In the pre-occupied milieu of thousands running across the busy streets of Mumbai to take a shot at living a decent life, is a man who at once was caught up in the same busy-ness, getting from one day to another like the other hard-working migrant class of people who run the city. Nobody would have blamed him for having continued to live and secure a future for himself, like the thousands of others who whizzed past him. But Subhash Kadam, at the age of 23, asked himself, “Abhi nahi to kab (If not now, then when)?” I share the riveting journey of Subhash Kadam, from driving taxis in Mumbai to driving successful water conservation campaigns.
Back then, it was a disturbing trend of forced migration of people from economically troubled, drier villages of Maharashtra into larger towns and cities, with Mumbai taking most of this labour force. Apart from the emotional cost of leaving one’s home ground, it involved a lot more work for those who came with little to no educational background, to move up the class hierarchy. It was no less tough for this Arts graduate. “There was hardly any time to eat, sleep or think,” shares Natha (as Kadam is endearingly called), “I was just going from one day to another doing my work.” Natha valued hustling right from his childhood. He had observed his mother bring up the two children, his sister and him, with sheer hard work, after they lost the only bread earner of the family, Natha’s father.
For example, even at the age of four, Natha’s thought process involved not just thinking about himself and his family but everyone else. He wondered if something could be done for dependent families with no earning members. He grew up with this thought but before he knew it, he had to earn money to take care of his mother and his sister. He moved to Mumbai for livelihood. He drove buses, luxury cars for tours and travels and cabs during his time in Mumbai and saved up money to get his sister married.
And just as suddenly, he found himself sitting through a Youth Leadership Training Program, a workshop that provided spiritual and soft skill tools of empowerment to the youth to lead societal change powered by inner strength. According to Natha, the program brought him face to face with the questions he had carefully ignored seeking answers for, in the midst of this madness to make a better living. “I realised that almost everyone lives to take care of themselves and their families. That’s basic life. But what happens to the ones who need support? Someone has to break these boundaries and reach out to people who are struggling.” Natha realised that like most men in his village, he had abandoned his village for a better future. “But, if people don’t stay back and work for the village, how will things improve?” he thought to himself, gnawed at by the idea of wanting to do something for his village – Jaigaon, in a very “Swades” moment. “I was 23 then. Mai socha ab nahi karega to kab karega?” (I thought if not now then when?)
“My sister was married by then. I had saved up money to be able to get her married. Itna bharosa to tha khud pe ki maa ka khayal rakh lunga. (I was confident that I will be able to take care of my mother),” shares the lean and spritely Natha sporting a long beard. Apparently, Natha promised himself that he will not shave until his village is fully transformed.
Natha returned to Jaigaon. Tying back to a thought that had been nagging him for much of his life, he started off with working to get pension secured for the elderly and persons with disabilities in the village. He drew up a list of dependents looking for support and started helping them with the official paperwork that needed to be submitted to the authorities. He attended an awareness drive organised by the state government in Pune to inform people of the various policies that could help the needy. This provided him with the tools to reach out to the masses. With the help of government schemes, he facilitated the construction of toilets for more than 12 families and later with the help of The Art of Living, got 77 more toilets built in Jaigaon.
The paperwork however, turned out to be a long drawn process which made Natha restless. He decided if work had to happen any faster, he would have to lead from the front and more actively. He chose to run for elections. It was a clever move, if he won the elections he could cut through the red tape and speed things up. And he did win; at the age of 32, he became the Sarpanch (Head) of his village. He hit the ground running. He was of the belief that if each person in the village was self-empowered, if all the youngsters and volunteers came together, then the village could create its own destiny and solve its own problems. Natha decided to not cut his hair and beard until his village had fully transformed into a model community that was prosperous, clean, happy, free from addictions and economically self-sufficient.
Up until a few years ago, Jaigaon lived with the major problem of acute water scarcity. The situation was so bad that there was only one well in the entire village which had water for only four months a year. For the remaining eight months, villagers were dependent on water tankers.
But after Natha came into the picture, things started changing. Brought together in ties of spirituality, he motivated and inspired others to join hands and resolve the problem that forced children and youngsters leave their homes to find (mostly odd) jobs in the cities – water. The two most commonly grown crops in the region, sugarcane and jowar both depended heavily on rainwater. But Jaigaon got decent rains only twice in the span of 40 years between 1975 and 2015.
He began by tackling the dire problem on a war footing and collaborated with The Art of Living’s River Rejuvenation Project. Natha organised series of Art of Living community-building workshops to kindle a sense of service and ownership through spiritual empowerment among the villagers. He started a ‘Stop the Water, Save The Water campaign’. The villagers learned of techniques like ‘lift irrigation’ and how the construction of boulder dams and such other structures could help them conserve water and channel it from other sources directly to their farms with the help of electric pumps.
The work undertaken by the villagers and volunteers had started showing very encouraging results. Jaigaon won the second prize at the Water Cup in 2016 for the most significant effort made towards River Rejuvenation. This was important for Natha because this made neighbouring villages sit up and take note of his small non-decrepit village. In the following year, Jaigaon lifted the Water Cup.
What had been inconceivable, started to happen. Given the significant progress in making more water available, and sensing opportunities, people started to return to Jaigaon. Jaigaon was quickly becoming a symbol of what positive leadership coupled with community building and collective action could achieve for the village community in India which is said to be living in its villages. Natha shares what he read in an article that touched a chord with him. “In one day, serve one hour or serve one day in a week. Serve for a week in a month or a month in one year.”
Owing to Natha’s leadership, community efforts, willingness to prosper together and a spiritual bond inculcated by The Art of Living workshops, today Jaigaon, which depended on water tankers for eight months in the year, is tanker free. It has:
1. 3.5 lakh litres of water to use in a day
2. Water sprinklers
3. water bodies for the children to swim
4. 250 hectares of New Dam
5. 20 stone CCT dams
6. Saved water of 1,75,000 cubic litres
7. Stocked water capacity of 4 lakh litres
8. 27 wells from just one until a few years ago
“I feel this is just the beginning and things won’t change in a couple of years alone,” Natha shares, “It will take time and we have to work towards it,” Natha adds, “I keep noticing things that need to be improved. There is so much to do.”