CAN A poverty-ridden village where alcoholism and crime are rampant turn into a showpiece of change and prosperity? Seems highly unlikely. In Hiware Bazar in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, however, you will see such a miracle in progress.
Hiware Bazar conjures up images of a bustling marketplace, but a few years ago, it was one of the most drought-prone villages of Maharashtra. Today, the rich and prosperous village is a shining example of how sustainable development and change can be brought about with common sense and determination. In 1995, the monthly per capita income was around Rs 830. Now, it is Rs 30,000. The village, which has 235 families and a population of around 1,250, now also boasts of 60 millionaires.
The cement houses along well-planned, clean roads are pinkish brown. There is a sense of discipline and order. Liquor and tobacco are banned. So is open defecation and urination. Every house has a toilet, a fact that few Indian villages can boast of.
The fields are lush with maize, jowar, bajra, onions and potatoes. Hiware Bazar is an oasis in a drought-affected area.
But, it was not always like this. Let us rewind to its dark past. “We lived in a poor village, but were happy with our simple lives,” recalls Raosaheb Rauji Pawar, 85. “But after the drought of 1972, the peace was shattered. People became irritable and restless as the struggle to stay alive became severe. Petty reasons were enough to trigger-off bitter quarrels, as there was so much despair and frustration. Villagers started consuming liquor and it added to our ruin. Many residents migrated to nearby cities to work as daily wage labourers.”
The local economy collapsed. So did the social fabric that held the village together in spite of its backwardness. Ninety percent of the villagers migrated. Despondency, hopelessness and unaddressed anger punctuated the villagers’ lives.
As India ushered in economic reforms, showing perceivable changes in both urban and rural areas in terms of opportunities, the youth in Hiware Bazar wondered if they were fated to remain in the shadows. There was no governance worth the name. Or leadership. The sarpanch was just a figurehead, too old to function. As the youth discussed the state of affairs, they felt it was worth experimenting with a young sarpanch who could bring in a whiff of fresh thinking and visionary zeal.
Popatrao Pawar, 52, was the only postgraduate in Hiware Bazar. So, the youth pleaded with him to contest for the sarpanch’s post in 1989. But Pawar was not interested. In fact, his family totally disapproved of the idea; they wanted him to go to the city and get a white-collar job. Pawar wanted to become a cricketer as he was a good player and his family also thought he had great promise and would play in the Ranji Trophy someday.
But as the youth persisted, he agreed to contest. He was elected unopposed. Pawar realised he had got the chance of a lifetime to usher in change.
Pawar began by asking the villagers to become proactive towards creating their paradigms for development. The village was caught in a pincer of alcoholism leading to frequent brawls and violence. There were 22 liquor shops in the village. He got them closed after convincing villagers that alcoholism had made them poor and addicted. He got the gram sabha to tie up with the Bank of Maharashtra to grant loans to poor families, including those who were brewing illicit liquor earlier.
“Ours was a simple village with happy families. But lack of water turned our fields barren,” remembers Laxman Pawar, 71, a farmer. “Out of desperation, people started to drink, gamble and fight. Liquor had ruined us. When the illicit dens were closed, we knew there was hope.”
One of the first things the sarpanch did was water conservation and management as it helped farming and brought in some money. He got the villagers to voluntarily help in rainwater harvesting. Soon, the villagers built 52 earthen bunds, two percolation tanks, 32 stone bunds and nine check dams. “We used state government funds. The volunteer labour programme cut costs and also ensured quality work. It was as if we were building it for ourselves and for our children,” he says.
The idea was to harvest every raindrop as it fell. Being in the rain-shadow region, Hiware Bazar received just about 15 inches of annual rain. Ponds and trenches stopped rainwater from flowing out of the village. After the first monsoon, the irrigation area increased from 20 hectares to 70 hectares. “In 2010, the village got 190 mm of rain, but we managed well because of water management,” says Habib Sayyed, who works on water issues in the village.
Water management helped them harvest multiple crops. Before 1995, there were 90 open wells with water at 80-125 feet. Today, there are 294 open wells with water at 15-40 feet. Other villages in Ahmednagar district have to drill nearly 200 feet to reach water.
In 1995, only one-tenth of land in Hiware Bazar was arable. Out of a total of 976 hectares, 150 hectares was rocky. Nature was against them as there were recurrent droughts. Now, even the stubborn land is being tamed with the rocks being removed and ploughed so that sowing can start when the rains come.
Anshabapu Thange, 45, had two acres lying fallow 15 years ago. But when water became available, he was back to farming. Today, he has 25 acres growing maize and fodder. He also has 30 buffaloes yielding 250 litres of milk a day. “Earlier, we did not have a grain to eat. It is water that helped us become rich,” he says.
There are success stories all over the village. Raosaheb Raouji Pawar, a former wrestler, cycles to the village square to sit and chat with friends. Today, he owns 45 acres, one tractor, one harvesting machine and three motorcycles. His annual turnover is now Rs 15 lakh.
School students at the primary level go through a compulsory course on water management. To ensure that water is not overused, water budgets are designed to estimate its use by measuring water levels and then prescribe cropping patterns. Monthly readings are done to calculate the amount of water available.
In 2007, the village won the National Water Award for community-led water conservation. The water audits determine which crops can be grown in a season, says Shivaji Thange, who works with the watershed committee.
With the water level in the wells rising, farming became a full-time activity. It immediately created conditions for prosperity to bloom. In 1995, as many as 168 of its 182 families were below the poverty line. Today, government estimates put it at only three. But sarpanch Pawar says that by Hiware Bazar’s definition, there are 12 BPL families. The village defines a BPL family as one that cannot have two full meals a day, cannot pay for children’s education and afford healthcare.
“We just need one more year to make Hiware Bazar a BPL-free village,” says Pawar, as the panchayat is already working on a strategy to draw them out of poverty.
In the mid-1990s, a five-year plan was drawn up for ecological regeneration, integrating available government schemes. Around 10 lakh trees were planted, increasing the forest cover and raising the water table. The temperature also fell by two degrees. Babool trees used to be cut for fuel, but now, it is being protected as villagers harvest gum from them, which is priced at Rs 2,000 per kg. The Forest Department is now assisting villagers making it a new commercial proposition.
As villagers were pulled in to make decisions and then implement them, there was no opposition as they had the feeling of ownership. The village was not divided by narrow politics. “We monitored everything we did so that funds were utilised properly. We had audits of all the work we did,” says Pawar.
There is a different gender sensitivity that one sees here. The gram panchayat has now decided that the second daughter’s education and marriage expenses will be taken care of by the village. In the seven-member panchayat, three are women. Sunita Shankar Pawar is the sarpanch this year but Popatrao Pawar as deputy sarpanch is the cynosure of all eyes.
To improve farming and livestock production, the villagers took bank loans. Last year, the disbursement touched Rs 38 lakh.
As farming increased, so did work. Getting labour was expensive, so Popatrao Pawar introduced the idea of collective farming. When a farmer is sowing, others join in to help so that he saves on labour. This practice has caught on and has created a new sense of belonging among the villagers. He says it is not money that can bring in rural change, but people working together to reach common goals without caste, creed and politics playing spoilsport.
Pawar turned to concentrate on another activity that had the potential of bringing villagers additional revenue. He got them to stop cattle from grazing in the forest as it had ecological implications. Instead, he persuaded them to grow more fodder. The focus on livestock resulted in the gradual increase in milk production bringing in steady revenue. In the mid-1990s, milk production was just 150 litres a day. Now, it has touched over 4,000 litres a day.
WHILE VILLAGERS are migrating to cities in the rest of the country, here is an excellent example of how reverse-migration is demonstrating the importance of villages becoming sustainable and consequently, prosperous. Ninety-three families have returned to Hiware Bazar since 1997. They had earlier left for nearby cities such as Ahmednagar, Pune and Mumbai to work as daily wage labourers for around Rs 50 a day. More importantly, aspirations have increased with a better and peaceful lifestyle back home.
Pawar did not rest on his laurels. He got the school, which was almost non-functional, working again. He started a children’s parliament that monitored if teachers were regularly attending school and if the students had any complaints. As students completed school, the desire to study further is now taking them to a nearby college. In fact, 32 students are now studying medicine.
There is no doctor in the village. “There is no need of a doctor here as everyone is healthy. No one can fall sick when the streets and houses are clean. We do not have open sewage systems, garbage lying around or open defecation which spreads disease,” he says. There are no sweepers hired by the village. Yet, the streets are clean as everyone chips in to keep it that way. It has become a culture to live in clean surroundings.
Pawar motivated villagers to adopt family planning, take care of their health and hygiene and even advocated that couples take a HIV test before marriage. He had a different outlook and villagers did not object as he always explained ideas at meetings before taking any decision. Collective decisions have helped keep rancour away.
The village has just one Muslim family and as there was no mosque for them to offer prayers, one was built for them. Banabhai Sayed and his family take part in all Hindu festivals and effortlessly sing Hindu bhajans.
The village has always planned ahead. In 2008, the gram sabha passed a resolution requesting that cars should not be used within the village to save fuel and cycles could be used instead. If they want to go to Ahmednagar, located 17 km away, they resort to a car pool.
With basic needs taken care of, Pawar’s focus now is on energy and is looking at solar energy. He also wants to slowly ensure that every food item from Hiware Bazar is organic. “Only 20 percent of chemical fertilisers are used now, but we will slowly turn organic. We will then set up our own market for organic food,” he says.
Pawar has now been made chairman of Maharashtra’s Model Village Programme that aims to create 100 villages like Hiware Bazar. He says he succeeded because of the participatory approach adopted where people decided what they wanted and brought in need based feasible plans. “I took 21 years to transform my village. Now, I have zipped the strategy to take just two years. With community participation, we can create a new era of rural change.”
While tangible changes are visible, it is the intangible lessons like changing consciousness, redefining political goals, willingness to sacrifice personal interests for the common good and cohesiveness in decision-making that make Hiware Bazar a lesson for rural India.
The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, a UN report, points out how looking after nature makes both economic and ecological sense. Hiware Bazar has shown how it actually works. It has also shown what a good leader can do in a leadership-driven society like India.