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Anna's next war of Indian independence

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Sunita Narain profiles the man who never took half steps to development and transformed a drought-hit village into a prosperous one back in the 1980s

Anna Hazare The first time I met Anna Hazare was in the mid-1980s. My colleague Anil Agarwal was travelling in search of answers to how India could regenerate lands and address desperate poverty. We heard about a village, Ralegan Siddhi, in the drought region of Ahmednagar. It was peak summer. We were led to a small temple where we were introduced to a diminutive man, who, we were told, was spearheading change in the village. This was Kishan Baburao Hazare (Anna), a driver in the Indian Army, back to ‘fix’ his village.

I have a vivid memory of that hot day when I was given my first lesson on watershed development. The village was surrounded by small hills, completely barren and desolate. What I could see were pits being dug across the contours. Anna Hazare explained that this was the start of the ridge-to-valley model – rain would be trapped in the trenches, slowing the flow of water to recharge groundwater. Then, trees would be planted and grazing stopped; and the hills would be the catchment for the village’s water endowment. He then took us to see a series of check-dams on the streams, ponds in fields and percolation dams in the valley. The principle was the same: Hold the rain where it falls and use water to build the economic base of the village.

This worked. We went back in the 1990s to study the change. The results were astounding. The hills were green, grass-laden, the wells in this drought-stricken area were full of water and fields were rich with crops. The economic analysis we did then showed that this was no mean change. By then the village had invested Rs 75 lakh through government schemes and voluntary labour (shramdan). And the returns were high. Incomes had risen, so that over a quarter of the village earned more than Rs 5 lakh annually (this was a time when the super-rich in India were defined as those who earned more than Rs 10 lakh annually). Most importantly, income disparities were low.

The transformation was a lot to do with Anna’s personality. When he had gone back to the village, it was a ‘den of drunkards’ (in his words). The first thing he did was to ban alcohol. He stopped television viewing and insisted that all residents contribute to community labour. He started a school, where the only qualification for admission was that the student had to be a dropout. Every student excelled. He was not willing to take half steps to development.

It is this steely determination that has brought many to their knees. Based on Ralegan, the state government launched the Adarsh Gram Yojana (model village plan). It worked on five principles — ban on cutting trees, free from grazing and liquor; strict family planning and contribution of voluntary labour for development works. I would not say that the scheme, with its many prohibitions, was a hit in the modern and free society of rural Maharashtra. But I would definitely argue that Anna Hazare’s Ralegan Siddhi remains a pilgrimage for all to understand the potential of a new model, where ecological and natural wealth can create well-being and economic growth. The village has become the basis of planning across the country. This is no small change.

* Priyadarshini Vriksha Mitra Award, 1986
* Man of the Year Award, 1988
* Krishi Bhushan Award (From Govt of Maharashtra), 1989
* Padma Shri Award, 1990
* Padma Bhushan Award, 1992
* Vivekananda Seva Puraskar, 1994
* Shiromani Award, 1996
* Mahaveer Puraskar, 1997
* CARE International Award, 1998
* Diwaliben Mehta Award, 1999
* National Integration Award, 1999
* Paul Mittal National Award, 2000
* Giants International Award, 2000
* Basavshri Prashasti Award, 2000
* Transparency International Integrity Award, 2003
* Honorary Doctorate from Gandhigram Institute, 2005
* Jit Gill Memorial Award for Outstanding Public Service, 2008

The lesson from Anna’s work is that you begin with environment but end with governance change. Anil Agarwal wrote, back in 1991, that Ralegan Siddhi is a model village, because of the practices of open, transparent and decentralised governance that Hazare had provided. He said that Anna’s message should not get lost in a few enquiries – this was when Anna was on the war-path, fighting corruption in village administration. Instead, it should lead to structural changes in administration so that corruption can be checked. This, he called, the next War of Independence.

I hope this time Anna’s message comes home. For the sake of all of us.

The author is the director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment

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First Published: Fri, April 08 2011. 01:47 IST