Not Scale-Up But Scale-Out

An intentional community in Andhra Pradesh shows the way to mainstream goodness by focussing on the nine basic requirements of community living

There are times when I do not question the grand scheme of things. So, when Pradeep Ghosh, an Ashoka Fellow, invited me to accompany him to Proto Village, I didn’t ask many questions. And that is how I was led to this intentional community in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, where people choose to do what they want to do and when. Proto Village doesn’t prescribe to any vocation in particular, which also means that people who stay put here design their own activities adhering to Proto’s ethics and principles. There is no anxiety of execution either, but they live off and by the land, so their skin is in the game.

Kalyan the co-founder of Proto Village, felt that the normal course of education he pursued left him with more questions than answers. To clear the muddle in his head, he decided to travel across India, but with one constraint – he was going to travel without any money! 

A person walking down a dirt road

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Pradeep Ghosh and the author on a conducted tour of Proto Village by co-founder, Kalyan

For two and a half years, he wandered, lived and worked with various people, understood their culture and practices and absorbed as much distributed local wisdom as possible. The learning was insidious for the engineer and management professional in him. At the end of his wandering, he triangulated the calls of his head, heart and hands and gave birth to the idea of Proto Village. This concept was projected onto a twelve-acre arid land which is now a living-breathing entity, not just for humans, but for all species who inhabit that space.

Proto is completely off-the-grid and uses wind turbines and solar panels to meet their energy requirements. The idea is to be mindful of energy consumption, because if even one person doesn’t use power judiciously, the entire community spends the night in darkness. The mountaineer in me hosts this particular intelligence in my body – one uses one’s energy with extreme caution, knowing the uncertainties of the journey that we embark on. It was a profound point of connection in space-time for me, I could feel Proto with my body…

Wind turbine at Proto Village

The inhabitants here really work with their hands, even if it is to make machines (they fabricated their wind turbine blades themselves!) that they will later use. Gandhian in the truest sense, the people in Proto village believe in being self-reliant and designing for resilience by following 9 basic requirements:

Food and Water Security: In 2014, the villagers started digging 8 ponds, 16 swales and 300 contour trenches. The aim was to accomplish as much as possible before the very unlikely event of a rain. They completed this project in a year and a half, and on the very day of completion, rain filled up the trenches, swales and ponds! It was the perfect merger of fortitude and serendipity.

For food, they grow seasonal fruits and vegetables, and millets over two seasons.

Housing/Buildings: All constructions are earth-friendly and buildings are made by the inhabitants themselves. Usually hexagonal structures are preferred, due to their resilient quality. “Hexagon reminds me of our inspiration, the bees, to remain true to our practice of resilience through collective intelligence”, says Kalyan.

Clothing: Two pit handlooms are used for weaving. They are also experimenting with various types of yarn/plant fibres and natural dyeing.  As the handloom organically grow, they hope to depend completely on making their own clothes.

A room with a fireplace

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The pit loom – where they experiment with different types of yarns and plant fibres

Healthcare: Emphasis is on preventive healthcare, which is achieved by working on the body, having nutritious homegrown food and leading a happy life. The day starts with exercise/yoga for about forty minutes, followed by (after breakfast) community farming for about an hour, in silence. They believe that working with soil brings in a certain sense of happiness. Therefore, the food that is consumed is not only without any pesticides but also tended to with joy. And only nutritious crops are grown.

They have also started on making a herbal garden, so that that is the first line of defence in case of seasonal infections/diseases. The villagers plan to start Panchakarma (a five step Ayurvedic treatment) and telemedicine for providing medical care to nearby village clusters. Digital Empowerment Foundation set up the internet infrastructure for them, to meet the requirements of such a project and Aarogyaseva, an organisation in Bangalore, plans to send non-specialist doctors on a pro bono basis to see the patients from Proto and surrounding village clusters face to face, as well as with specialists over the internet.

Energy: They use biogas for cooking and harness solar and wind energy for meeting their balance energy requirements. All their buildings are designed to be highly energy efficient.

Education: The curriculum is based on:

Self: Basic physiology to practice body-mind-spirit balance.
Environment: Covers natural, political, social, economic and technological.
Self-expression: Expressing the self through art, language, philosophy and more.

Tools: Students are equipped with tools essential for the modern world, such as mathematics, science and NVC (non-violent communication). They also have tinkering labs with different kinds of equipment including a 3D printer.

Students at the Tinker Lab

Their curriculum and content so impressed the National Institute of Open Schooling that special permission was accorded to continue their own methodology from 9th to 12th grades. Parents of children contribute in any way they can be it by giving haircuts to children, or by providing millets for the meals. All parents join in for all festivities at school.

Going ahead, all the educational content which Proto has on its servers will be made available to the outside world free of cost. A few, currently unemployed youth, will turn into education entrepreneurs by setting up their facilities in their villages where anyone can access the content for a fee.

Connectivity: They connect with the rest of the world through physical structures such as roads, as well as via newspapers, phones and the internet.

Trade: Firmly founded on the principles of Sarvodaya – upliftment and progress of every single person – Proto aspires to become a Rural Economic Zone. The concept of REZ was introduced by social reformer T Karunakaran, to further the concept of local self-governance and local economy. It believes that economic activity and protecting the planet cannot be mutually exclusive ideas. Most importantly, the livelihood means enables social cohesion and also conservation of environment.

Disaster Management: The community constantly looks for ways to ensure they are drought, and hunger proofed. Apart from growing seasonal vegetables and fruits, each member grows vegetables in 3-4 Wicking beds, which provides them more than enough vegetables all through the year. A few beds are also used only to preserve seeds, so that they will not be any more dependent on seeds even from the outside world. They also rear cows and chicken, and have a fish farm. The lifecycles of animals and the human inhabitants are linked, and one feeds/leads to the other.

A person standing next to a pile of dirt

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Kalyan, the founder, next to a Wicking Bed

 A Rural Economic Zone

The REZ has three non-negotiables – the activities should be ecologically sustainable and locally appropriate; raw materials should be sourced from nearby village clusters; and that the work and supply chair system are in three tiers: 

  • Individual – People work on their own, with minimal investments
  • Village – Self Help Groups (SHGs), where investments are required
  • Nodal – The Proto Village level/model

All products are sold under the name ‘GRAAMAM’, and the villagers take their products to the local market on a swanky yellow bullock cart. The youth are encouraged to sell products on Amazon and Flipkart. Their style-statement lies in what they sell on those platforms, and not on what they buy. Big doors swing on small hinges after all.

A picture containing outdoor, yellow, grass, sitting

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The Graamam bullock cart which takes their products to the village markets

Propagating the Proto Way

The submariner in me thought, Proto should be the norm after all: live within your needs and means. Submarines sail out with fuel and ration required for a specified number of days, calculated based on the number of people and the operations planned. If, in a submarine, we were not mindful and judicious about our consumption, it could lead to perilous outcomes. Asking for more from mid-ocean was out of question; no self-respecting submariner would let his submarine break surface let alone ask for supplies! Proto brings that discipline and rigour to community living. Such a simple idea, spoken of often too. But here was the Proto-way being put it into practice – deter endless consumerism, ensure equal distribution of resources and bring in equity to the world. As is to be expected, Proto’s balance sheet has a quadruple bottom line – they are in the black in the important three Ps (people, planet and peace), they need a little more time to move from red to black in the fourth P, profits.

End Game

Proto Village doesn’t want to grow to a size where things are unmanageable. Instead it wants to spread its ethos far and wide. To further that cause, they offer a Fellowship, as part of which a few people get to stay with Proto villagers for half a year, to learn and imbibe their ways.

These Fellows will go far and wide to guide people in the art of self-sufficient community living: all part of the plan to scale-out rather than scale-up.

The legacy is to not leave a legacy. No name, no fame, just mainstreaming goodness.

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