Saturday, January 20, 2001

Stamped impressions
Anna Hazare: A fearless crusader
By Reeta Sharma

Anna HazareI had read Anna Hazare’s name in the newspapers. There were amazing reports about him. From his photo he had appeared to be an unassuming villager. But his news-worthiness was immense. This frail-looking man was exposing the nexus of politicians and bureaucrats of Maharashtra without any trace of fear. His exposures were often so factually correct that they could have challenged the best of investigative reporters of the world. The accusations of corrupt practices were always fully substantiated. Soon he was not only the talk of India but also of many countries in the First World. Their media was all out to capture Anna Hazare live on their cameras.

My curiosity to know him and observe him in person was steadily increasing.

And soon I was on my way to a remote village called Ralegaon Siddhi, near Pune. I didn’t have to make any effort to look for him in Ralegan Sidhi, for all the villagers in this village bore his stamp.


Meeting Hazare was a spiritually-uplifting experience. Gliding in his company through his dream village, meeting the villagers and enjoying their hospitality was an experience in humility and nobility.

Poverty drove Hazare to leave school after Class VII and sell flowers in Mumbai. This business blossomed but gave his life no purpose. Leading a futile life that mainly involved watching premier shows of Hindi films frustrated the sensitive person in him to such an extent that he decided to commit suicide. It was per chance that he read a book on Swami Vivekananda’s life, which besides saving him also motivated to "donate life to serve people". He took a pledge never to marry nor to seek any materialistic pleasures.

"At this juncture I read an appeal from the Indian Armed Forces to join the Army to fight the 1962 aggression by China. I applied and got selected for training as a military truck driver".

Hazare served in the Army till 1975 and then sought voluntary retirement "to serve people of my village, which was reeling under utter poverty. The village had no supply of drinking water, no agriculture, no jobs but illegal liquor stills were mushrooming all over the place, destroying peoples’ physical health and the social and moral fibre."

Hazare renovated a dilapidated temple with his provident fund and gratuity. He realised that religion could be the medium of educating people, making them lead a more constructive life. "I knew that villagers had to be gainfully employed in agriculture so that they were driven away from liquor vends. I approached the government for funds to help build check-dams in Ralegaon Siddhi. Fortunately, the government responded positively. Our temple in the village helped me to motivate people to participate in the shramdan. And within a year we built 45 nullah-bandhs, 5 check-dams, 16 giban-dams and one percolation dam. After the rains not only did our water table come up but the area under irrigation also doubled. Within three years, the irrigated area increased from 80 acres to 1,300 acres. And the number of wells rose from 35 to 115. The end result of all this was rich agricultural growth," recalled Hazare.

Today Ralegaon Siddhi is a model village. In the middle of a predominantly rocky area, the villagers have grown lush green fields, huge trees and vegetables. Each season, vegetables are exported to Kuwait, Dubai, Muscat etc. Within three years of Hazare’s efforts, people stopped going to liquor stills. They even took a pledge in the village temple not to touch, sell or serve intoxicants. Today there is not a single shop in Ralegaon Siddhi selling cigarettes or bidis.

Hazare’s worked for the all-round development of his native village. Besides reviving the agricultural, moral and social life, Hazare succeeded in coaxing people to build a school for the children. Amazingly, not a single penny was taken from the government.

Solely on the strength of peoples’ power, today Ralegaon Siddhi has a higher secondary school equipped with science laboratories, computers, community kitchen and hostel facilities for the poor students.

Clearly Anna Hazare is a Gandhian. After the reconstruction of the village temple, the major issue that confronted him was the entry of Dalits into the temple. He patiently preached about Gandhian philosophy and asked them to accept Dalits as equals. It speaks volumes about Hazare’s hold on the villagers that today Dalits have access to the temple, and the village wells and schools. Untouchability has disappeared altogether. On Hazare’s appeal people belonging to the upper caste even worked along with the Dalits to make their fields fit for farming.

How did Hazare deal with issues related to woman? This question was repeatedly surfacing in my mind. I got my answer soon when Anna, watching girl students play, remarked: "Aaj hamne istri ko upbhog ka sadhan bana diya hai jaise pankha, kursi, cycle". Hazare was very upset with the practice of child marriages. He persuaded people to send girls to school, which was till then "simply unthinkable for them". He made sure that all girl students learnt cycling, swimming and even driving of motor cycle. He also made them participate in sports. In 1982, the first girl passed her SSC from the village school.

Last year seven teams of girl students of Ralegaon Siddhi participated in sports and swimming in the state-level competitions. Upon asking Hazare where did the girls learn swimming (for I had not seen any swimming pool), he said: "Aye aap ko main apne bachchon ka swimming pool dikhaata hoon." We walked quite a distance before he pointed out, "Yeh raha". What I saw was a pond. Yes the girls and boys of Ralegaon Siddhi have won state-level competitions by learning swimming in this village pond.

Ralegaon Siddhi has now started attracting a lot of visitors. Last year, 36,000 dignitaries visited the village to see the unprecedented social change brought about in the villagers. The list included Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka, besides hoards of NGOs, bureaucrats, agricultural scientists from India and abroad, and, of course, TV crews from Europe and the USA. "We have formed our own Hind Swaraj Trust through which we run all our schemes. People donate without any appeal. We have started training our educated boys and girls in agricultural science and technology, for they eventually will take over in future."

Interestingly, people in Ralegaon Siddhi are politically aware. They do not vote just for the sake of voting or opt for a party simply because it is forecast to win elections.

Nobody could lure Anna to contest elections. Does it matter that Anna has been honoured with Padmashree, Padmabhushan, Swami Vivekanand Sewa Purskar, Variskhmitra(friend of trees), Krishi Bhushan, etc?