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The soldier-turned-social reformer has grabbed the national headlines in the past 24 hours with his campaign for an effective anti-corruption law. But very few are aware of the die-hard Gandhian’s nearly four-decade long struggle to improve the lot of common people from his village in Maharashtra and his continuing agitation for good governance that has succeeded in bringing about citizen-friendly laws in the state
From the Yadavbaba Temple in Ralegan Siddhi, a village in western India's Maharashtra state, to Jantar Mantar in Delhi, is a four-decade long story of soldier-turned-social reformer Anna Hazare's commitment and tenacity in exposing corruption in public office that has often put the government on the mat and compelled it to make people-friendly laws.
A true Gandhian, Anna (as he is fondly called) has through his peaceful struggle, using the non-violent weapon of fasting, succeeded in getting some revolutionary laws legislated in Maharashtra. Most of his hunger protests have been undertaken at the Yadavbaba Temple where he lives, and sometimes at the Azad Maidan in Mumbai. (He has not visited his family house in the past 35 years.) So, it's perhaps only a logical sequence that he has now stepped up on the national stage, to become an instant icon of the nation, and especially for our youth.
As a soldier, Kisan Bapat Baburao Hazare was posted at the Khemkaran border in the 1965 Indo-Pak War. He was the only survivor in an enemy air attack that killed all his fellow soldiers on 12th October of that year. That's when he felt that God had a purpose for him and he decided to dedicate his life to work for the people. Anna also took a pledge to remain a bachelor.
He started work in the gallis (bylanes) of his native Ralegan Siddhi, troubled by the plague of alcoholism among the villagers, their dire poverty, the barren lands and the consequent large-scale migration of people to urban centres. In this situation, Anna stayed calm, and driven by a passion to make a difference, he encouraged fellow villagers to adopt five commandments: A ban on alcoholism; a ban on cattle grazing; water conservation; family planning; and shram daan (voluntary physical labour). And he was able to make a big difference, very quickly, and transform Ralegan Siddhi into a sterling model village that even Mahatma Gandhi would have been proud of.
The people built bunds that collected rain water and were crucial in making the village an agricultural hub within a few monsoon seasons. Together with the other commandments, the village soon became a model to be emulated by others, drawing hundreds of visitors from across the country and even around the world, who came to learn and even today draw inspiration from the incredible social and economic transformation.
It was during this process in Ralegan Siddhi that Anna experienced first-hand the malaise of corruption in government offices, how the concentration of power in the gram panchayat (a body of a handful of elected representatives), instead of the gram sabha (the people's collective), resulted in corruption and unfair decisions, and led to increasing injustice and poverty among villagers. He realised that fighting corruption at all levels and making people-friendly laws was the only way. Thus began a relentless campaign under the banner of 'Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan' (Citizens' Crusade against Corruption). This led to a series of exposes of bureaucrats and ministers that often embarrassed the Maharashtra government and compelled it to introduce better laws.
Anna's best-known crusade was for the introduction of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in Maharashtra. Aruna Roy was spearheading the RTI movement in Rajasthan. Anna felt that the Official Secrets Act of 1923 that the British used to loot the country, must be struck off and be replaced with a transparent system that could only happen through something like the RTI. For this, he undertook a hunger protest at Azad Maidan in 2003, which culminated in the implementation of state RTI Act. But the legislation was toothless and again he campaigned and succeeded in setting up an expert citizens' committee to strengthen the law. Subsequently, much of this became part of the national RTI Act that came into force on 12 October 2005.
Not many will know that Anna was also instrumental in working out the Prevention of Delay in Discharge of Official Duties Act, against red tapism, which was enacted on 25 May 2006. He was angry that upright government officers were transferred, sometimes within months of being posted to a place, whereas some corrupt and favoured officials were cosy in their postings for 10, even 20 years.
He was also furious over government officials sitting on files that contained important public proposals and decisions. He fought tooth and nail for a law whereby a government servant must clear a file within a specified time and that transfers must take place only after three years. The Prevention of Delay in Discharge of Official Duties Act provides for disciplinary action against officials who move files slowly and also enables monitoring officials who stay too long in a post, or in a department, and for involvement in a corrupt nexus.
Anna also campaigned between 1998 and 2006 for amending the Gram Sabha Act, in order that the people (meaning the villagers) have a say in the development works in their village. While the state government refused to bend to his demand, it had to give in due to public pressure. As per the amendments, seeking sanction of the gram sabha (collective of villagers, and not just the few elected representatives in the gram panchayat) for expenditure on development works in the village is mandatory. In case of expenditure without the sanction of the gram sabha, 20% of gram sabha members can lodge a complaint to the chief executive officer of the zilla parishad with their signatures. The chief executive officer is required to visit the village and conduct an inquiry within 30 days and submit the report to the divisional commissioner, who has powers to remove the sarpanch or deputy sarpanch and dismiss the gram sevak involved. Anna was not satisfied, as the amended Act did not include "the right to recall a sarpanch". He insisted that this should be included and the state government relented. Recently, Anna joined hands with Arvind Kejriwal, the renowed RTI activist, to bring in a stronger Area Sabha Bill (at the moment it is still toothless), so that citizens in urban areas will have a say in the expenditure undertaken in their ward. A three-member committee has been set up by the Maharashtra government with Mr Kejriwal as one of the members. Public consultations are in progress.
Here is a run-down of some of Anna Hazare's major campaigns.
Liquor Prohibition Policy: Anna realised that alcohol addiction of the breadwinner in the family affected the woman of the house who was usually left to fend for herself and the children. He appealed to the government to bring in a law, whereby prohibition would come into force in a village if 25% of the women in the village demanded it.
In July 2009, the state government issued a government resolution amending the Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949. As per the amendments, if at least 25% of women voters demand liquor prohibition through a written application to the state excise department, voting should be conducted through a secret ballot. If 50% of the voters vote against the sale of liquor prohibition should be imposed in the village and the sale of liquor should be stopped. Similar action can be taken at the ward level in municipal areas.
Thereafter, another circular was issued, making it mandatory to get the sanction of gram the sabha for issuing new permits for sale of liquor. In some instances, when women agitated against the sale of liquor, cases were filed against them. Anna took up the issue again and in August 2009 the government issued another circular that sought withdrawal of cases against women who sought prohibition of liquor in their villages.
Curb on sand extraction for developmental works that is destroying rivers and the environment: The sand mafia is notorious in Maharashtra, and it has the blessings of leading politicians of the state. Anna appealed to the government that this loot of natural resources must stop as it is leading to falling water levels and turning fertile lands into deserts.
After regular correspondence with the government and a series of meetings, the state government issued a government resolution in August 2009 that empowered gram sabhas to decide on sand extraction and that auctions should be held in front of the gram sabhas, with the attendance of the tehsildar, police officer and talathi being mandatory.
Use of biometric system to monitor attendance: Officers and staff at various government offices do not attend office on time, which causes inconvenience to people. Anna demanded the introduction of a biometric system to deal with the problem. Accordingly, on 28 July 2009, the state government ordered that a biometric attendance system should be installed at all government offices. This would help monitor attendance and speed up administration.
Warranty tenure of road works: The zilla parishad undertakes road works on which it spends crores of rupees every year, but most of these works are of poor quality, due to rampant corruption. Still, no contractor is taken to task for low quality work.
Anna Hazare's campaign resulted in the government issuing a special circular in July 2009 that requires zilla parishads to put up boards giving information of the road works, such as the contractor's name, the date of commencement of work, the total expenditure, the date of conclusion of the work and the warranty period. The contractor is held responsible for repairs of roads during the warranty period to ensure quality of work.
Now, with Anna Hazare demanding a joint committee for the Jan Lokpal Bill, it is unlikely that the central government will be able to ignore this much longer. For, he is one face in the country with a crystal clear image. And he is one who will not give up till he has achieved his mission for the good of the people.