The first serious analysis of Anna Hazare’s worldview and environmentalism has emerged as a chapter in Mukul Sharma’s ‘Green and Saffron: Hindu nationalism and Indian environmental politics,’ recently published by Permanent Black.
Ralegan Siddhi is located about 80 km northeast of Pune, in an arid area prone to frequent droughts. The top soil had eroded from years of bad land management and agricultural productivity was low. Unemployment was high, poverty was chronic, and men migrated to the cities in search of work. Hazare reversed this trend by cleverly using government funds earmarked for social forestry and soil conservation. He arrested the surface water run-off by creating a series of check dams in the surrounding hills and planting more than four lakh trees. This created a storage capacity of almost three lakh cubic metres covering an area of 600 hectares. The underground water table rose from 100 feet deep to just 50 feet. Even during the years when rain failed, the village faced no water scarcity.
This stupendous achievement was the result of the collective hard work of the villagers acting under the direction of Hazare. With so much water, fields could be irrigated, more crops grown, and economic security came within grasp. Every farming family donated a share of the surplus to create a seed bank. A hungry villager could take a loan and repay with a 10% interest in grain the following year. This created food security and no one starved, says Sharma.
How did a driver who retired from the army pull the village together for the greater community good? For starters there was Hazare’s slogan ‘Our Village is One Family’. This was backed by a list of do’s and don’ts. The villagers had to compulsorily agree to a ban on tree felling and cattle grazing as well as provide voluntary labour to build community infrastructure. Two members from every family worked one day a month. If they didn’t, they had to contribute a day’s pay. Use of the harnessed water was regulated, reports the author. Those who used water for irrigation compensated those who didn’t own land.
Much of this is known, a part of India’s environmental lore, due to the pioneering environmental writers like the late Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain who praised Hazare’s work in Ralegan Siddhi as early as 1991. Mukul Sharma acknowledges that he’s merely reporting these facts based on the writings of other writers and interviews with villagers. His concern is not so much an investigation of what Hazare achieved but how the politics of environment was grafted on to the current caste inequities. (For a critique of the Hazare myth, read this piece from The Telegraph).
Sharma brings to light the many cultural and social rules that governed villagers’ lives: no large families, no drinking, no sale of tobacco, no movies, no film songs, no satellite television and no eating meat. Only religious music and movies were permitted. The villagers were also not allowed to grow sugarcane. Not only did the crop guzzle too much water, it didn’t require too much maintenance, and Hazare felt farmers became lazy and dabbled in politics because they had a lot of time on their hands.
There was no question of disobedience. At least not without retribution. Drunks who refused to quit drinking were publicly flogged. Hazare noted with satisfaction that sometimes just the threat of violence was enough to sort out the problem. If the village accepted his authority on other issues, they accepted the use of force as well, he claimed. A group of 25 young men were given the power to physically thrash people but coercion could also be social and meted out for defiance on issues ranging from the public to the private. For instance, families were forced to undergo birth control treatments. The villagers at the receiving end also accepted this intimidation unquestioningly. Sharma notes they had internalized the rigid set of rules to the degree that they even said it was their own decision, for instance, not to watch movies or listen to film songs.
Thus, the primary rule of governance in Ralegan Siddhi was Hazare decreed and the villagers obeyed. The enforcement of his rules and the expectation of an obedient populace smacked of the military. There was disdain not just for democratic processes but even institutions. Hazare believed politics was divisive and power corrupted. Party campaigners for Assembly elections were not allowed to enter Ralegan Siddhi. Neither panchayat nor cooperative society elections have been held in the village for twenty years, says Sharma. Nor were villagers encouraged to vote.
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