Anna Hazare may have catapulted to nationwide recognition in 2010, but this stalwart social reformer has been a campaigner and catalyst for social change in Maharashtra for at least seven decades. After the 'India Against Corruption'’ campaign disbanded and turned political, this humble man has quietly returned to his roots and continued his relentless hard work without publicity.
The story of his extraordinary reforms took root in the 1970s at Ralegan Siddhi, a drought-prone village in Maharashtra. While most of India knows little about this diminutive Gandhian, every government in Maharashtra recognises him as a one-man power centre with a large following, who works selflessly and is absolutely dogged about pursuing his campaigns. Whenever Anna (older brother in Maharashtra and Karnataka) has threatened a fast or an agitation, political leaders and top bureaucrats are known to have rushed to his village to discuss the issue and find solutions. But what worries them more are his campaigns to expose corruption in government offices.
Anna has played a key role in the fight for the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005, Prevention of Delay in Discharge of Official Duties Act of 2006, and has constantly campaigned for empowering gram panchayats.
What is less known about Anna’s rise as a leader of people and earned him everlasting respect is the rule that he played in transforming Ralegaon Siddhi into a model for village and bringing prosperity and water to the people.
Transformation of Ralegan Siddhi
With a population of 2,500 people, Ralegan Siddhi received an annual rainfall of just 500mm, which is so sparse that it equals the single day rainfall in many other parts of the Maharashtra. Rainwater harvesting was unknown to this village of 1,700 acres and there was no irrigation even for one crop on the 300-400 acres that was cultivable land. There was steady migration out of the village since the people could not even cultivate enough grain to feed all inhabitants.
This precarious situation left the villagers with neither work to earn a living nor food on their plates. And, yet, about 35 to 40 country liquor dens sprouted and seemed to be the only means of earning a livelihood. Against this dismal backdrop, Anna worked to bring together the people of Ralegaon Siddhi and work on water conservation and village development schemes initially without any funding or donations.
In an interview with me, Anna narrated the story with a sense of satisfaction, "To ensure participation of people, the gram panchayat decided to go door-to-door and make it compulsory for two people per house to do shramdaan every month. It is pointless to offer theoretical knowledge about village development as it would not solve their fundamental problem of getting at least one meal a day. It was imperative to implement the watershed development programme in order to grow more food and tackle the hunger issue. We embarked upon it with right earnest by adopting a three-fanged approach -- obtaining funds from government schemes, peoples' participation, and procuring bank loans when needed. We also believed that development cannot be unbridled or one-sided as it would be harmful in the long run. So we focused on sustainable development, keeping the individual, the family and the benefit of the village in mind. This ensured that we did not destroy nature for the sake of development."
Rising of the Groundwater Level
Explaining how the transformation unfolded, Anna says, "As part of the watershed development programme, we built 45 earthen nullah bunds, 10 cement bunds and 16 Gabbier bunds. We also dug a large lake for retaining water. It had a 1x1 metre Continuous Contour (CTT) with loose boulder based structures to retain water within the village and prevent it from flowing away. We then planted three lakh saplings and ensured that they survived. In order to do this, we banned open grazing of the cattle as grass has the power of retaining top soil, which used to be washed away into rivers. We asked the cattle owners to cut fodder only from abandoned land. All efforts were made to retain rainwater and protect soil erosion, starting from the top of the hills, hill slopes, and the ground level. This led to augmentation of the groundwater level."
Flourishing Agriculture and Dairy Farming
Once ground water levels rose, the village could dig more wells. The number of wells rose from a mere 35 to 135. Ralegaon Siddhi now grows and harvests two crops on 1,200 acres of land, where even one crop was difficult earlier. There is a surplus of grain which is sold outside the village.
Dairy as well as vegetable and onion farming also began in full swing. Over 100-150 trucks of onions are now sold annually and the village sells 6,000 litres of milk as against 300-400 litres earlier. Dairy farming alone led to an income of Rs2 lakhs every day and boosted the economy. People stopped migrating for employment since dairy farming not only provided a good livelihood but there is actually a labour shortage at the village. Ralegan Siddhi has also worked at recycling and treatment of waste as well as drip irrigation.
As prosperity increased, mud house began to give way to pucca homes with RCC concrete and a secondary school now exits for 1,000 students of whom 300 are residential. A one-time investment in a solar plant that provides 2 MW of energy has also led to substantial savings for the gram panchayat in electricity costs.
Where owning bicycles was a rarity, over 400 homes in Ralegaon Siddhi have motorcycles (215), cars (52), tractors (11) and tempos (25). Self-help groups for women have come up and a rural cooperative society has over Rs10 crore of deposits.
High on Morals and Social Ethics
"Sometimes when the village progresses economically, the attitude of some people degrades and more people take to drinking alcohol” says Anna, who feels very strongly about strengthening the moral fibre of people. While some of his ways may seem controversial to those who do not understand rural reality, he has had a big impact on the youth. For instance, he says, almost 20 years ago, during a Holi festival, youngsters at Ralegan Siddhi decided to appeal to shop keepers not to sell cigarettes. They appealed to shopkeepers not to sell cigarettes, bidis and gutka, bought off all the stock from the shops and burnt it in the bonfire. Ever since, the shopkeepers do not sell these addictive kinds of stuff. " Anna strongly believes in the concept of Shramdaan and asks every family to devote some time and effort for social benefit and village development. He has also worked at breaking caste discrimination and economic development of the backward classes. Not only did he work at ending discriminatory practices, but the Gram Sabha also took a decision to cultivate land belonging to some of the backward communities to help them repay their accumulated debt of Rs 60 lakhs. Not only do all castes celebrate festivals and traditional events together, but invitations to public events are issued in the name of “the Ralegan Siddhi family” rather than individual names.
Anna, who had limited education and was an army truck-driver and lives on the modest pension that he receives. He made a resolution that he does not need wealth and power; he lived in a temple and did not even have a bank account while he worked to better the village. Anna’s family has land and a house at Ralegan Siddhi but he hasn’t been there even once in the past 45 years. It is a measure of his commitment to the village and in line with his core belief that a leader must always lead by example.