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Case #101

Restoring land in Western India


The Western Ghats, in Western India, is more desolate than a desert, for even a desert bears abundant life. Yet this dead, treeless landscape was once as lush and heavily forested as pre-Columbian North America.

The story begins with Anna (Elder Brother) Hazare. Throughout his home region, deforestation and rapid population growth had created a 20th-century ecological disaster. By the end of the 1960s thousands of villagers were destitute. Some left to escape starvation; those who remained were defeated by long dry spells and heavy rains that carried off the topsoil. Farmers resorted to selling alcohol. Hazare's village of Ralegan Sidhi alone had 40 liquor shops, its sole "industry." Moral decay set in, and hopes for rural aid were dashed repeatedly by bureaucracy, corruption, and apathy. More than 1,500 villages experienced similar patterns of decline.

After 10 years away, Hazare returned to his village in 1975, and was shocked to see what had happened: barren land and demoralized people who fought over what water was left in the wells. He decided to devote all his time to and invest his meager savings in a community-improvement project, living in the village temple instead of a house, remaining a bachelor, and owning only a change of clothing. After years of effort he won people's admiration and respect, and they trusted him enough to support his radical reforms.

To utilize all of Ralegan's human resources, the women were gradually brought out of their sheltered lives and encouraged to be members of the village's governing body. "Untouchables," previously victimized by the rigid caste system, began to prosper, owning cattle and farmland. In effect, Hazare's simple philosophy encouraged abolition of the caste system, amounting to heresy in traditional Indian culture.

Hazare felt these hard-working, defeated people had great potential, yet their basic needs were not being met. He began implementing concepts of watershed development to slow the erosion of topsoil and build up groundwater levels. The villagers dug ponds as percolation tanks to restore the water table, created terraces along the hillsides, and planted trees to anchor the soil and shelter it from the fierce, drying heat of the sun. Eventually their terraced hills turned green, offering hope that they'd not go hungry anymore.

He also instilled the concept of shramdan (volunteer labor) for community projects such as schools.

"The differences between the rich and poor will remain," Hazare says, "but today the poor man has grain in his house and he can sit with the upper class, because he no longer has to beg before them."

The moral transformation of the village was as dramatic as the greening of the earth. The demolition of all 40 liquor shops was a symbolic rite of passage. Hazare is now working on legislative reforms to benefit both rural and urban citizens throughout India, traveling extensively.

Drought and famine affect nearly all levels of Indian society, so Ralegan's successes have drawn attention in the Indian media, and Hazare has become a national hero. Yet he frequently encounters resistance to reform even after he receives awards, so he returns them and goes on hunger strikes to dramatize the continuing plight of many village people.

Ralegan has expanded its technology to include biogas digesters and solar-panel fittings on streetlights. The clamor for a share in the technological know-how has become so great that Ralegan has built a school and a hostel to house students from neighboring villages. A rural-development training center is on the drawing boards. Hazare's goal is to educate the people of western India and create more such villages throughout the region.

Anna Hazare says: "Ralegan may not continue as it is, or [may] even deteriorate. But I am looking for a multiplier effect. If some people start some of the work that has been done here, a lot of villagers can benefit."

Similar projects and programs have begun in 65 villages. They emphasize discipline, hard work, and community values. Though many agricultural self-reliance projects fail, Hazare believes success lies in linking such projects to social reforms.

The village that once met only a third of its food needs now sells half its produce. Since 1976 its annual per capita income has risen from 250 rupees ($10) to 2,000 ($80). It has reversed what seemed to be irreversible environmental destruction.


Applicable elsewhere.
Location: India
Action: Restoration
Setting: Third World, Village, Agricultural
Extent of Action: Regional (within a country)
Issues: Environment, Agriculture
Year(s): 1975
Outcome successful
Source: World Monitor, Feb 93


Prepared By: alb, 6/01
Rating: 1
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