A magical oasis right in the middle of the suicide belt of Maharashtra, Hivre Bazaar village shows what united thought and action can achieve
Trigger Why we are doing this story
In Maharashtra, 79 farmers have killed themselves so far this year, with three indebted farmers committing suicide on Aug 8.
Between the dense outcrop of crooked trees and wild grass, we spot two cheetal deer from the car. In a flash, they are gone, the white underside of their tails flashing as they speed away. Only, we aren’t in a reserve forest or national park. Hivre Bazaar is like a miracle smack in the middle of the driest, most drought-prone and arid areas of Maharashtra. It gets an annual rainfall of 300-400 mm; in comparison, nearby Vidarbha, the ‘suicide belt’ of Maharashtra, gets almost double. Across the village borders, marked by big boulders, the terrain turns barren again, with a few straggly trees fighting for survival. Smooth, paved roads criss-cross the village. There is not one garbage heap in sight, not one plastic bag, no open latrines. There are also no cows, buffaloes or pigs mucking about. The cattle we spot are herded carefully by owners. Instead of rudimentary mud-and-stone huts, there are pucca cottages, all painted in a soothing light pinkish-brown. Hivre Bazaar is the very antithesis of the poverty-stricken, dirty Indian village. A miracle? It is, when you hear its story, for Hivre Bazaar is not far from the state’s suicide belt. But it’s a miracle that’s wholly replicable.
Baba Ramji Pawar, 73, who rides into the village square on his motorbike, stops to chat for a while about the village’s dismal past. “It used to be called a punishment posting by government officers,” he says. “There were no roads or fields here, only stones and dry land. Crops used to fail all the time because of water shortage. Our women had to walk 2 km just to get some drinking water. The men used to be drunk all the time because they were jobless. There used to be gambling and such violent fights!” Since farming provided a meagre living, most families, sunk in debt, opted to migrate to nearby Ahmednagar, Pune or Mumbai to work as casual labourers.
Change master Sarpanch Popatrao Pawar has transformed Hivre Bazaar village. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)
This is how Popatrao Pawar found Hivre Bazaar when he came here in the 1990s. He had left the village as a teenager to do his masters in commerce and chase his dream of becoming a cricketer. But as things turned from bad to worse in his village, he decided to return, despite opposition from his parents. Mohan Chattar, an associate, says Pawar’s “madness” infected them all and swept them along towards prosperity.
“Unlike other places, party politics played no role in our village. I was elected sarpanch simply because I was educated and had a plan of action. Instead of being divided by politics, we came together for the good of the village,” says Pawar. His first step was to hold gram sabhas where all the villagers, men, women and the youth used to collect to discuss the problems and possible solutions. Pawar introduced the concept of shramdan (voluntary labour) by everyone to improve the village’s condition. This free labour is what fuelled the tree plantation drive that has now converted it into a green oasis. Now, a quarter of the village is completely covered by dense woods.
“The forest department wasn’t too happy with us to begin with because the villagers used to cut trees indiscriminately and the latter even tied up one of their guards when he tried to stop them,” recalls Chattar. Several meetings later, the department finally agreed on a joint reforestation programme: the plan was to plant only local trees, shrubs and a hardy grass native to the area, which required only a little rainfall to take root. Soon, the greenery started binding the soil and allowed rainwater to percolate to the rocky water table. Cattle wasn’t allowed to graze at will and tree-felling was banned. Branches were allowed to be pruned for firewood, however. And only the top of the long grass was cut for fodder so that the roots remained undisturbed.
Concrete change Baba Ramji Pawar on a well-kept village street. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)
The village then decided to dig continuous contour trenches across the hillsides to create water catchment areas. They got technical and financial help from the state government. The next step was to build bunds, percolation tanks and water storage areas that required little maintenance. “Tube wells that suck water out of the ground were only allowed within the village for drinking purposes. The fields were watered from ordinary wells via drip irrigation instead of flood irrigation,” says Pawar. Villagers found the government’s drip irrigation of the “Israel model” not workable; so they worked out deals with local contractors who created and maintained drip irrigation systems suited to the local terrain. “The idea was to save and utilise every bit of rain we got.” So instead of growing thirsty cash crops like sugarcane or bananas once a year, the villagers grew onions, vegetables, fruits, bajra, jowar and wheat through the whole year.
Next, the village put a stop to the thirst of another kind—it banned liquor shops and all tobacco products. The panchayat came up with alternate sources of income for people running the liquor vends by helping them acquire cattle or open village shops. They also started a scheme to support the girl child. If any family had a second girl, her expenses were borne by the village panchayat.
These steps were tough to take and even tougher to implement. But the villagers stuck to them and the gambit has paid off. Today, Hivre Bazaar’s per capita income is Rs 30,000, thrice the national average. Farmers are tilling their land with tractors instead of oxen or buffaloes. Sahiba Chuduman Gaikwad is one of the poorest landless peasants in the village. He works on others’ fields and sells milk to the dairy cooperative, but says he saves Rs 20,000 a year because daily wages in Hivre Bazaar are way above that in other villages.
Gaikwad is a great example of how the inclusive growth model adopted by Pawar has worked. As a landless peasant who found no work in the village, he had left in 1995 with his family to earn a living as a casual labourer in Mumbai. He returned recently as incomes in his village grew. Six months ago, he bought buffaloes by taking a bank loan. “Normally, a bank would never give a loan to a casual labourer like me. But the gram sabha stood guarantor, so I was able to buy these buffaloes,” says Gaikwad. In time he hopes to turn in enough profit to call back his son who is still working in Mumbai. He is among the 100 people who have returned to the village in a case of reverse migration, unheard of in other parts of Maharashtra.
The Bank of Maharashtra opened a branch in the village last year. It has given out Rs 6 crore in loans till now and there has not been a single defaulter. Besides short-term loans for seeds and other agricultural inputs, the bank has also helped “refinance” loans taken from sahukars from neighbouring villages. The moneylenders charge Rs 2,500 a month on a loan of Rs 50,000. The bank charges Rs 3,500 per year for the same amount. It has also collected Rs 3.5 crore in savings accounts maintained by the villagers. There are more than 50 villagers with Rs 10 lakh in their bank accounts. “Ordinarily, a bank takes about 8-10 years to show this kind of growth. We’ve done it in one-and-a-half years,” says A. Bhatamrekar, the manager. “Now I see Std II students opening and operating accounts, saving up their pocket money.” Young Vaibha Vaitkar, only 11 years, remembers his balance by heart. “It’s Rs 7,366,” he chirps.
Acres green A bird’s eye view of the oasis that is Hivre Bazaar. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)
As incomes shoot up, several other changes have occurred. Cleanliness is scrupulously maintained. Every house comes with its own attached toilet. Open defecation is banned. Biogas supplied to each home has reduced the dependence on trees for firewood. A constant supply of clean water from hand pumps, not ponds, has led to a fall in malaria and other water-borne diseases that used to plague the village. The school used to be a one-room shack, with classes only up to Std IV. Now, it’s a modern building and has classes till Std XII. The villagers also got together to build a little mosque for the only Muslim family living there.
The next step is to take brand Hivre Bazaar to the world. The village will soon have a market that will sell organic milk and value-added goods like packed chutneys, spreads, pastes, preserves, fresh bottled fruit juices and flour. And Hivre Bazaar hopes the thousands who visit the village to study its success from around the world—MBA students, workers and executives from voluntary groups, farmers from across India and global agencies like the World Bank—will be its customers.
Pawar is now focusing his energies on the nearby Vidarbha region, which has been hit by farmer suicides. “Government subsidies are just handicapping the region,” he says. “Centrally-administered, arbitrarily disbursed loans and packages to individual farmers are simply wasted—on weddings, on alcohol or repaying old debts to moneylenders. The key lies in giving the power back to the panchayats, which will find local solutions instead of leaving it to visiting government officials or worse, the netas.” Starting with Amravati district in Vidarbha, Pawar wants to transform this troubled region, village by village. Like in Hivre Bazaar, hopefully, his madness will soon catch on.