The man who started a social enterprise to help tribal communities

Vat Vrikshya is a social enterprise that helps tribals in Odisha adopt a sustainable livelihood without compromising their culture

So far, they have worked with 368 families across three villages of the tribal belt. The founder,Vikash Das, was born and raised in that state and this is precisely the reason that got him started.

He grew up on the principle of 'Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,' and was taught to limit his relations to his caste peers. "My extended family used to warn me not to befriend local tribal children and not to touch and play with them, because they were born as Adivasis," he recalls.

He continues, "Once, when I was a kid, I went to visit a temple in my hometown. One old lady from a tribal family with her grandson was about to enter the temple. Someone started to abuse her and then literally threw her away just because she was an Adivasi, considered impure and unclean." This set in motion a number of questions that never left Vikash's mind.

When he grew up, Vikash got a masters degree in software engineering and became an IT consultant at IBM. He was satisfied, but the same questions about tribals that took over his curiosity as a child were multiplying rather than vanishing. In 2013, he decided to quit his job, dedicate his time to understand in detail how the life of a tribal is like, and do something proactive to improve it.

"Although as a child I grew up in close contact with tribal communities, I have never been able to connect with them and felt as if I was looking at their problems through a glass. I was analyzing their problems but couldn't really feel them. They had been destitute since time immemorial. And that’s when I decided to live like them for two months in their village. For the first time in life I felt deep hunger which was devastating and frustrating. After that experiment I was able to understand what the real problems were. I learned that material possessions don’t guarantee happiness and that we should be grateful to God for giving us what we have. In our social venture, adversity has literally been the mother of invention," he shares.

"Problems in tribal communities are multifold and we could write an entire book on the topic. Very generically, the major problems are geographical isolation, unemployment, landlessness, illiteracy, malnutrition, health problems, sanitation, non-profitable agriculture, exploitation by middlemen, traders and money lenders. Our foundation works closely with tribal communities in resolving their problems," says Vikash.

Vat Vrikshya focuses primarily on creating alternative means of earning for tribal communities to ensure that families always receive their basic needs. They allocate an initial fund of Rs.2000, to which each family adds further sums according to their capacity. Vikash explains, “The initial capital is low but because of their skills, beneficiaries – who are mostly women – are able to generate income which is three to four times higher than before.

The first target was agriculture. “Farmer-suicide is one of the most serious results of failing monoculture (i.e. when a single-crop cultivation fails, farmers don't have other sources of revenue). We connect farmers to agriculture experts and help them find viable ways to reintroduce polyculture, so that even if one crop fails, there is always another option,” explains Vikash.

Moreover, the organisation has created programs specifically for women leveraging on their ability to be breadwinners and homemakers simultaneously. "We have created market channels (mainly stalls and markets in urban areas) to sell items made by tribal women like handicrafts, pickles, snacks, and medicines made with wild flowers, roots and leaves."

Other projects include counselling about government services for financial inclusion like the Jan Dhan accounts, subsidies and loans; home mushroom farming, which does not require much effort but can generate a good income; and vocational training. "We have noticed that now tribal communities we've worked with raise their voices against injustice more often, and this is really rewarding. Also, earlier they used to employ their kids in fields and the rate of school drop-outs was very high, but now it has dropped from 95 to 32 per cent," says Vikash, who hopes that kids’ knowledge will be gradually transferred to the rest of their communities.

10 per cent of the profit of each business goes to Vat Vrikshya fund which is maintained by 12 representative women from tribal communities. “This is again used for the betterment of the tribal communities particularly in health and education. Representatives from each village/unit help us analyse the problems they are facing and keep track of the improvements. We maintain a monthly data including improvement in child weight (one-month old infants to five-year old children), school enrollment and drop-out rates, variation in family income, agriculture production etc. Based on these data, we set a target for the next month,” says Vikash, and adds that the organisation is trying to preserve the tribal ecosystem by considering cultural elements when introducing new development projects. “Tribal culture, language and heritage are fundamental elements to keep alive,” he says.

When talking about the challenges he has been through, Vikash says that they have all brought along many opportunities. "When I quit my job and decided to settle down in a remote village, my family and friends were upset. They thought I had some psychological issue because I wanted to live like a poor to help the poor. However, after some time they understood our business model and it worked wonders!" Similarly, it was not easy to be understood by tribals. “It took me a good amount of time before they stopped considering me an outsider and accepted me as one of them. But now they support me and care for me. It's like another family and it feels great to have so many families, who could do anything for me and go to any extent. I can confidently say that earning respect, good wishes and blessings is more satisfying than earning money.

When asked about the sustainability of Vat Vrikshya, Vikash says “If you’re doing good work , money will automatically follow you. That’s how we have survived so far. We are confident in our work and we are the best at it. As long as the tribal eco-system is preserved, we will have a secure revenue.

He concludes, “Development doesn’t mean bringing in the urban culture and incorporating the tribals into national mainstream agendas. Tribal culture is rich and unique but is facing serious threat of extinction, and must be preserved. Vat Vrikshya is strengthening their roots, their unique culture of living in harmony with nature, which has sustained them for 3,500 years on this land.”

The above article by Francesca Ferrario first published on in May, 2015.