Anna Hazare's name is synonymous with rural development and people's power. Hazare had once again hit the headlines in May by undertaking a fast at the Sant Dyaneshwar temple in Alandi, Maharashtra, to protest against the government's apathy in tackling the issue of corruption in the state's social forestry department. Earlier the same month, he had launched the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Janandolan (People's movement against corruption), after having returned his Padmashree in April. Hazare has transformed his village, Ralegan Siddhi, in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, into an oasis of greenery. The village has become a model of rural development through the implementation of government schemes designed to uplift the rural poor.
What did you achieve by undertaking the fast at Alandi?
This is not the first time I have undertaken a fast to draw the attention of the government to the rampant corruption in the social forestry department. I had undertaken a similar fast in 1990. At that time, the government had given verbal assurances that the matter would be inquired into. As nothing came out of this, I decided to undertake another fast. This time written assurances were given that action would be taken against the offending officials within 15 days.
There are some who say that you should not have broken your fast on the basis of assurances...
This was the first time that the government had responded in writing. In fact, I have just received a letter from the chief secretary of the state, which says that out of the 17 officials found guilty, 3 have retired since then and their pensions have been discontinued. Regarding the others, 5 have been suspended and criminal cases have been filed against 4. Raids have been conducted on the properties of these officials and most of them will receive only very nominal pensions, which have been substantially reduced as a form of punishment.
Why do you think the government took so long to complete the inquiry and take necessary action?
It is not easy to suspend such high-ranking officials. The legal procedures are lengthy and complicated. It is also necessary to give the officials time to file their replies against the charges made. This really delays matters as all the officials do not send in their replies on time. Besides, the persons holding the posts concerned are often transferred and are also sometimes unavailable because they are on leave or are unwell. The entire machinery can move faster only under pressure from the people.
What specific incidences of corruption did you discover in the department?
Implements are sold to the social forestry people at 3 to 4 times the market price. There is a certain contractor who, under different names, has various dummy companies that do not actually produce anything. This contractor, using these companies as a front, buys the implements and then sells them to the social forestry people at exorbitant prices.
We received some of these implements at Ralegan Siddhi. While using one of them, I realised that it was not working properly. I, therefore, began making inquiries. I wrote to the revenue department at Nasik and asked them for information regarding the types of implements purchased by them and the prices they were purchased at. I also found out the market rates of these implements. I wrote letters to 300 planters in various talukas, inquiring about their experiences in the use of these implements. Fortunately, most of them replied. Many complained about the implements.
I sent this information to the ministry and asked them to conduct an inquiry. That was in 1990. As the ministry failed to take any action, I returned my Vriksha Mitra Award in 1991.
Did the award committee express any regret on your returning the award?
There was absolutely no response from them.
This year you also returned your Padmashree. How did the government react?
There has been no response even to this. Last year, all that they did was make assurances. They kept giving me new deadlines for the completion of the inquiry. So, in April, I returned the Padmashree.
Some of your supporters feel that your recent fast should have focused only on the issue under question rather than on corruption in general.
Rural development schemes have failed due to "leakage" of money during the bureaucratic process. The schemes percolate down to the villages only after heavy leakages have taken place. The social forestry department is only an example.
All government bodies should be answerable to the public. People should try and collect proof whenever they suspect corruption and give it to the authorities concerned at the taluka and zilla levels. I feel it is necessary to build up network of people who will engage themselves in this work of exposing corruption.
Will it not be difficult to ensure honesty and commitment among the volunteers as people may try to take advantage of the situation?
Yes, that is true. We have to be prepared for that. We will make inquiries about the individuals who volunteer -- try to assure their motivation.
What about politicians?
We will not encourage politicians to join our network. However, we will welcome anyone who joins us as an individual, without his accompanying tags of party, rank and badge.
How well do you think the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Janandolan will fare?
This is a janandolan -- a people's movement against corruption. It depends upon the tremendous janshakti (people's power) that can be created if people come together to fight for a common cause. The success will depend upon the number of people who will feel motivated to join our struggle.
How far have you progressed with your plans to create 300 model villages in Maharashtra?
We propose to have 1 model village in every block, totalling up to 300 villages. We aim to show that a scheme can be successful only if 90 per cent of the budget is spent on actual work and 10 per cent on management, although the government spends only 65 per cent on the scheme itself. Output is naturally greater when a larger proportion of the budget is spent on the actual work.
To ensure overall development and the participation of the villagers, each project will incorporate principles such as voluntary labour, a small family norm, prevention of grazing, prevention of felling trees and a campaign against alcohol. We will first take up watershed management because people are not receptive to knowledge unless their stomachs are filled. We have a 5-year plan with a budget of Rs 15 crore per year for the 300 villages. This money has already been sanctioned by the government. The cost of the watershed management programme will be Rs 25 lakh per village. Of this, 10 per cent will be spent on management. Half of this will be spent on salaries and half on incidental expenses.
As the whole programme will be undertaken by the ngo sector, we want to ensure that there is an ngo in every village. Some villages already have ngos. In other villages, the process of forming and registering ngos is already underway. We plan to train 2 persons from every village -- one villager and one representative of the ngo -- at Ralegan Siddhi. The government has sanctioned Rs 30 per day for food for 100 participants. The training will be for 1 year for groups of 100 participants, on a rotation basis. For the first 2 months, the participants will be trained in watershed management. After all 3 batches have completed this training, the first batch will be back for a month's training in gobar gas plants. Similarly, we will cover social forestry, water management, cropping, fertiliser, soil conservation and sanitation.
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