An ideal village, an inspiring leader

The road from Parner to Hivre Bazar, in the rural expanse of central Maharashtra, passes through an arid land untouched by prosperity. The hills on the horizon are barren, suggesting that the Sahyadri range of mountains lose both their height and verdure in this rain-shadow region. It is difficult to imagine that located somewhere in this developmental desert is an oasis formed by a celebrated Ideal Village.

I have come to Parner to participate in the Guru Purnima celebrations of a youth organisation inspired by a spiritual guru, the late Ramachandra Maharaj Parnerkar. He propounded Poornavaad, a modernist interpretation of the Vedic philosophy, and I wish to write about him in a future column. But, upon being told that Hivre Bazar is only 30 km away, I cannot resist the temptation of visiting this village, which has won many state and national awards and become almost a place of pilgrimage for those interested in all-round rural development.

Seeing, they say, is believing. But, in this case, what I see exceeds the expectation. Hivre Bazar is a miracle in rural development that would have pleased Mahatma Gandhi, whose teachings inspired and guided the villagers in their endeavour. Here is a small village (only 257 families), which, 20 years ago, was perennially drought-prone. Half of its population of around 1,400 used to migrate to Mumbai and Pune in search of work in summer months. Nearly 90 per cent of the families were below poverty line. Alcoholism was rampant, and so were disputes and criminal activities.

There was all-round despondency, of the kind that we still see in many Indian villages. It was then that Popatrao Pawar, an idealist young man from the village, who had just completed his post-graduation in Pune, decided to return to Hivre Bazar and change its destiny.

What Pawar, 46, has achieved with his tireless struggle and the active cooperation of all the villagers in two decades is astounding. Recognising that jan, jal and jungle are the key to making a village self-reliant, prosperous and harmonious, he first enthused the people to tackle the chronic problem of water scarcity by doing shramdaan (voluntary and collective unpaid labour). They successfully implemented a watershed development and afforestation programme by building continuous contour trenches along the hill near the village. This stopped soil erosion and also raised the groundwater table, enabling every farm to have irrigation and every home to have yearlong piped water. As against one unreliable crop in a year in the past, farmers now grow three, sometimes even four, crops. Hivre Bazar's per capita income has increased from

Rs 832 in 1991 to Rs 28,000 now. About 50 families have become millionaires. In the '80s, it had only one motorbike; now it has 270 motorbikes, 25 four-wheelers and 17 tractors.

True, thousands of villages in Maharashtra have achieved economic prosperity in recent decades. But three factors make the Hivre Bazar experiment remarkable. First, prosperity here is largely equitable. No family lives in a kutcha house?Hivre Bazar today has a single kutcha house, one that has been preserved as a museum piece. As many as 60 families, who had migrated in search of livelihood, have returned to their village. Pawar, who is the village chief (sarpanch), says, "Only three such families in the entire village are still below poverty line, and we will soon ensure that they too get some land and increase their income." Second, economic growth is not an end in itself but has been made the basis of enlightened social development, with strong emphasis on education, healthcare, environment protection, gender justice (every house is in the name of woman of the household) and social harmony (there are only two Muslim families in the village, but others have pooled resources to build a small mosque for them). I was highly impressed by the school, nursery, gymnasium, community centre, library, primary healthcare centre, veterinary clinic, open-air auditorium, and solar-powered streetlighting in the village. Far more impressive is the level of cleanliness. Open defecation and urination have become history in Hivre Bazar, since every house has its own toilet, whose effluents, along with that of cattlesheds, support 112 biomass plants. These biomass plants, apart from providing basic electricity, also produce manure that is helping farmers to switch over to total organic farming.

Another unique achievement: Hivre Bazar has no open nallas, the bane of Indian villages and urban slums, and the source of many diseases. "By building underground drainage, we have eliminated mosquitoes and greatly improved people's health profile," says Pawar, and adds proudly, "I challenge visitors to our village to show me a mosquito and win a prize of hundred rupees."

In one of the most successful cases of Joint Forest Management anywhere in India, the villagers have planted as many as 35 lakh trees in the past twenty years. With flora has come fauna. Trekking up the hill, I see deer roaming around. "We also have migratory birds from different parts of the world," tells Pawar. "Besides, the grass grown on the hill has helped our village produce 5,000 litres of milk daily."

Third, Hivre Bazar, whose impressive panchayat building is called Gram Sansad (Village Parliament), has achieved all this with the villagers' own collective, cooperative and participative efforts, with minimal dependence on government funds. Every aspect of development planning is discussed, minuted, decided, implemented (with shramdaan on a regular basis) and monitored by the Gram Sabha (plenary meeting of all villagers). "It is a myth to think that government funds are the most important requirement for rural transformation," says Pawar. "If money were the sole determinant, every Indian village would have become a haven of development. What is needed is people's unity cutting across caste and other barriers, commitment to a common purpose, the spirit of cooperation, the readiness to share each other's joy and sorrow. This is the original ethos ("gaonpan") of an Indian village. Our success in being adjudged an 'Aadarsh Gram' (Ideal Village) is due to the fact that we were able to revive this ethos while at the same time striving to achieve all-sided socio-economic development of our village." Another rare accomplishment: "Not a single case of crime from the village has been registered in a police station and not a single dispute is taken to court. All dispute settlement takes place at the village level."

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee in his budget has announced a new scheme called the Pradhan Mantri Adarsh Gram Yojana for the integrated development, initially, of 1,000 villages. The scheme would benefit if both he and the Prime Minister paid a visit to Hivre Bazar.

sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com

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