Every morning at 750 BAIF centres spread all over India, motor bikes are kick started for the day's mission. Primarily they are for livestock improvement and husbandry. But they also take usable, profitable technologies and ideas for their paying clients - the rural folk of India. Each BAIF centre is mandated to cover a 15 km radius and each worker averages 80 km per day while delivering BAIF services. The reach is a half million square kilometres, nearly a sixth of India's total. The distance travelled by the BAIF bikies is over 20 million kilometres per year.
BAIF Development Research Foundation --or popularly BAIF-- is centred at Urulikanchan, about 20 km from Pune. Today it has 2000 employees of whom more than a hundred are doctorates in science, MBAs and other professionals. Its laboratories are at the cutting edge of agro-industrial research, earning royalties. It runs a modern management institute for development workers. It wins awards and is trusted by the Government and donors. Through all this, it has steadfasly retained its focus: 'show rural Indians ways to sustainable incomes'.
From the dust of a struggle:
Behind the BAIF success stands the legend of Manibhai Desai -- and behind him looms Gandhi himself.
Gandhi was clear about his two enemies. The imperialist power was easy to identify. His greater struggle was against India itself. He believed that "India is poor because rural India is poor and rural India is poor because rural people are under employed".
He would often persuade his acolytes to leave the more glamorous political work and turn to the work of building rural economies. Among his many recruits for the reconstruction of India was an improbable one - Manibhai.
Manibhai was born in 1920 in a family of landed gentry in the village of Kosmada near Surat. The community of Desais were affluent but known for their diligent manual labour. When young Manibhai was sent away to a relative's house for his early schooling, along went a cow for his daily drink of milk. Manibhai had to care for it in all ways. In addition he woud cheerfully attend to the other chores set by his cousin.
He was a bright student and a strapping young man, keen on sports. He had an inheritance and a settled way of life waiting for him. But then Gandhi crossed his path. A young man of the village had gone away to join Gandhi on his famous march to Dandi, where they defied the Salt Act. He returned with a few fists of salt. Desai heard of his adventures with Gandhi and at his request went around the village to distribute pinches of the famous salt. Manibhai recalled the event many years later: "they bowed low as they ate the salt". The image was to last forever.
Manibhai's road to Gandhi was not direct. He first chose -- during the 1942 Quit India movement -- to go underground with a few friends to derail trains and blow up bridges. After about 19 months of it they heard of Gandhi mocking them: "Why behave like cowards? Come out in the open and do whatever you want to do, and --if necessary-- die." Manibhai surfaced to organise meetings and rallies. He was soon clamped in prison. During the year in jail Manibhai was drawn to Mao and Gandhi because of their concern for the poor. But a venerable elder in jail with him suggested that he meet Gandhi before making up his mind.
Gandhi --50 year older than Desai-- immediately sensed the dammed energy in the young man. Perhaps to temper his impatience, Gandhi set the young Brahmin his first task: clean the 25 latrines at Sevagram daily. The relationship between them and the influence that Gandhi had on him are movingly narrated by Manibhai himself in his memoirs published elsewhere at this site.
In heart break country:
In 1946 Gandhi visited Urulikanchan near Pune and decided to set up a Nature Cure Ashram there. He assigned a puzzled Manibhai the task of running it. He had expected to be used in some glamorous engineering project. "Have you seen a fire bucket?", asked Gandhi and answered it himself: "You are my fire bucket. Like the fire bucket hanging on the hook, you have to be watchful and go wherever there is fire. The decision will be mine." But once there, Manibhai's energy began to find tasks equal to it. Urulikanchan was steeped in poverty. It had scarce rainfall and the little ground water that it had was brackish. It was dominated by a usurious money-lender and a marauding tribe of Mangs. The people --mostly Dalits-- were without hope and lost to drink and gambling.
Desai had Rs.100,000 sponsored by Gandhi. Mahadeo Kanchan, a local farmer gave the land on which to build the Ashram. Manibhai bought a couple of bulls and started to cultivate some horticural crops in the Ashram campus. For water he had to lay pipes from a well about a km away. The sullen village looked on. To gain an entry into their hearts Manibhai renovated the village temple and built class rooms. Then he began to teach the children. He started playing foot ball with them on the school grounds. The village perked up.
He had over time, befriended the 24 land-owners at Bhavarapur about 3 km away, on the banks of the Mula Mutha river. They had let their lands as pasture, having given up on farming. After much persuasion, Manibhai organised them into a cooperative, himself joining as a landless member. He helped the cooperative get a bank loan and built a lift irrigation system. Then he turned the sodic soil into a productive one by mixing wagon loads of gypsum. The 36 hectares steadily responded and began to produce sugarcane, wheat, grapes and other fruits. Manibhai Desai was acclaimed an agriculture expert. He had arrived.
He next organised a larger cooperative and started a sugar mill that would process the farmers' cane. Along the way the village school had grown and boasted 3000 students, nearly half of them girls. It had boarding facilities for poor students from far off villages. Hope was astir in Urulikanchan. Most abandoned alcohol, the money-lender fled and women began to form activity groups. Manibhai had disowned his inheritance, sworn to a life of celibacy and given Gandhi the word that he would "leave his ashes at Urulikanchan". It had been 20 years since he arrived, but the foundation had been laid for a lasting institution that endures till today.
The somewhat accidental discovery of the crossbred cow enlarged Manibhai's ambitions. Manibhai had brought a native cow impregnated by an imported thoroughbred. Savitri was the jet black crossbred born at the Ashram. She came to heat in ten months and went on to produce milk over nine lactations. As against the thoroughbreds that had been given to a few farmers thus far, a Gir or a Sahiwal mated with a Holstein Friesian or Jersey bull, produced a calf that inherited the productivty of the father and the hardiness of the mother. Manibhai was convinced he had discovered the 'non violent bullet' to wage war against rural poverty.
The Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation [BAIF] was founded in 1967 to take the Urulikanchan experience India-wide. By then Manibhai's credibilty and Gandhian credentials were beginning to open doors in the Government. President Zakir Hussain himself came down to Urulikanchan to inaugurate BAIF. Industrialists had pledged support. Bureucrats were helpful in guiding Manibhai through the labyrinth of Government offices. For about two years Manibhai and his loyal associate since 1946, Madhukar P Marathe planned strategies and waited for openings.
The break came in 1969, in the form of Tristram Beresford, Chairman of Britain's Agricultural Society. He was struck by the changes wrought at Bhavarapur by planned intervention. When he returned home he sent 7000 doses of frozen semen from quality Jersey and Friesian bulls. BAIF hired veterinarians and persuaded sugar coooperatives to support BAIF centres. Farmers' cows were inseminated at their door step. The results were dramatic: from 200 litres per lactation milk yields shot up to 2500 lites. The BAIF theory on crossbreds was getting proven on a massive scale.
BAIF hasn't looked back since. Manibhai was a man in a frenzy. He was a large, charming man with an impish humour. He was determined that BAIF would be run by technocrats and managers as a profitable, self-sustaining business. "Remember my name is MoneyBoy!" he would say. He began leveraging his personal, political and business connections to build BAIF. With Danish help a semen freezing centre was set up. Indian industrial houses were persuaded to sponsor research projects. A vaccine production centre was set up. Veterinary pharmaceuticals production came next. And finally --and fittingly-- rose the Dr. Manibhai Desai Management Training Centre, a modern facility in Pune.
Top to down people:
"He was difficult to resist," says Dr Narayan Hegde who joined BAIF in 1974 after hearing Manibhai speak at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Hegde was a forestry graduate who had worked with a multi national. Manibhai despatched him to Hawaii to study fodder trees and bring them to India for propagation. Dr S B Gokhale a veterinarian joined after Manibhai sat with him to think through the young man's future. Prof Relwani was another giant recuit. BAIF is extremely hard-tech at the top and soft-tech at the bottom where it meets with
with the farmer. BAIF believes that since it is difficult to recover from failures, every idea or programme recommended to a farmer has to be fully tested and tried.
On Manibhai's death in 1993, Dr. N G Hegde succeeded him. BAIF's budget today is Rs.50 crores [$10 million]. It produces animal semen and drugs, mushroom spores, soil bacteria, vermicompost, biofertilsers, seeds and grafts; it disseminates family level technologies; it provides hand-holding as rural groups find finances and markets; it provides formal management training to other NGOs. Farmers are served at their doorstep. In the tribal belts of Gujarat and Maharashtra BAIF has run the successful Wadi programme, where the often derelict lands with the tribes have become productive and profitable. In Tiptur, Karnataka BAIF staff directed a project that reshaped land and dug ponds to harvest water, until one day water gushed spontaneously out of borewells. BAIF is a consultant to many industries wanting to develop green belts. It emphasises on women's centrality in all development activities. It operates in six states of India and markets its products in 23. For the BAIF of Manibhai's dreams, the family is the basic unit and all research, technology and developmental activities should empower the family. The BAIF Wheel is everywhere on display. [ Click this link for a large view of it - it is very instructive.]
Many awards and honours came Manibhai's way when he was alive. Honorary doctorates, the Padma Shree, the Jamnalal Bajaj Award and the Vrikshamitra Award among them. But the citation that went with the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1982 must have satisfied him the most. The Award was, "for practical fulfillment of a vow made to Mahatma Gandhi 36 years ago to uplift, socially and economically, the poorest villagers."
As bikes ride out every morning from the 750 centres all over India they keep roaring that citation for Manibhai to hear.
BAIF Development Research Foundation
Dr Manibhai Desai Nagar
N H 4, Warje,
Pune - 411 052, India
Phones: 91 - 020 - 5231661, 5231662
Despite its authenticity the above article is inadequate to appreciate the times, life and personality of Dr Manibhai Desai. For that you must read his memoirs written a year before he died. GoodNewsIndia is honoured to have been permitted by BAIF to reproduce it at this site. Click here to read it in full.