Avani: NGO in the Himalayas

Avani, who might soon be getting a grant to further the new pine needle gasification project if it gets enough votes (see end of this article), is a voluntary organization working in the Kumaon Himalayas, Uttarakhand, India. It was founded by two sannyasins, Rashmi Bharti and Rajnish Jain in 1997. After leaving the Commune in Pune in 1990, Rashmi and Rajnish explored various openings in NGOs working for social and environmental sustainability before moving to Kumaon.

There, as they say themselves, they felt so much gratitude to be living in such a beautiful place that they simply wanted to give something back to it! It was their recognition of the problems of the far-flung villages situated in the highest mountain ranges of the world that gave birth to Avani. Inspired by Osho’s vision of trust and respect in the intelligence of individuals, their emphasis is on promoting local people’s self-reliance. Through Avani they provide new technology and new sources of livelihoods as an integral part of living, being and celebrating life in these beautiful mountain ranges.

I have spend many a happy visit on Avani’s campus, watching the sun rise over the snow-capped peaks, watching the spinners, weavers and solar engineers going about their fascinating tasks, and hearing the sounds from the children in the campus’s pre-school. The place is an experiment in communal living, where local people (Rajnish and Rashmi are the only outsiders except for visitors and temporary volunteers) live and eat together, free of caste or creed. The communal kitchen serves healthy vegetarian food, much of it grown in their own gardens (everybody without exception donates an hour of their time to garden work before the working day begins); women are treated with respect and run many operations (many of them have taken to the manufacture of solar lamps to the surprise of their menfolk, for whom technology used to be their domain!); and decisions are taken by consensus.

Avani’s work has three dimensions: on the technology front they have provided thousands of solar lights and water heaters to almost 100 villages which are without electricity; and are now developing a new technology of pine needle gasification, which turns pine litter into clean energy. Their technical training for villagers to make and maintain these provides jobs for many local youth. On the craft front, their hand spun, woven and naturally died textiles are now sold in fashionable shops within India and all over the world. Growing the silk, and the herbs (for dieing) provides jobs for local farmers.

I’ve met many volunteers at the campus too, from all over the world, giving whatever they have in the way of expertise to help. Everyone enjoys the chance to go ‘off road’ and visit one of Avani’s outlying centers in the villages, often four or more hours walk from any road. On these paths the local people greet us all (and each other) with palms together and a namaste, and will usually try to waylay us with offers of tea at their homes. These people are living in one of the most challenging environments in the world, and are mostly chronically short of food and healthcare. I have immense respect and admiration for Rashmi and Rajnish, for providing light for their homes so that their children can study after dark, and for providing livelihood opportunities so that their young people don’t have to move down to the polluted cities on the plains below and work for a pittance as waiters or labourers.

I am inspired too by the way Rashmi and Rajnish have brought Osho’s vision of the new man – self-reliant, self-respecting, free of chains like caste, co-operating communally – to such a ‘back-of-beyond’ and seemingly unlikely area. As they say themselves, quoting Osho, in the film I made about Avani (above) “Let’s try to leave the earth a little more beautiful than we found it…..and that’s religion!”

Comments are closed.