We have been walking through cities and villages in India for three months by now. And more than once have we found ourselves at a loss faced with the challenge of finding food, accommodation and meeting the needs of over a billion people. How can the passengers be induced not to throw their waste from the trains, but then we must admit there are no bins either? How can we express the pain we felt when we saw the pile of stagnant plastics in the rivers ? Which right would we have to teach lessons when the only difference between these Indians and us is that we grew up in a country where public hygiene and infrastructures are services that have existed for a long time, even before we were born; and when our country sends our old aircraft carriers to be dismantled in their country because the law regarding protection of the environment and labour code are far less stringent there ?
With that in mind we reach the small village called Ralegan siddhi, some one hundred kilometers away from Mumbai. Spurred on by their leader, Anna Hazare, the villagers have taken practical measures to start the economic development of their village thanks to a more sustainable management of their natural resources. Here our concern is not to learn to build an eco-accommodation, but to try and understand how this village managed to escape poverty and become what it is today, i.e. a « development model », visited by both Indians and foreigners from all over the world..
Situation in Ralegan siddhi
Anna Hazare and his family grew up in Ralegan siddhi. Like so many young men, studying has proven impossible and he had to leave the village and go to the city to earn some money. When he came back from the Army in 1975, he found his village ridden with poverty, unemployment and addiction to alcohol. He felt desperate and set his mind to dedicate his whole life to change his native village.
Anna Hazare’s first target was to find a solution so that each and every person could have enough to eat : « First and foremost, we had to work so that all the villagers who are physically able find a job and are able to feed properly, as well as the whole families (…) Only then is it possible to think about passing on some knowledge because nobody can learn anything on an empty stomach« .
How is it possible to convince hundreds of people to change their habits and their behaviourial patterns ? Mr. Raut, Ralegan siddhi’s former school head, enjoys telling us how the village moved forward : “ One of Anna Hazare’s first actions was to try and put an end to all the quarrels and fights between the villagers, encouraging them to do voluntary work and work together to repair the Hindu temple, Sant Yadavbaba. They gradually learnt to understand each other better, to know each other better and to help each other. The village has become like a big family.” Anna Hazare did not merely supervise the construction of the temple, but he was the first one to actually start working on it :“If you expect to be changing people’s opinions, it is impossible to do so by just preaching and recommending, you have to lead and be a role model for them. Since everyone is going to try to find out where you live, how you live and what you do. » His energy became catching and soon some villagers started following his example and they became more and more by the day. This work around the temple has laid new foundations for the village which, fourty years on, still remain the pillars of its development: a strong social link and a tradition of voluntary week to build the community’s infrastructure..
An examplary management of the natural resources
We had heard of Ralegan siddhi as a sustainable development model. When we arrived, we were looking for solar panels, wind farms and houses built with natural materials… and first of all we were quite surprised not to find such markers which, for us, stand for (or used to stand for) an eco-village. After pondering over our projections of values and asking the inhabitants and the representatives of the village, we understood that taking into account the environment is at the very core of the Ralegan siddhi’s development process… As we were strolling to Ralegan siddhi’s library, we were lucky to meet Anna Hazare and we found the time to ask him about this stake : « Climate change is an issue for the whole world and that is why the villages have to develop through programs which take the environment into consideration. Today, the excessive use of natural resources (water, wood, petrol, coal…) is a serious danger for the environmental balances our lives depend on. »
First challenge: water management. In this farming village, the inhabitants are depending very much on the monsoon which brings water between June to August. How can this water then be saved throughout the year and used for cultivation? There are no proper infrastructures and the existing ones are not looked after and that has caused a great deal of periods of famine. The first real important works were the watershed program, a huge plan to build and strengthen the village’s dykes so that the rain water may be led and stored in huge wells. The villagers’ voluntary work has made it possible to work on this huge building site and the whole village to be protected from any water shortage.
Second challenge: avoid the rain waters to erode the ground. Two important measures have been implemented. First of all preventing the cows from grazing absolutely anywhere. We knew that, but actually seeing it is quite striking. In India the cows are free to roam wherever they want…. Although still sacred animals in Ralegan siddhi, they are nevertheless tied up to prevent them from eating the bushes and small trees because their roots do retain the water (which is also a great help to some families who can gather the dung more easily and use it to produce biogas.) The second important measure was to forbid wood to be cut anywhere: today if one tree is felled, five new ones have to be planted.
Such decisions managed to stop massive deterioration of the arable land and, together with cultivating plants needing less water, to see the whole village enjoying three harvests a year instead of barely one only a few years back.
Anna Hazare, an Indian fighter against corruption
Encouraged by the successes in his village, Anna Hazare wanted to help other villages to carry out the very same experience. His lawyer tells us : “When Anna Hazare strated to try and promote the development of villages, he realized that there was widespread corruption: in the villages, in the watershed program and forest management ministries… In 1992, he started sending complaints to the government and they were never answered. Those people who had been elected never sanctioned those officers incriminated. He then understood that corruption was so widespread that it was even found in the highest levels and amongst the top leaders of the country. Gradually many villages had heard about Anna Hazare’s fight and contacted him to mention similar problems. In 1996 he began to organize meetings and demonstrations, but it was not enough. In 1999, we then decided that action was needed regarding the laws and enforcement. Our fight, together with demonstrations and hunger strikes has led to a first anti-corruption law in 2002, then a second one in 2011. » The latter has more specifically led to an Ombudsman to be appointed in each of the 29 States of the Federation of India and the drafting of a citizen charter explaining the rights of the people and the extension of the Ombudsman’s power at any and all the levels of the administration.
Simultaneously, an anti-corruption center was built in the village and the Indians from all over the country, come there to file their complaints. « This fight, even if it is far from being completed, is a very strong symbol Anna Harare’s lawyer adds. It proves that an ordinary citizen who has never attended any further education course, can with his own will and abnegation win against the most powerful people. »
This fight raises further questions though. Many people spoke up to point to several radical means sometimes used by Anna Hazare to carry out his fight: death penalty against some corrupt politicians, completely ban alcohol and cigarettes in the village … and whip those who do not comply with the rule, if needs be.
Can the end, even if it means success, justify all the means whatever ?
A village sowing the seeds….
Once the village pulled out of starvation, education could be emphasized. The villagers built a school on a voluntary basis for the village children, but also for all those from the surrounding areas, who did not do well at school or those early school-leavers. “Here the poor students are our priority! It is a school giving a second opportunity ays Mrs Kumawat, an English teacher. Here, just like the village, stress is placed on the importance of group work and the protection of the environment. We moreover can watch garbage collection in the yard, which takes place each and every week and done by the students and their teachers setting an example.“All the trees in the school have been planted by the students of the school through the years. They are also entrusted other plants they can take home and grow there.And then, three times a year – on 15 August, 26 January and 2 October – the children carry out some “spring cleaning” of all the common areas of the village. »
The village has also has followers outside. We happen to bump into a group of three young students from Pune : «Anna Hazare came to speak in our university. So we wanted to know more and take advantage of our holidays to visit this village everybody is talking about. Later on we will most certainly work in a city, but we also wish to contribute to the development of our native villages. » During our stay, we come across other groups who have come to visit Ralegan siddhi. Older students have come with their lecturers, from Kashmir, some 1000 Kms from here!) to study the irrigation system in the village in more details.
The aspirations of Ralegan siddhi’s inhabitants today
Now that the villagers cane at two meals a day, accommodation and well managed infrastructures, what are their aspirations? Sitting under his tree in the schoolyard, the wise Mr. Raut tells us « Once the primary needs are met, happiness is in the head. Today Ralegan siddhi’s inhabitants get all the basic needs. But day after day, the standards are developing. If you look at other people, you always want more: a TV set, the internet, a mobile phone. If it proves necessary, then why not? But many people want such material goods only to be like their neighbours….
From this point of view, an example is particularly striking in the village. A few years ago, several geodesic domes were built by several inhabitants to prove that it was possible to build strong houses at cheap prices… « But today, Ralegan siddhi’s inhabitants have a little bit more money in their pockets and they prefer to live in conventional concrete houses since they correspond more to how people imagine a « decent » home, Mr. Raut sadly says.
In fourty years, Ralegan siddhi has managed a considerable transformation through the work and collaboration of all the inhabitants and the commitment of a charismatic man. How will the village develop after Anna Hazare? Mr. Raut, the former school head seems to be confident when asked this vital question : “After Anna Hazare, a collective leadership shall be set up and will no doubt be better than his because the villagers will have learnt from him. A collective leadership is better than an individual leadership since, if some leadership members are bad, others may stop them. It may develop in a bad way…. But we are confident. »
Will Ralegan siddhi’s inhabitants resist the calls of the city and its lights, of the consumption society? Only the future shall tell. For the time being, several inhabitants told us proudly that many more of them are leaving the city to return to the village than the other way around… Now it is time for us to leave this pleasant village to move on to another one, in Nepal where a teachers training centre is being built using earth-bags as building material. Who knows… tomorrow those Eco-Accommodations may become the reference when people choose how to build their own houses !
Click on the picture’s arrow to see the slide show.
Thanks to the anti-corruption center of Ralegan Siddi for the archive images