, and include:
A hospital specially built to serve the tribal people.
A primary school providing a high standard of education including about, and respectful of, Adivasi tradition.
Support for a residential school providing a safety net for older children who cannot participate in the educational system (because, for example, they may not speak Tamil).
ACCORD, the original charity set up thirty years ago out of which sprang the health and education activities, which works with the communities over their land rights, social welfare and culture preservation and celebration. It has a team of approximately 60 tribal people whom it has trained to work in their communities on health, welfare and other issues.
An Ecotourist guesthouse called Ecoscape, set deep in the hills on a 178 acre tea/coffee estate now owned by the tribal people buy. It offers the opportunity to guests to escape into the forest and enjoy the natural environment. It employs tribal people and brings financial benefit to the community's charitable projects.
A Foundation Course has recently been established for life skills training and support for 16 to 19 year olds who have not been able to complete their formal education.
A further initiative in this 'family', which was initiated by the community, not only has helped its members achieve fair prices for their products but has evolved into an equitable network, of producers, consumers and investors, spreading beyond Gudalur, who are mutually benefited by participation. Just Change India further provides training and support to those in the network, and, closer to home, helps to nurture new community-led income-generating ventures.
Our relationship over several years
The PLENTI Project, in partnership with the founders of ACCORD, Stan and Mari Thekaekara, is led by a British couple of India-lovers, Christopher and Phillida Purvis. They have been coming to Gudalur for the last few years and have been inspired by the quality of the people working in the charitable organizations and by the complex ongoing needs of the Adivasi community. Enjoying this connection, and relationships with all the dynamic people, tribal and non-tribal, involved with AMS and the charities described above, whilst learning so much about challenges for the Adivasi and their way of life, about the forests, the mountains, wildlife, India and development, Christopher and Phillida have determined to have fun ‘engaging’, on an annual basis, and in devising meaningful options for others similarly to join them on the journey.
In 2016 the charities acquired an 8 acre plot of land 3 miles from the town. This is being developed into a new campus for the Vidyodaya School and its connected Foundation Course and a residence for Ashwini's medical and nursing students. It is here also that the PLENTI guest house has been built by wonderful Bangalore architect, Ajith Andagere, and his team.
Using traditional materials, the guest house is set at the top of the plot, looking over tea plantations and fine trees towards the Ooty hills. The design is comfortable, without being flashy, with six good sized en suite double bedrooms, with their own private verandahs, spacious common areas accommodating one large dining table for all the guests, outdoor spaces for activities such as yoga or Ayurvedic treatment and a main verandah making use of the spectacular views.
During the four winter months, December to March, like-minded PLENTI Project volunteers stay for a minimum of one month to enjoy the beauty of the place while developing a connection with the people and the social issues of the communities. The full board charges for volunteer guests, during the Plenti months, are 8,000 Rupees per day, for a couple, or 5,000 Rupees for a single person, in a double room.
Other groups, particularly those who may have special interests, that are in sympathy with the tribal community, are welcomed during the rest of the year, particularly in the warmer months of April to July when many Indian tourists especially from Bangalore (which is about 6 hours’ drive away) come to the Nilgiri Hills for the comparative coolness. Examples of areas of interest for such specialist, tailor-made, tours, or workshops and conferences, are the Adivasis, their culture and history; the nature of development in India more broadly; India's natural world, such as bird-watching and conservation, or around other pursuits that can be enjoyed in this beautiful area, such as painting or walking. Prices depend on the length and nature of such courses (at maximum, 18 people can be accommodated).
Finance and Management
The total cost of the purchase of land, the building and fitting out of the guest house and a reserve to cover any possible deficit in the early years has been financed by loans, donations and upfront ‘timeshare’ commitments.
The guesthouse is owned by the ACCORD charity. It is managed by a related charity - Blue Mountain Common Initiative Foundation. The surplus from the guest house will be directed towards charitable projects in the Adivasi community. This is expected to be in the region of £10,000 annually. Employment will also benefit the community, as tribal people will be employed in the guest house.
Both the management of the building project and the management of the guest house is under the direction of Ankur Dhawan, founder and manager of the Ecoscape eco-tourism business, which is also part of the Blue Mountain Common Initiative. Ankur has a wealth of international business experience as a management consultant and has been the driving force behind the realisation of the PLENTI project and is its anchor. He is supported by Mahantu Yalsangi.
The guest house opened in December 2017 for its first season of Plenti volunteering. The following is a pictorial record of its development:
The PLENTI Project social enterprise model has the following benefits:
The stay will provide a comfortable and rewarding experience for guests
The expertise of the guests will be valuable to the charities
Employment will be created for tribal people
The financial surplus will be used for projects with the tribal community
The tribal community will be left with the valuable asset of land and property
PLENTI is a project of local charity Action for Community Organisation and Development (ACCORD) http://adivasi.net/accord.php and is run alongside another social enterprise Ecoscape http://www.ecoscape.co.in.
Sister organisations include:The Association for Health and Welfare in the Nilgiris (ASHWINI) http://www.ashwini.org/index.html and Viswa Bharati Vidyodaya Trust http://www.adivasi.net/vidyodaya.php
All three charities work closely with the local Adivasi community organisation - Adivasi Munnetra Sangam Gudalur (AMS)