India's fearless soldier. Photo: Padma Sastry
Hazare’s transformation began in 1964 at a Delhi railway station bookstall after he bought a book on Swami Vivekananda's life.

Few people paid him any attention at first. But as the temple neared completion, the villagers began changing. Some offered to donate wood; many volunteered their labour. “This taught me one thing,” Hazare says. “If people are convinced that you are not selfish, they’re on your side.”

Among those who joined Hazare were a few young men. They called him “Anna”—big brother—and listened with fascination to his dream of transforming their village. Gradually, more youths joined the group, and Hazare suggested they form a Tarun Mandal [youth club].

One night, a few Tarun Mandal members rushed to the temple with the news that some drunks from a neighbouring village had beaten up Gulab Bhalekar, a 40-year-old Ralegaon farmer, because he had not saluted them. Anna seized the opportunity to call a village meeting at which he lashed out against drinking, illicit distilling and gambling. “I’m warning all distillers here,” he said. “Shut shop!”

Some distillers, fearing Anna and his boys, readily complied. Others had their liquor dens smashed up. But Hazare was not content with simply putting an end to the illegal distilling. “You can drink elsewhere,” he told villagers. “But if anyone here is found drunk, he’d better watch out.”

He soon proved he meant business. A few days later when three men returned to Ralegaon drunk after a binge in a nearby village, Hazare had them tied to the temple pillars and personally flogged them with his army belt.

Anna Hazare is unfazed by criticism of such behaviour. “Rural India is a harsh society,” he says, “if you want change, it’s sometimes necessary to be tough.” Indeed, no one I met at Ralegaon holds Hazare’s harshness against him. “I was a miserable drunk nine years ago,” said 44-year-old Haribhau Mapari, a Ralegaon farmer. “But after being thrashed, I’ve not touched a drop of liquor. Anna saved me.”

Though drink had blighted the lives of Ralegaon Siddhi’s residents, Hazare soon realized that a far more important reason for the villagers’ misery was lack of work. In fact, because many of the villagers had worked for the bootleggers, shutting down the distilleries had, ironically, made several families even poorer. As he wondered what could be done, Hazare chanced upon a newspaper article about a state government scheme that provided manual labour jobs on public works projects. He and the Tarun Mandal boys quickly rounded up about 200 villagers who needed work and got jobs for all of them.

This taught Hazare another important lesson: The government runs a number of rural development schemes, but because they were poorly publicized, illiterate villagers rarely get to hear about them. By finding out what schemes existed and studying them carefully, Hazare could help villagers take advantage of them.

Accordingly, Hazare decided to find out as much as he could about these development projects. He haunted government offices, talked to every bureaucrat he could, read several newspapers and built up files on government development schemes. “He was extraordinarily persistent,” recalled M.D. Sukhatme, executive engineer in Ahmadnagar’s irrigation department. “I remember him at one meeting, sitting on the floor, listening intently to a technical discussion on water management.”

Since Ralegaon suffered from acute water scarcity, Hazare was especially interested in irrigation techniques. Reading about a successful water conservation project near Purandhar, about 100 kilometres away, Anna studied the system and got engineers to draw up plans for a similar facility at Ralegaon. And by persuading villagers to do much of the work themselves, he got the facilities built at the lowest possible cost. “Building the temple had taught villagers the benefits of working together,” says Hazare. “Since then shramdan [self-help] has been our way of life.”

Today, much of Ralegaon’s farmland is irrigated. Agricultural incomes have increased remarkably, and very few villagers live below the poverty line. Not only have living standards risen, dozens of villagers are now free of debt. “I was able to pay back Rs40,000 in debts that I’d accumulated over the years,” farmer Nana Auti told me proudly, “Since then I’ve also built a new house.”


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