Being the change: When holiday trips turn into philanthropy

  • Pankti Mehta Kadakia, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 19, 2015 15:38 IST
Children crowd around Piyush Goswami in Nagaland.

We all have those stories - tales of hardship and humanity gathered from strangers on our travels, shared by friendly locals on ferry boats or jeep taxis.

Sometimes it’s about a wastrel son who won’t find a job; other times it’s a crop that’s failed for three years in succession. The tales can be heart-rending, they can make you want to reach out. But it’s hard to know how.

Young travel bloggers Piyush Goswami, 30, and Akshatha Shetty, 28, decided to find a way. And they now have a crowdfunding campaign that’s brought in Rs 20 lakh and counting. They call it Rest of My Family (ROMF). “It’s an attempt to connect, and give others a chance to connect, with our extended human family around the country,” says Goswami, a freelance photographer.

Over the past three months, as they waited for the money to flow into the online initiative, they have also begun a pilot project - a grassroots initiative to bring access to water and electricity for the Van Bawariya hunter-gatherer tribe of 200, based in Jinwara, Rajasthan.

“We plan to partner with local NGOs to dig a well and install solar panels,” says Goswami. The tribe, which the couple ran across earlier this year, currently shares a single tap, active only for one hour a day, and has no electricity supply.

Akshatha Shetty with three generations of a Kalbelia tribe in Pushkar.

The couple’s journey began in 2013. Determined to travel more, they quit their jobs as photographer and journalist respectively, gave up their Bangalore homes, and began making their way across rural India, from Rajasthan to Nagaland, experiencing and documenting local cultures.

“Initially, we had planned a photoblog,” says Shetty, “dispatching stories to raise awareness of community struggles.” But the couple soon realised that while this satisfied them creatively, it made little difference to the villagers. “These people became more than just names or faces to us, and we wanted to do something that would help them in a tangible way,” says Shetty. So, three months ago, the duo launched Rest of my Family on Indiegogo, with a goal of $30,000 (about Rs 19.40 lakh). The project has already raised Rs 20.40 lakh and will accept donations for another week.

Meanwhile, the couple is surviving on the money they make from freelance writing and photography assignments. And travelling to identify more places and causes to return to. “While the larger goal is to change urban mindsets, we are also determined to bring about change on the ground, through simple, grassroots solutions,” says Shetty.

Towards this end, the duo will also partner with NGOs or individuals to focus on the areas of healthcare, sanitation, education, nutrition, child labour, and female infanticide over the next 12 months, as they drive across the country visiting areas they have identified for their projects.

A plantation worker at an estate in the Annamalai mountains, where Rest of My Family has been reporting on the growing demand for raised wages.

In the three months since they launched ROMF, Goswami and Shetty have covered about 3,500 kilometres in their jeep, mainly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. “We’ve been making our way through Naxal-affected areas where governance is minimal and there is a lot to be done,” says Goswami. “We often have to sleep in the car overnight, but usually we make friends with community members and someone offers us room in their home.”

Access to water, electricity and education have emerged as key issues at every stop.

The 25-family Malasar tribe in Nelliampathy, Kerala, for instance, has no electricity and gets its water supply through a single narrow pipe. In summer, they have to walk several kilometres to a lake for water.

Apart from helping them lay down a wide, properly laid-out pipe, the duo aims to ensure that they are provided with solar lighting, in partnership with CSR arms of organisations and with the help of individual funding.

Their first ‘action story’ has already seen some progress. Three months ago, Goswami and Shetty met 14-year-old Mari in Bodinayakanur, Tamil Nadu. His father had left the family eight years earlier and the boy had been forced to quit school in Class 8 to help support the family.

He earns Rs 100 a day working at a garage and has developed a passion for automobiles. Shetty and Goswami are now in talks with NGO Smiley Faction to sponsor vocational training for Mari, and to fund his younger brother’s education. “Mari is a sincere, hardworking boy, and will take all the help he can get,” says Kallima, the boy’s maternal aunt. “He deserves a better life, and we are so grateful that strangers are helping to give him an opportunity.”

Shiv Vishvanathan, sociologist: This is a unique idea that shows concern and commitment, and an interesting experiment. Their blog will keep a constant dialogue going. Since their methods are not fixed, they will have to stay focused to create the impact they intend to.

Piyush Goswami, photographer and co-founder of Rest of My Family: The thing we have realised is that we often don’t know what people really need. In some areas, their mud homes work fine, but they would like a community vehicle they can use in case of emergencies.

Akshatha Shetty, writer and co-founder of Rest of My Family: People everywhere are the same. They want to be loved, accepted and cared for. And we hope, in our own little way, to help make people understand that, to truly connect Indians as one large family.

Gautam Kulkarni, Dubai-based businessman who contributed $5,000 (about Rs 3.25 lakh) to the campaign: I’ve always wanted to travel around rural India, so I decided to contribute - to make a difference and experience India through this unique project.

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