Sharad Mathur

Anna Hazare – The Transformation of Ralegan Siddhi

Sharad Mathur
(This article is the part one of a two part series)

 


Having driven for almost four hours, I reached the ground zero of veteran Gandhian Anna Hazare’s sphere of influence – Ralegan Siddhi. It was around lunch time and I stopped at a dhaaba (roadside restaurant) in the village which had an all women management. Behind this dhaaba, I could see the village high school campus which housed a full-fledged computer lab and boasted of CCTV cameras in its classrooms. At a distance there was a branch of Bank of Maharashtra, an ATM booth and a post office. The village was covered in greenery and at every 20m or so I could see a water harvesting structure. And yet, all the roads in the village were squeaky clean, well paved in tar and I could not find any potholes. There were no cows squatting on the roads either. Instead, I saw some sedans and SUVs parked outside some houses.

This did not match the mental image of an Indian village that Bollywood movies, news reports, and documentary films had painted in my head. So, just to be sure, I asked my hostess if this was indeed Ralegan Siddhi. Serving missal-paav (a snack popular in Maharashtra) she nodded and pointed at the portrait of Anna Hazare hanging on the wall and said “He did it.” Later during the day, when I met Anna Hazare in the Yadav Baba temple, I tried to find out how.

Making of the Man

Born in a small village Bhingar, Anna Hazare was named Baburao by his parents. He, along with his six younger siblings, had a very humble upbringing. When he was nine years old, his family moved to their ancestral village Ralegan Siddhi where he would bring about a transformation and assume the title of Anna (translates to elder brother). But before that he went through many tumultuous experiences, which made him wiser than his years.

Since there was no primary school in Ralegan Siddhi then, he was taken to Mumbai by his maternal uncle. “I went to Mumbai for higher studies after class five. My family was not very well to do. But I had my mother’s sanskaars (roughly translates to morals),“ remembers Hazare. However, not an affluent man himself, his uncle could support his education only till class seven. After that young Hazare had to sell flowers near the Dadar railway station to survive and support his family. With tremendous self-confidence and inner strength, he grew his flower business and in some years he had two flower shops.

Another example of his self-confident ways also comes from his days in Mumbai where he noticed a gang of goons forcing poor tenants out of rented rooms on behest of landlords. He decided to help the poor tenants and formed an action group consisting of local youngsters. He recalls, “We went to them peacefully and asked them to stop harassing the poor people who are but only looking to put food on their plates. But it did not work. That’s when we told them that we will not hesitate in responding to them in their own language of force.” For a young man with no political connections it was a brave move. But it worked and the poor tenants were left alone.

Then came the fateful year of 1962, the year of Indo-China war, and an 18-year-old Hazare was drafted during the emergency military recruitment drives, despite not meeting the physical requirements.

Making of the Mahatma

During his stint in the military, Baburao was posted in Sikkim, Jammu-Kashmir, Rajasthan, Assam, Mizoram, some of them conflict zones. He survived a sneak attack by Naga rebels while all others in the vehicle succumbed. Having seen poverty, struggle, and now death, Hazare often found himself contemplating about the meaning of life. Not finding conclusive answers, even the thought of suicide crossed his mind. I believe he did not commit suicide because the thought of it had not come from dejection, but from one of the answers he considered, and this nihilist answer did not appeal to him because at the root of this contemplation was the pursuit of personally relevant and meaning objectives for his life. And soon, he found a meaningful objective for his life in Swami Vivekananda’s ideas collated in his book “Call to the Youth for Nation Building”. Hazare remembers, “At the New Delhi railway station, I got my hands on this book by Swami Vivekananda and it changed my life. I realised that the purpose of my life was to serve others.”

A Young Anna HazareThis resolve to serve was strengthened during the 1965 Indo-Pak war which proved to be a turning point in Hazare’s life. He pointed towards an injury mark above his right eye and told me, “In 1965, in Khemkaran sector, there was an air-attack in which all my unit members gave the supreme sacrifice but I survived with only a minor injury. I was gifted a new life. It was my punarjanma (reincarnation). So, I decided to dedicate it in the service of the society and the country. What better way was there for it than serving to reduce the suffering of its poor?” Naturally so; he already saw serving the poor as a worthy objective in his life. He was not alien to the fact that his emotional unrest was rooted in him not being able to defeat the poverty he witnessed while growing up. Life threatening incidences and the inspiring words of Vivekananda only made it much clearer to him.

He resolved not to get married because he believed that while taking care of the family, he would have little time for his new-found purpose in life. He is in his late seventies and has not set foot in his ancestral house in the last 40 years. He lives in the Yadav Baba temple and his worldly possessions include bedding, a plate, and few cotton clothes. He embodies tyaaga.

Ralegan Siddhi: A Place in Dire Straits

Pre-1975 Ralegan Siddhi was a village suffering from the tribulations of modernity without actually experiencing any of its fruits. Indiscriminate use of natural resources, soil depletion, water run-off and recurring draught were resulting in low agricultural produce. Digging of wells was of no recourse as there was no water even at the depths of 400m. With every failed crop, grip of poverty over the village tightened. Almost all the villagers were farmers and 70% of them lived below the poverty line. A village of farmers failed to meet even one-third of its food requirements. When people themselves did not have enough to eat, rearing the livestock was a distant proposition. Moneylenders were growing strong and poor farmers stuck in perpetually increasing debt, were losing their land.

The landless farmers had to resort to breaking quarry stones outside the village or migrate to the cities to work as daily wage labourers. Earning from both these sources was just not enough for the families which on an average had 7-8 members. That is when some villagers discovered illicit liquor trade as a lucrative career option. Soon there were 40 odd illicit liquor dens in Ralegan Siddhi. With these liquor dens came the problem of alcoholism, which brought about vandalism, street brawls, theft, and violence against women. Even in this gloomy scenario, untouchability was still being practiced in the village. Dalits (translates to downtrodden) were not allowed to draw water from the village well, were asked to sit separately at village meetings, and were the last ones to be served food.

There was a primary school in the village, which village children did not attend regularly. Cleanliness was absent from almost all parts of the village and diseases related to unsanitary conditions were prevalent. Infant mortality rate was very high and people had to take loan for hospital expenses. Daughters still needed to be wedded and it added to the mountain of loan whose weight farmers were carrying. Government schemes were not reaching the poor and corruption was prevalent.

“When I was in the military, during holidays, I used to come back to village to see my village in dire straits. I used to spend most of the time at the devi’s (goddess’) temple outside the village. In those short trips I could not do much. Moreover, with no other source of income other than my military service, I did not want to become a burden on my family. So, I served from 1965 to 1975, till the time I became eligible for voluntary retirement with government pension,” says Hazare.

Return of the Prodigal Son

After retiring from the military, he returned to his village with his provident fund and gratuity money, a sum of Rs. 22,000. He did not go to his house. He went to the debilitated Yadav Baba temple and spent all his money on the renovation of the temple. “They saw me spending my own money on the temple and they were shocked. They were more shocked when I did not ask them for their money.” To a largely Hindu population of the village, this was an evidence of Hazare’s concern for the community and the sincerity of his dedication to contribute to the village.  This moved the villagers, more so the elderly and religious.

The villagers started coming to the temple, which no longer looked like a haunted site. With villagers coming in, discussions around the village problems also started happening and the Yadav Baba temple started becoming the community center for the village. Since the villagers were poor, they could not help with money for the development of this new found community center, but they wanted to help. Recognising, understanding, and appreciating how the villagers felt, Hazare introduced the idea of shramdaan (donating of one’s labour or efforts) which would transform the village in coming years. More importantly, it was the beginning of a relationship that was characterised by trust and compassion. “They saw what I wore. What I ate. Where I lived. What I did. That’s how trust was inspired. Once they started trusting me, they were open to listening to me,” says Anna.

The Wheel of Transformation

Nashabandi (Alcohol Ban)

After he had established trust with the villagers, he first sought to address the problem of alcoholism and illicit liquor in the village. Without this, no reforms could be sustained. However, Anna knew people engaged in illicit liquor trade because there was virtually no alternative available to them for earning their daily bread. Hazare knew it was not going to be an easy task. “People in their elements are selfish. One can talk to them about the samaaj (society), the country, and how we need to change them together but it is of no use. They are more interested in what is in it for them. They do not need the sermons of enlightenment. They need to know how to put food on their plate,” says Hazare. Demonstrating his understanding of this perspective and remaining respectful of the community’s feelings, Hazare urged them to give up the liquor trade with a promise of alternate livelihood. Tarun Mandal, originally constituting 25 dedicated young men, highly passionate about the work Hazare was doing, was instrumental in convincing the villagers. The agreement to stop the illicit liquor trade was made in the temple premises, thus giving it a religious sanctity. In next three months, most illicit liquor dens were closed. Those who opposed this were ‘convinced’ to toe the line by the community.

Making Water Available

Fulfilling his promise, Hazare helped the villagers get seasonal jobs in government’s rural development programmes and many of them were also inspired to join the army. However, to make this predominantly agrarian village prosperous, he knew it was vital to solve the problem of paucity of water. The first step towards it was construction of nalla bunds (open drains bunds), through shramdaan, which would stop the soil runoff and aid in water percolation. At the same time, a state government sponsored project was started in the village which included nalla bunding, contour bunding and land shaping for soil conservation. Like any government project, it was marred by corruption and lack of accountability. Resisting his impulse to complain or protest against the officials involved, he devised a unique solution to this problem in which emotions were running high. Villagers were desperate and situation could have escalated and impacted the project negatively. He mobilised the villagers to do shramdaan for the project to increase its efficiency and while at it, monitor the project to ensure that all the technical specifications were adhered to while constructing tanks and bunds. And the same arrangement worked with the renovation of the percolation tank which was done with the zilla parishad (district council) officials. Now, the villagers were not the passive beneficiaries but were active participants in government projects. All the able- bodied villagers contributed one day of shramdaan every fortnight to plant trees and other community work. The frequency increased when the labour for government projects was required.

Shramdaan to build water harvesting structures.

Shramdaan to build water harvesting structures.

The ground water levels had increased but farmers could not afford to build wells in their fields. The solution to that was formation of cooperative societies in which a group of farmers with adjoining fields would dig a community well.

Since Ralegan-Siddhi is a draught prone area, draught occurred every two to three years, often consecutively. A big step towards ensuring sufficient water for irrigation, even during draught, was to lift water from the Kukadi canal which passed three km away from the village. It was not the first attempt at setting up a lift irrigation system on the Kukadi canal. Hundred such attempts had failed earlier. However, a hopeful and resilient Anna Hazare went about it anyway with a positive outlook. A cooperative society from the village Krishna Pani Purvatha Society took a loan from Bank of Maharashtra and villagers did shramdaan as with every development project. This worked because Hazare recognised the need for objectivity as emotions or personal bias can wreak havoc in collective efforts. He made it work by setting up a functional administrative system and enforcing the rules with transparency. The committee of directors for the cooperative changed every three years and accounts were presented in the Annual General Meeting. Water and electricity charges were fixed as per the government norms. All payments were to be made to the bank directly. To avoid water wastage, farmers needed to state demand of water in advance and if they failed to do that, they had to pay double the rate.

Now since water was available even in the summers, farmers were able to get two crops every year and the income from one crop rose to Rs. 35,000-40,000 per acre from Rs. 10,000 per acre in the absence of lift canal. “In a village where people did not have food on their own plates, 200-250 trucks full of onion and fresh vegetables started going out to the market,” Hazare proudly tells me.

Social Reforms

Anna Hazare’s model of transformation, has essentially been driven with the philosophy of ‘one for all and all for one’. Setting up of grain banks which were the insurance against crop failure and draught ensured that no one in the village ever slept hungry or had to borrow money to buy food grains. He mobilised the villagers to contribute in cash and kind for building Sant Nilobaray Vidyalaya (high school) which focuses on character building, physical fitness, and religious morals along with academics. The school got recognition from the Zilla Parishad after a struggle which included Hazare sitting on fast until death. Education has helped improve the standard of living in the village as many young men have joined armed forces and other government functions.

Community toilets were built and villagers took it upon themselves to keep the village clean. The village health center began to function well with the support and involvement of the villagers. With better hygiene and medical facilities available, maternal mortality cases became extinct and infant mortality rate came down to 27.42 per 1000 live births, much lower than the national average.

Through the efforts of Tarun Mandal community marriages became a norm and dalits were brought in the mainstream. Hazare inspired the villagers to do shramdaan and build houses for dalits near the temple; they no longer lived in the outskirts. They were now the members of Tarun Mandal and gram panchayat. They participated in community marriages. They were the part of the team that would cook and serve the food in the village temple during community gatherings.

Ralegan Siddhi was transformed.

***

(The next part of the series will focus on Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption, his activism, and the leadership he provided to the India Against Corruption movement).


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