Home voices against Anna - Life under one man's diktat rankles with Ralegan youth

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  • Published 24.10.11

Vilas Bhagwan Pote grins as he recalls his election as sarpanch of Ralegan Siddhi, Anna Hazare’s village in Ahmednagar district, 11 years ago.

“I was the traitor, the bad guy,” he jokes. “I openly defied Anna because I felt he was wrong.”

Pote, a Dalit charmakar (cobbler) then in his 30s, had been unhappy as the 2000 panchayat polls drew close. As always, Anna had nominated a new executive body for the gram sabha.

That year, the sarpanch’s post had been reserved for the Scheduled Castes. Anna had proposed a Dalit’s name and wanted the gram sabha to adopt his choice, Pote says. “I felt it was unfair.”

Mustering courage, Pote challenged the “arbitrary decision” and demanded elections for the first time. He ran for the post and the village elected him by a sweeping majority.

The villagers had defied Anna, who, Pote says, believes that party politics divides a village.

Until that year, Ralegan had had no time for elections: the villagers would simply accept Anna’s choice for sarpanch and the executive. The sarpanch would always be from one of the three most dominant families — the Pathares, the Maparis and the Awatis — all Marathas.

In 2010 too, Jaisingh Mapari, son of former sarpanch Sadashiv Mapari, defied Anna, contested and won.

The father and son are staunch Nationalist Congress Party workers and today dominate Ralegan’s political landscape. Mapari Sr is president of the Sant Yadavbaba Education Trust founded by Anna, who is its secretary.

The trust runs the village school. Mapari Sr says he has issues with Anna. “I was not by his side in his agitations in the past two years for many reasons,” he says. One of the reasons is Anna’s lack of trust in Mapari Sr, explain villagers.

While Ralegan Siddhi holds Anna as a virtual deity, many among the younger generation here feel it’s time they began to come out of his shadow.

It isn’t that the villagers don’t respect him, Pote says, but some of them feel it is detrimental in the long run that one man decides what is good or bad for them. The days of he-says-we-follow are over, Pote claims.

The lore

It’s early September 2011. Ralegan Siddhi is in a festive mood, not because of the Ganesh festival but because of Anna’s successful agitation in Delhi that, the villagers boast, “shook the UPA government”.

There’s a steady flow of visitors every day to meet Anna. A few village leaders now speak perfectly before the TV cameras, at times exaggerating stories about Anna.

Yet, as Pote and several others note, the generational shift is bringing a subtle but sure change to the way the village’s politics has worked so far.

While the regard for the man credited with its transformation from the days of poverty and drought is still intact, young villagers, barring those associated with his anti-corruption campaign, have begun to dismantle the belief system on which the Ralegan Siddhi model stood.

Three decades ago, the village had rallied behind Anna believing he was a saviour and could never err.

One hears stories that Anna would flog drunkards, prescribe vegetarianism, or ask people to stay away from films that he thought might be a bad influence. It was true in part but all that’s history, says Mapari Sr.

“We don’t have liquor shops but people do go outside the village to drink. Even in the past, prohibition was never total.”

Some also eat meat from time to time. But Ralegan still follows certain social norms it had set for itself in the 1970s after severe droughts. It doesn’t splurge on marriages or festivities: thus the community weddings and the lone Ganapati celebration.

Like most villages around it, Ralegan is dominated by Marathas. Most households are small farmers with barely one to two hectares of landholdings; a handful has more than five hectares.

In the village of 2,317 (about 430 households), the Dalits and tribals together number just about 200. More than 50 of Ralegan’s youths, including Anna’s nephew, are in the army; several others hold government or private jobs elsewhere.

Shindhi to Siddhi

The original name was Ralegan Shindhi, the second word referring to a local tree from which liquor is made. The village was a liquor hub, with 40-odd shops selling a homemade brew. When these shops were closed, the village renamed itself Siddhi (divine revelation).

When Anna, then just Kisan Baburao Hazare, quit the army and returned home around 1975, the first thing he did was persuade the villagers to close the liquor shops and call for prohibition. But the change came only when those who made liquor got alternative livelihoods through agriculture and milk economy.

“He enjoyed our support because women were tired of beatings by men,” recalls Tulsabai Awati, who runs a small tea-and-snacks shop. “When some men refused to listen, he would thrash them with our consent.”

Anna emerged as the saviour of the village.

The beginning

As you approach the village off the Ahmednagar-Pune highway, what catches your eye is the manmade terraces and trees planted all along the hillock slopes. Rainwater seeps through and raises the water table. The stair-like terraces check soil erosion or run-off.

Still, the nearby villages aren’t too different, apart from the one-man rule and the drinking ban. They too grow food crops and have a roaring farm-and-milk economy, sound cooperative societies and watershed area development.

It was in Ahmednagar district that the first cooperative sugar mill, an institution that changed the socio-economic and political landscape of western Maharashtra, was founded.

Ralegan was, and still is, one of hundreds of villages in this region that adopted a collective cooperative model, through the contributions of the government (grants), people (share capital) and financial institutions such as banks (low-interest loans).

For the government, though, Ralegan has been a “model village” since 1978. Old-timers say its transformation had a social and political context.

After back-to-back droughts in 1972 and 1973 across northwest Maharashtra, agriculture was sinking. There was no allied income. Liquor flowed freely; superstition and orthodoxy reigned.

After his return from the army, Anna began to take an interest in village development. Instead of living with his family, he chose to live in the Yadavbaba temple, which he repaired with his own money. The village rallied behind him since he worked for the community and had no personal agenda, the old-timers recall.

Mapari Sr says the Tata Relief Centre and several government agencies were already working in the district, focusing on rainwater conservation. So, Ralegan too adopted the practice.

“Anna didn’t introduce it here all alone,” Mapari Sr says. “What we did was not wait for funds but spend from our own pockets, offer collective labour, and build the necessary structures, terraces and ponds.”

Over 30 reservoirs (ponds and nullah bunds) and three community wells were built. Hundreds of trees were planted. From 100 feet deep, the water table rose to about 45 feet.

Helping hands

The late Balasaheb Bharde, a local Congress heavyweight and former minister, liked Anna’s small community initiatives in Ralegan that had been adopted by the Tata Relief Centre. Bharde, a Sarvodayee, helped Ralegan start a school, a primary agriculture society and other institutional structures.

He ensured routing of the government funds through the incorruptible Anna, and became a mentor of sorts for him.

A convergence of schemes flowed, and Anna emerged as Ralegan’s unquestioned moral authority. “He had the key to everything,” Mapari Sr recalls. “We put all our faith in Anna, because he had some education to talk to outsiders (city people).”

Anna’s key strategy was to mobilise people around him and make them contribute their labour: from building water storages to setting up a school for dropouts to enforcing prohibition.

But, Pote says, things would not have changed without the village leaders’ participation and will. Mapari Sr, Pote’s father Bhagwan Pote and Sampatrao Awati, Ralegan’s three dominant voices then, joined hands with Anna.

Through the 1980s, the village focused on three things: education (Mapari Sr helped Anna open a school); social uplift (prohibition, community works, bridging differences), and livelihood (farm improvement and diversification to milk). When incomes rose, Ralegan and Anna gained fame.

With Anna’s influence, the village received government support and schemes. A lift irrigation project changed the way it farmed. Ralegan lifts water from the nearby Ukali dam to a reservoir built in the mid-1970s. With protective irrigation and subsidised drip sets, farmers can grow vegetables round the year.

Today, the village “exports” vegetables and produces over 3,000 litres of milk. The Mapari family alone produces tomatoes worth over Rs 1 crore.

Ralegan suffered a setback in the 1980s that it does not talk about: Anna’s collective farming effort did not work. When the richer farmers opposed the idea of pooling land, it was dropped.

One-man show

Ralegan also took to heart Anna’s panch-sutri or five diktats: nasbandi (family planning); nashabandi (prohibition); charaibandi (regulated cattle grazing); kurhadbandi (total ban on tree felling); and shramadaan (voluntary labour). Only in recent times have these been broken, villagers say.

Anna’s image received a boost when the government decided to implement the Ralegan model as an “Adarsh Gram Yojana”. So it set up a centre where people from other villages and government officials could be trained. Ralegan became the government’s rural development showpiece.

What cements the Ralegan-Anna equation is that the villagers derive huge personal benefits from his influence in the state government, particularly among the bureaucracy.

Yet the contrast with Hiwre Bazaar, a village about 30km away and known for its vibrant gram sabha, is difficult to miss.

While Ralegan’s fame derives mainly from Anna’s charisma, Hiwre owes its reputation to its culture of participatory democracy rather than its driving force, sarpanch Popatrao Pawar.

It’s this difference that rankles with some of Ralegan’s youths. Anna’s dominance is too stark. As his former driver and aide Ashok Dasre puts it: “What is Ralegan without Anna?”