Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (GRAVIS) was founded in 1983 by the husband-wife team of Laxmi Chand and Shashi Tyagi. The couple came to Rajasthan from Uttar Pradesh in the late 1970s. They had been activists in many social movements and had even worked under the leadership of prominent activists like Vinobha Bhave (who is considered to be Gandhi’s spiritual successor). The Tyagi’s gained formal qualifications in education and agriculture and wished to create an NGO that was scientifically sound while remaining responsive to the people. They had worked with the poor in rural areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. However, they wanted to serve where the need was the greatest. That’s what brought them to Rajasthan. The Thar desert lacked basic resources and very few development agencies were present in the area. They thus moved to the Thar desert in 1980.
Motivated by Gandhian teachings, they aimed to combine action with Gandhian thought. It is no surprise then to find the overarching principle at the organisation to be that of Sarvodaya i.e. ‘all rising, but the last person first’. This essentially means that they work for the collective rise of men, women, and children, regardless of economic situation, caste or religion. This philosophy is becoming more and more pertinent, because India’s social incongruities are increasing as the country enters into the modern age. The Gandhian notion of Gram Swaraj or ‘village self-rule’ is also fundamental to the organisation. They operate under the belief that self-reliance is necessary to survival; thus, rather than merely aiding rural populations, they seek to actively engage them in their projects.
They work towards rehabilitation of the rural community, enabling villages to take ownership of their environment, institutions, and relations. The Tyagis started their work in a small mud hut in Gagadi villagee, 60 km from Jodhpur, with a team of four. In order to understand the needs of the local people better, for many years, the couple lived with the people and shared their experiences. These years also saw many morchas (marches).
The Tyagi’s isolated themselves from mainstream world, living without electricity, running water and no vehicle and by this way of life came to understand the unique needs of the people. In 1987, after four years of living under these conditions, GRAVIS began its first externally funded project. The project focused on water and agricultural issues; and focussed on installing rainwater harvesting systems, deepening existing wells and on developing cooperative irrigation schemes. At the same time, GRAVIS recognised the position of women and children and their heightened vulnerability so started to expand their work into education and women’s empowerment too.
In 1991, there was an attack on the Gagadi Field centre, by local upper caste youths. The attack destroyed all of GRAVIS’ existing records and many staff members were injured too. But instead of deterring the organisation, the incident rejuvenated it and led to the establishment of a new headquarter in the city of Jodhpur. Moreover, it made their staff more determined to fight for the rights of the lower castes.
In 2005, co-founder Mr. Laxmi ChandTyagi unfortunately passed away. His wife still embodies the spirit and motivation that inspired them to start this organisation. Today, their work has expanded across all segments of development. They work in around 1,000 villages with the aim of easing the struggles of the people living in these difficult desert conditions. All projects aim at self-reliance and development as a community which works together to share the resources they have.