He had a driver but he did not like the dependency. He was stubborn and wanted to do and have what everyone else had. He started by observing how people drove, only to realise that driving was more about using one’s brain than just the limbs. He soon learned to drive by using one of his hands to push his legs down. But his story is hardly about just learning to drive a car. It is as much about driving hundreds of people to create model village communities, driving them to take ownership of the goal of sustainable development.
With no strength in his left limb and 25% mobility in his right, today he drives, walks, climbs hills, runs a gas agency. But besides all that, he inspires people to do the unthinkable.
It came last year when the 38-year-old Abhay Todkar, a Yuvacharya or youth leader with The Art of Living’s Youth Leadership Training Program, mobilised 650 people in a village of 1200. These 650 inspired village men and women, as part of their Shramdaan (donation of labour), built a Gabion dam, deep contour trenches, compartment bandh among other contour structures in only 45 days, to make water storable in the village and harness rainwater naturally.
Here, it is important to know that Dahiwadi or Man Taluka is categorised as a ‘drought area’ with Dahiwadi receiving the least amount of rainfall on average among all the 11 Talukas in Satara district of Maharashtra. The villages in Dahiwadi have always heavily depended on water tankers until this year, when the water stayed as long as May-June, almost until the arrival of monsoons.
As with learning to drive, so with nudging and inspiring hundreds of people in a village to contribute towards sustainable development, Todkar relies on his spiritual strength. “There was a voice inside me that said, I can do everything and I listened to it,” said Todkar.
Before 2012, Todkar, a B.Com graduate, would go door-to-door, covering a stretch of 30-35 kilometres, to sell biscuits and chip packets. His family owned a wholesale agency. “I used to work for 18 hours a day, and it used to tire me out. I felt my work was stressing me out,” says Todkar. At this point, he enrolled in a programme to learn more about breathing, meditation and techniques to relieve stress. “The first day I went through the powerful breathing practice of Sudarshan Kriya, I was surprised by the fountain of energy and clarity of thought I found inside me. And all this by simply attending to my own breath!”
Todkar decided to channel this new found positivity into making a difference in and around him. The biggest challenge facing his village was the water problem that had turned into a violent one. He had seen villagers get into ugly and dangerous fights to secure a bucket or two of water.
Todkar decided to work on the village level. “I visited Pangri Khurd, a village in Man Taluka. Here people in the village had never come together. The village was fraught with problems of violence and conflict fueled by addiction and water scarcity. Even in the Gramsabha, people never used to gather.”
Todkar realised it was important to bring people together across identities and affiliations. He started by organising community development and capacity building programmes under the aegis of ‘The Art of Living’.
“Morning 6-10 AM, I would go to the village and make them aware of the issues that need to be resolved, make them meditate and sing together. To drive them to action, their mindset needed to be worked with. Their eyes needed to be opened to the problem at hand but more importantly the potential they had to overcome it. The Breath Water Sound Workshops (Nav Chetna Shibir) slowly started changing their mindset.”
Getting people into positive action was easier said than done. “The programme created a sense of belongingness and a sense of ownership among the villagers. Also, I kept the channels of communication totally open with them. This helped them get rid of the negativity that was holding them back. They thought if I with my handicap could do so much for the society, then they definitely could.”
With persistent efforts and dialogue between Todkar and the villagers, the attitudinal shift and the spiritual solidarity brought communities to share responsibility and ownership for resolving the long-standing and ubiquitous water problems that had kept them economically weak and socially distressed for more than two decades. Todkar’s work in mobilising communities for water conservation started showing results. Earlier where the farmers could not grow anything more than a single crop, they are now looking forward to growing two crops a year. Their income has doubled from ₹1.5 crore to more than ₹3 crore.
“Earlier the little water we would receive from the rains would simply flow away. Now, because of the structures, the water collects underground and has brought up the groundwater level. Earlier people needed water tankers for six months. But this year, water has been available till May-June also,” Todkar shared.
Since 2012, Todkar has worked in 40-45 villages in Man Taluka, Satara district and nearby areas to make them self-reliant, harmonious and free from addictions. Currently, with his team at Art of Living’s YLTP and Social Projects he is working in 10 villages in areas of Adarsh Gram (Model Village), water conservation, menstrual hygiene awareness for women, and de-addiction. Two years back, he made 10,000 unique smokeless chulhas available in villages in Man Taluka, to save the respiratory health of thousands of women.
“I was most moved by my mentor, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s vision of raising waves of happiness in every village. I felt it was worth my time to work towards this goal.”