Nanuram Rawat was the adhyaksha of the gram sabha in Seed, one of the first gramdan villages where environmental resources have been regenerated through community management
THE VILLAGE of Seed stands out as a green oasis in Rajasthan's denuded Aravallis. Its gram sabha meets regularly and, being a gramdan village, it has full control over all the land within the village boundary, including erstwhile government land.
Rawat was the adhyaksha (chairperson) of Seed's gram sabha from 1988 to 1991 and is still a member of the executive committee and the nyaya samiti (justice committee). He drew inspiration from Rameshwar Prasad, a Gandhian who dedicated his life to making Seed a success and instilled the quality of leadership in his fellow-villagers.
Rawat looks older than his 30 years. Even though his formal education ended with the seventh class, he reads a lot. Witty and shy, he finds it strange that people have come all the way from Delhi to talk to him. Before answering any questions, he gives you a lota (brass pot) of water and a tumbler of fresh goat milk, proudly pointing out the grass he got from the community forest during the year.
Do you feel the government is interested in gram sabhas?
That is very difficult to say. On the one hand, the Rajasthan government passed the Gramdan Act and constituted a board to look after the gramdani villages and promote the concept. On the other, the board does nothing apart from supervising elections for the presidentship and executive committee.
Patwaris, tehsildars, block development officers (BDOs) and even collectors oppose it. The forest department feels that gram sabhas should not be formed. Though there may be a few individuals who support the idea, I don't think the government is interested in it. They have even passed legislation to break gram sabhas.
Why is there this opposition?
If all the villages become gramdani villages, they would rule themselves. Then what would the sahebs and babus do for a living? They survive by dividing us. It is like the story of the cat dividing the roti among the two monkeys. Nobody wants to give up power. But the government cannot be open about its opposition to gram sabhas as they will lose votes. That is why more villages do not opt for the Gramdan Act.
What does the concept mean to you?
It means that we can solve our own problems and settle our disputes ourselves. We have been freed forever from the tehsildars and the patwaris. Even for small things like land records we had to go crying around the offices for weeks. Now we do these things ourselves.
What was your village like earlier?
Our elders talked about wild animals and plentiful fodder and firewood. The high soil moisture ensured green grass round the year and every house had plenty of cattle. Our mothers would scare us by telling us about hyenas. We wondered how anything could grow on the barren rocks. But today, seeing the forest come up in our village, I believe all those stories.
What is so special about your forest?
You have to see it first and compare it with the surrounding areas to believe it. Its total area is about 600 ha. Of this, 185 ha falls within the boundary of our village. In 1975, the Forest Department enclosed 57 ha of almost barren land with a stone wall. In 1982, after a long struggle with the department, we got possession of this area.
Did the department give in easily?
We had to petition almost everybody who was anybody to get the forest. Even after that, things did not go very well. Narayan Singh, a forest functionary, and two of his guards kept harassing us on various pretexts. We had to file a suit against him. He was forced to plead guilty and was fined Rs 51. His guards also paid a fine of Rs 41 each.
Like you, everyone must have faced the problem of lack of pastures. Why did you accept it?
It was a collective decision, so the question of not accepting it did not arise. Moreover, it was for our own good. It was decided that all the families would be given one plot each and allowed to cut the grass once a year. This year, the 104 households in the village got grass worth Rs 1,000 in the market. We have seen some deer in the forest recently, which is full of valuable trees like sagwan (teak), palas (Butea frondosa), khair (Acacia catechu), khejdi, mahua, etc. There is a guard to make sure that nobody damages the forest. All the households contribute to his pay. Who are the people you have to guard against?
Our biggest problem is people from other villages who usually poach at night. Bhairon Singh, a teacher in a neighbouring village, was fined Rs 501 for stealing wood worth Rs 11. He had come with a bullock cart and got caught.
When did you first hear about your village becoming a gramdani one?
Our elders used to discuss it with Rameshwar Prasad, of the neighbouring Sethwana village. Maharaj, as we call him, has been keen on the idea since he met Vinobaji in 1959. One day, there was a big ceremony at the Kereswar temple in which people from five villages took the resolution of gramdan. We first became a gramdani village 25 years ago, but there was a lot of opposition from the government. The tehsildar destroyed the papers and we did not get official sanction till 1982.
What did you do when the official sanction was delayed?
The elders must have done something, but they were all uneducated. So the task of running around the offices was left to Rameshwar Maharaj. He still tells us what to do.
Why do you depend so much on Rameshwar?
He asks us the same question. He seldom comes to the village and sends instead his co-workers. Actually, we need their advice, but we question whatever we are told instead of accepting things blindly.
I am told that the meetings are not held regularly and not everybody is given a chance to speak. That is why many people do not attend meetings.
Gram sabha meetings are held on a fixed day every month. But if somebody has some work on that day, he does not attend the meeting. Attendance is not compulsory, but everybody is given a chance to speak.
Do the women attend the meetings? Do they speak?
That is really a problem. Very few women attend the meetings. They are too shy to speak up. It is not in our culture for women to speak in front of men. Even the mahila executive committee member sits with her veil drawn and says nothing. There is another problem: many men think it unnecessary to attend the meetings, they leave the decision-making to us. Maybe they do not want to get involved in the work.
You mean there are people who try to remain aloof?
Are all your fingers the same size? Why don't you cut off your hand and throw it away because your fingers are not the same size? If some people do not attend the meetings, which I admit is a problem, we will solve it in our own way. If we make attending meetings compulsory, the idea of voluntarism and freedom will be lost.
Did you feel scared at the responsibility of becoming president?
I started crying. I pleaded and cajoled them to let me go. I did not think I could take on such a big responsibility. I even thought of running away from the village. But Rakhbaji, who was the adhyaksha before me, and all the villagers said that since I lived in the village, I would have to take on the responsibility. They made me feel that we were all together and, as the president, I would be first among equals. In reality, I was just their servant.
What were your major achievements as president?
I think my biggest achievement was that I could spread the idea of gramdan. Another thing I managed to do was getting an anicut sanctioned by the government. The work is still to be completed. I also got the gram sabha bhavan constructed and had Rs 11,000 sanctioned for it. I fought with the Panchayat Samiti to get the lift irrigation scheme electrified. We had started a major plantation in 1988, but the plants died due to drought.
Are you doing anything to remove the acute poverty in your village?
Look, people come to our village from England and Japan and ask the same thing. We are much better off than before. But we need science and technology, we need money. Who will give us those?
Have you approached anybody, especially the NGOs?
We are not fools. There is not much difference between the sarkar and the sansthas (NGOs). You educated shahris (city-dwellers) have one son in the sarkar and another in a sanstha. Both loot and dominate us in the name of technology. But we will not allow that. We need technology, but on our own conditions. That is, solve our problems, teach us, but do not try to dominate us.
What are your future plans?
We want to become self-sufficient. To me, self-sufficiency means growing appropriate crops and selling it in a way that we are not cheated. The gram sabha can tax us, and then buy salt or the other things that we need and sell it in a cooperative store.
Why don't girls attend school?
Four girls have started this year. Everyone feels it is no use educating girls. I am trying to change this feeling. That is why I send my daughters to school.
Why didn't you continue for another term?
My fields were getting neglected and the goats were calling me. I told the village to select somebody else. Everybody should be given a chance to learn. We chose our peon, Duluram, as the president.