The saga of the big brother in a little village

Anna in Marathi means brother and Kishan Baburao Hazare is lovingly known as Anna Hazare in Ralegan Siddhi, the village in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district that he helped transform from poverty to plenty. Yet, though life in the village has changed, Anna continues to live in a small room in the village temple.

Anna Saheb's philosophy is a combination of views expressed by Mahatma Gandhi and Vivekananda. He is firm in his belief that the destiny of modern India lies at the village level and not in New Delhi. As the authors put it, sangha shakti (community power) was for Anna the strength of the village. He understood clearly the social, cultural and demographic ramifications of the village system and this may be one reason why Ralegan Siddhi today has 10 different cooperative societies. While appreciating such a multiple approach, the authors stress divisions of village communities along social and economic lines also require great leadership efforts to hold them together. In how many villages can such dedicated leadership be found? Also, the kinds of activities that different societies undertake may have complementary aspects that might not be internalised and which could result in excessive investments.

The authors relate how Anna translated his understanding of Vivekananda's philosophy of sharing one's wealth with one's neighbours. He did this by defining the instruments of rural development as sterilisation, prohibition, a ban on grazing and tree felling and micro-watershed development. In a sense, he went beyond Gandhi. The result was that Ralegan Siddhi was totally transformed in less than 10 years through changes in the management of land, water, pastures, education, marriages, family welfare and so on. Above all, the human aspect of life was transformed by emphasising such values as religion, teetotalism and respect for labour, especially that of women.

When Anna arrived in Ralegan Siddhi in 1975, he faced the task of harmonising life in a village dominated by Marathas and a population that was 80 per cent scheduled castes. Half the village population was landless and the land-holdings were quite inequitable. The village was situated in an unirrigated and drought-prone district and its population was plagued by acute unemployment, poor health care, rudimentary schools, exploitative moneylenders and alcoholism. Only 21 ha land (less than 3 per cent of the cultivable area) was irrigated and the yield rates hovered around 9 quintals/ha.

The unique aspect of the Ralegan Siddhi experiment was the blend between people and the government and its transformation involved villagers working in tandem with district and state administrators. Anna took advantage of every technological innovation, of incentives and of the schemes available for rural development and implemented them with people's participation. The authors describe the many development programmes executed in the village in watershed management, non-conventional energy systems, cooperatives, social forestry and modern agro-forestry. Banks, rural development agencies and even private agencies were involved, but the villagers managed within the framework of the panchayat system to keep politics out and programmes and policies in.

Success indicators
The authors have highlighted a long list of success indicators, showing, for example, that irrigated area increased to more than 800 ha and crop yields of jowar and bajra averaged about 12 quintals/ha. The quality of life in Ralegan Siddhi has also improved, with no thefts, community marriages, housing for scheduled castes, nearly 100 per cent schooling and a well-knit gram sabha as features.

An experiment in rural development is always at some cost. Anna Saheb's zealous pursuit of cooperation from government agencies meant a total investment of about Rs 114 lakh in a village of 1,500 people. The multiplicity of society and the divergent sequencing of activities led to a high investment per household or per ha of village land. The experiment also proved an average investment of about Rs 10,000 per ha can develop village economies through watershed and community development.

It would have been useful if the authors had provided such models for replication and wider application. Also, because much of the investments -- and involvements of people and Anna Saheb -- are highly subsidised or socially provided, an attempt should have been made to calculate the social cost of such a process of sustainable development. Maybe the authors could attempt this in their next book.