Vidarbha (Maharashtra): The villagers of Vairagadh in Maharashtra were so frustrated by their inability to acquire funding for basic infrastructure projects that they applied in April to Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, for adoption into his state.
But just 100km away, in neighbouring Washim district, the village of Jamrunmahali, which initially struggled similarly, is thriving thanks to government-funded development schemes. The difference is attributable to one thing: access.
Jamrunmahali is part of the Adarsh Gaon Yojana (AGY), Maharashtra’s Ideal Village Scheme, made famous by its patron activist Anna Hazare, and practicable by its charismatic figurehead, Popatrao Pawar, sarpanch (village council head) of Hiware Bazar, Ahmednagar. The scheme has been running since the 1990s in Hazare’s hometown, Ralegan Siddhi, and nearby Hiware Bazar, but Jamrunmahali is one of the newer recruits to the project.
Having spent the past eight years adopting the Adarsh Gaon principles, Jamrunmahali has accessed money from the state that has made all kinds of development possible.
“Popatrao Pawar is an inspiration for us,” says Vasant Mahale, sarpanch of the village of 1,700. “If we face any bureaucratic difficulties, we go straight to Popatrao. There used to be hurdles before he came on the scene. He helped us to understand the system.”
Pawar’s name is recognized all over the Vidarbha region. The story of his rejuvenation of Hiware Bazar has become a local legend. But this has come at a price: A strict set of rules, governing everything from how a farmer should feed his livestock to how many children a family is allowed to have. One of the showpieces of AGY, Hiware Bazar is a success due to the rigidity of its governance.
Pawar’s dream village
Tall, sleek and long-limbed, Pawar exudes confidence as he recounts the story of his success. His speech is polished with practice (he has told it frequently to journalists and visiting dignitaries). The town hall is packed with accolades; three tables are laden with trophies and medals, and one wall is covered in adulatory press clippings.
“When I was growing up, there were droughts here two out of every five years, the ground was completely rock,” he says. “There were not enough trees and the land had been overgrazed.”
In the absence of groundwater, local women would have to walk 2km to fetch water during winter. Ninety-eight per cent of the population would migrate from the village seasonally. “The village was a sort of punishment posting for government servants,” Pawar says, describing a community alcohol addiction so bad that teachers would be found getting drunk with their students during lessons. “Families would marry a daughter off with a bottle of booze as dowry.”
In 1989, Pawar returned to his village, with a degree in finance and auditing from the University of Pune, and took charge as the sarpanch. His approach reflected his professional attitude: Identify the major problems, find out what money the government had made available and figure out how to bypass the bureaucracy. “We made a plan based on the five priorities of the village—drinking water, irrigation, employment, water conservation and soil management,” he says. “Then we applied for different government schemes and converged them into an integrated approach. We made a complete report and got access to state funds.”
To provide the out-of-work villagers with employment, Pawar approached the forest planning department and implemented a tree-planting scheme in the hills around the village. “We ensured that the money came to us to help the local people,” he says. In the process, the new trees would help prevent further soil erosion and retain water in the rocky soil. In 1992, the state government announced AGY for 350 blocks. Hiware Bazar was quick to apply and became the designated ideal village for its block. It began to access funds for education, roads and sanitation.
Today, Hiware Bazar is unrecognizable.
Neatly terraced fields are bursting with cash crops—onions and potatoes. Around them, carefully planted forested areas are protected by banks of soil to hold moisture in the hills. Cutting trees is banned, as is cattle grazing. A newly-constructed road winds between the farmland; Adarsh Gaon slogans are painted on the rocks. There are no landless among the population (the migrants have been provided with housing and two buffaloes per family with government money) and by the end of the year, Pawar says that there will be no families living below the poverty line either.
The village school has been extended from class IV to X and 40% of the students now come from other villages. Ninety-three families have returned to Hiware Bazar since 1995. Every person in the village has a bank account and there’s a branch of Bank of India in one room of the town hall.
Greater involvement: A sign promoting women’s participation in development activities at the village. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
If Pawar makes the process sound simple, it is because he has been working with the government now for more than 20 years. His efforts have been recognized officially and he has been made the executive president of the committee for AGY. The idea is to spread the model across the state, says Pawar, starting five model villages in every district of the state. Fifty have been selected already, including Jamrunmahali, and more will be chosen this year.
Pawar is insistent that schemes such as AGY are necessary if a village wants to pull itself out of poverty. He believes that sarpanchs alone are not equipped with the knowledge to access the money they require. “I have suggested to the government that all sarpanchs need to be given training on administrative issues,” he says. “Most of them don’t have academic backgrounds. It’s a problem of village-level administration and state-level—a failure on everybody’s part.”
But life in Hiware Bazar, despite the prosperity and access to services, requires a strict adherence to its code. And not every village is ready to submit. The Gandhian ideals of self-sufficiency and natural harmony promoted by Hazare infuse every element of life. Apart from the ban on having more than two children (“We approached that very systematically,” says Pawar. “If you have two girl children, the village will give you money to educate and marry the younger, but you can’t try for a third.”), villagers may not drink any alcohol, sell land to outsiders or defecate in the open.
The village itself, pin-neat and equipped with visitors’ toilets and billboards explaining the rules, feels eerily like a tourist attraction. A white minivan took a delegation of visiting sarpanchs and Indian Administrative Service officers, wearing name tags, from house to house to observe daily life. The imprint of Hazare and Pawar is everywhere. “We want to go it alone,” says Pawar. “Anna is my mentor, we are the pilots of the scheme. All these ideas are mine and today we are 100% independent from the government. Yes, to get to this point, we needed government support, but we don’t take any subsidies now. We are trying to implement organic farming to raise the price of our produce. We want to make Hiware Bazar into a brand.”
The villagers, too, are brand-conscious. “I’m happy that the village has become famous finally,” says an ex-migrant worker who used to travel seasonally to Pune. “Things are in order here. Outside you find 11-year-old boys who are drunkards, but my children are safe, away from that world.”
Becoming an ideal village
In Jamrunmahali, the panchayat (village council) has started to implement AGY’s seven principles. They have been working for five years and, in that time, both Hazare and Pawar have visited to check on the progress. Large banners with their faces decorate the village hall and a tree planted by Hazare is held in great reverence.
Irrigation trenches and a huge farm pond have been dug. Three 10,000-litre water tanks and a 2km road in the village have been built. Eighteen farmers have come together to create a collective, buying seeds and pesticides together and bargaining for higher prices at market. They grow cash crops now, in greenhouses of capsicum, tomato, bitter gourd and cucumber. All this has become possible, they say, through AGY.
“There are enough government schemes out there,” says Mahale. “These things are available. But the local leadership should put in the work and not use publicity stunts to get what they want.”
He is scornful of Vairagadh’s letter to Modi. “There should be an urge among the people to get things done.”
Migration from Jamrunmahali has stopped too, says Mahale.
“There used to be a lot of migration to Mumbai and Pune. Now, no one goes out. We have to bring people in to help us from two or three local villages at harvest time. Water is available now, so if a farmer has 10 acres, he gives one over to vegetables. But this only happened after we got water.”
Jamrunmahali has also embraced Hazare’s concept of community living. All the buildings in the village are painted a matching Jaipur pink. “We wanted the whole village to seem united,” says Gajaran Thakle, a member of the panchayat. Population control is taken very seriously. “Many villagers have sterilization operations after just one child,” says Mahale. They go to the local healthcare centre for the operations.
There seems to be no limit to the panchayat’s ambitions. They say they want a computer in every home soon, a solar power plant, a new town hall, 18km of new roads, and they are confident that they can get the money. They’ve never been refused a grant before, they say, and it usually takes about three months to get funding for a scheme. “We have got recognition now,” says Thakle. “They welcome us and that gives us power. It’s a status symbol.”
This is the last of a two-part series on how villages in Maharashtra deal with the problem of accessing funds for rural development projects in contrasting ways.