From an obscure, barren and water scarcity-hit village to a green belt, Ralegan Siddhi in Ahmednagar district, about 110 km from Pune, stands as a shining example for sustainable development based on Gandhian principles. Unwittingly, it has become part of the newly found anti-corruption movement the country spearheaded to one of its sons, 72-year-old Anna Hazare.
Nearly four decades ago, the village of 2,500 people was like most others, mired in poverty with 33 liquor dens boosting the illicit trade. Water scarcity meant little farming and with no other source of livelihood the per capita income was just Rs 271.
Hazare, a soldier who took voluntary retirement, returned to the village and began to transform it. The village's Yadavbaba temple became the focal point of his agitations. He donated Rs 3,000 for its renovation. He made fellow villagers take an oath. They swore to his five commandments - prohibition, family planning, voluntary labour, a ban on open grazing and on felling trees. Voluntary labour was necessary to ensure minimum dependence on the government for dole.
As expected, Hazare ran into opposition, especially when he insisted on prohibition.
Village youth Datta Awari (27) said that the liquor den owners threatened him with dire consequences. Anna stood up to them. "Today we are reaping the benefit of listening to Anna. For us, he is nothing short of God," he said.
He targeted open grazing next by imposing a complete ban and insisted on stall-feeding of cattle. The village opted out of cultivating water-intensive crops like sugar cane was and instead sowed pulses, oilseeds and cash crops which needed less water. "Jowar and onions grown in our village are now sold outside. Anna started a water recycling project last year. Water is lifted from the check dam in the village, treated and recycled", Awari added.
The village now has a bank run by women where every villager donates one sack of grain every year. "The grain is stored properly and auctioned to raise funds whenever the village needs money for any developmental work. Those who have left the village and settled elsewhere, send money every year for development," Awari said. The village dairy has a milk bank that operates like the grain bank.
Watershed development in the village started when Anna urged villagers to offer voluntary labour for repairing the percolation tank that had developed heavy leaks. Once the seepage source was identified, work on building the core wall by digging a puddle trench up to the level of hard rock was undertaken on the upper side of the bund. Villagers gave their sweat for it.
Once they were through, there was retention of water in the tank which led to recharging of ground water aquifers. It gave the villagers enough to courage to implement the concept of watershed development by adopting the ridge to valley approach for soil and water conservation.
It involved structures like gully plugging, loose boulder structure, gabion structure, nullah bunding and cement check dams. Hazare developed the modified gabion structure with a core wall which reduced the cost of the check dam.
When well water became available for irrigation, the villagers form cooperative societies that brought more land under cultivation. It spiralled into developments like double cropping, change of farming system, horticulture plantations, vegetable cultivation and dairy farming. The village was on the road to progress.
Village building began at this stage. The per capita income of the farmers was up and the villagers, through their cooperative efforts, set up a school, hostel, gymnasium, credit societies and renovated the temple too.
It has brought about a political change too. All elections to local bodies are now held through consensus. A Rs 22-lakh school building was constructed using the village's resources. No donations were taken and money, if needed, was borrowed and paid back. The village went self-reliant that became its pride.
There were other spillover effects. A new system of sharing of labour grew and people volunteered to work on each others' land and the landless labourers gained employment. Today, Ralegansiddhi's residents plan to buy land from adjoining villages.