Amid the dense forests of Melghat tiger reserve, lies Harisal, a little village in the Amravati district of Maharashtra, bordering Madhya Pradesh. With the Sipna river on one side and hills on the other, this is also India’s first Digital Village. Often described as an “immeasurable beauty”, it is home to 1,200 people, including 40 tribal families belonging to the Korku tribe.
Prakash Gupta, an alumnus of IIT Guwahati, was first introduced to this village when he joined Microsoft in 2018 to work on the organisation’s digital village programme.
“However, the unique location of the village and the culture of the Korku tribe gave me the motivation to start an ecotourism initiative,” he recalls.
From solar-powered panels to accessible WiFi, jungle safaris to immersive cultural experience with the native Korku tribe to partaking in local village activities— Prakash’s Harisal Tourism initiative offers multiple attractions to visitors.
Moreover, his community led and non-profit organisation has helped provide sustainable livelihood opportunities to the villagers as his homestay employs only the locals. Tourists can experience the rustic rural life by working with the farmers, eating the local food cooked with locally grown ingredients, participating in native music and folk dance, and by planting trees in the village.
Over the past year, the homestay has attracted hundreds of guests through word of mouth alone.
Harisal was infamous as the malnutrition capital of India. Scoring significantly low on all Human Development Index parameters— education, employment, and income levels— it was characterised by a lack of roads, irregular power, low mobile connectivity, and minimal public infrastructure.
To address these challenges, the Maharashtra state government signed an MoU with Microsoft in August 2015 to develop this village as a pilot for India’s first ideal Digital Village. The idea was that if this village, with the worst HDI, could be developed, then the model could be replicated in other villages as well.
Hence in 2016, Microsoft used its “white space” technology – the unused spectrum between two TV channels – to provide free internet connectivity to Harisal and its neighbouring villages. To provide the village with medical and healthcare facilities, the state government partnered with Amravati Super-specialty Hospital and JJ Hospital for telemedicine services.
As the first step to making the villagers financially stable, Prakash, along with his Microsoft team, provided weaving training to the village women. Men were trained to make bamboo products such as mats, vases, bowls, and baskets.
Next, he turned his attention to rural tourism as “immersive and experiential travel” that is the current trend in urban areas. “People want to take a break from their busy hectic city lives and relax amid nature along with proper village stay experience in traditional tribal houses,” he says.
Prakash discussed his plans with the tribal community to develop a Harisal Tourism project. It started with five homestays with basic but comfortable facilities, reflecting a cosy lifestyle with home-cooked food and an authentic “rural experience.”
Since there were minimal expenses involved, and the tourism essentially offered urban dwellers a glimpse of their lifestyle without hindering their lifestyle, the community agreed to the plan. – Yourstory