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Environmentalist-in-chief: Anna Hazare's Ralegan formula

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.

How did a driver who retired from the army pull the village together for the greater community good? Reuters

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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The language of rural development and nation building was assertively masculine. Hazare blamed “the enemy” for pushing drugs to the youth of the country. There was no doubt who the enemy was. As the author notes, “‘The West’, ‘Western lifestyle’, ‘modern development’, and ‘invasion of Western culture’ were blamed for the collapse of morality in modern India.” Perhaps democracy was seen as such an undesirable western concept that has no place in a “traditional” Indian village.

However, what of the enemy within - caste, economic and gender discrimination? Dalits were allowed to enter temples, draw water from the same well as other castes, and they even cooked and served food at village functions. In a country still riven by caste politics and discrimination, these were admirable actions indeed but they came at a price. Hazare forced dalits to give up eating meat. A non-vegetarian diet apparently caused aggression and cruelty to the animal kingdom. In comparison, he felt vegetarians were peaceful and quiet, “unless provoked.” I wonder, how does one explain the centuries-old dominance and aggression of the vegetarians over the dalits and lower castes? By giving preference to the rituals, religious symbols, and dietary preferences of the Marathas, the dominant land-owning caste, Hazare dictated the terms of integration. The dalits had little option but to accept, writes Sharma.

One dalit said, “Here Hindus mean Marathas only. We Chamars and Mahars are never called Hindus.” Another who was nursed back to health by Hazare himself and was devoted to him said, “Shoes are for the feet and will always be placed there. We are like the shoes. We will never be able to go ahead beyond this point.” Despite the new found bonhomie, dalits continued to be viewed as dirty and continued their traditional occupations. Hazare made no apology for keeping the dalits in their hereditary place. He said, “It was Mahatma Gandhi’s vision that every village should have one Chamar, one Sunar, one Kumhar and so on. They should all do their work according to their role and occupation, and in this way a village will be self-dependent. This is what we are practising in Ralegan Siddhi.” Sharma also says many dalit families have migrated from the village as have young people, even from the Maratha caste.

The entirely women-run panchayat could do little to change gender inequality. A woman got a little more than half the pay of a man. Women were expected to conform to the aspirations of a mythical ideal Indian womanhood, one whose identity was defined by being a wife and mother. Even poor families of the dominant caste, the Marathas, claimed that the benefits of voluntary labour accrue only to the rich land-holding farmers. They were unable to irrigate their marginal holdings because the water never reached them. Sharma says Hazare was aware of these problems but took no effort to address them.

According to Hazare, in pre-colonial India, villagers were morally upright citizens who lived in harmony with nature and without any internal conflicts. As illustrated here, India’s past does not present such a rosy picture and neither were our ancestors the wise users of resources such romantic visions make them out to be. Kathleen Morrison, an environmental historian who studied ancient irrigation systems in south India, noted there was never a “golden age of Indian irrigation marked by environmental stability, egalitarian social relations, and complete community self-governance.” The powerful always took a larger chunk of the resources pie at the cost of the weak and the marginalised. As Sharma points out, to ignore these sharp inequalities in Indian society that existed long before colonial times and to blame all of our current social problems on “western” colonialism, is to be strongly nationalistic.

In conclusion, the author says environmentalism gave one man the moral authority to dictate a code of behavior, with the threat of force looming in the background. There is no escaping the fact that his achievements of delivering economic prosperity and moral well-being came at the price of maintaining a regressive gender, class, caste, and power status quo.

While people fed up of dishonest governance might cheer his call to hang corrupt politicians, it’s doubtful if they will flock to his draconian philosophy. If they did, we would be bereft of democratic institutions, artistic expression, and independent free will. In short, we would have a totalitarian regime.

Some may say it’s worth paying that price for soil, water and greenery. But is it really? Does ecological renewal have to come at the cost of social injustice to fellow men and women?