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The BAIF Saga - in Dr Manibhai Desai's words

Part 1: End of anarchist days ~ Meetings with Gandhi ~ Arrival at Urulikanchan

We are now passing through the Silver Jubilee year. BAIF was established on August 24, 1967 but the seed of eradicating poverty and improving the quality of life of millions rural Indians was sown 25 years earlier. After coming out of Sabarmati jail on August 9, 1942 as a result of my involvement in the underground movement, I was advised to come out in a normal atmosphere. I decided to complete my final year at college again in June 1944 but my heart was with Gandhiji's programmes for rural development. My conviction was quite firm and there was no going back. After returning to college, I stood first in the class mid-term exam and was declared as a merit scholar although I had joined after a wide gap. Although I was studious I was very serious about my future career.

[ Gandhiji ] then replied, "India is poor because rural India is poor. Rural India is poor because rural people are drastically under employed. Unless rural families get employment, rural India cannot prosper"

I went to Bombay to meet Gandhiji after answering my last paper for B Sc degree in April 1945. He had just returned from the Aga Khan Palace where he had been detained as a prisoner. During my first meeting with Gandhiji my conviction became stronger and I also realised that I required training in rural development. Gandhiji asked several questions. His first question was, "Do you know why India is poor?". I kept quiet as I was briefed to do so. He then replied, "India is poor because rural India is poor. Rural India is poor because rural people are drastically under employed. Unless rural families get employment, rural India cannot prosper" . He then asked me to take up this challenging task of providing employment to millions of rural people. I wanted to start that day itself but he insisted that I should go back to my village. I told him "Bapuji, I will be wasting my time in my village". He smiled and said "Try to forget whatever you have learned in college". I was shocked. I asked him whether he was against education. He said "No. Don't forget Physics and Mathematics but forget what Lord Macaulay taught you."

I had run away from my house. Nobody knew that I was fleeing my village to join Gandhiji. I knew that my family would never give their consent because they were planning for my wedding. I came from a well-to-do family. As per Gandhiji's wishes, I went back to my village. On August 15, 1945 when we were celebrating the death anniversary of Shri Mahadevbhai Desai, a postman came running to me to hand over a letter. Gandhiji wanted me to reach Sevagram immediately. I decided to leave immediately. That was the first time that people knew that I was leaving the family and village for joining Gandhiji.

Next day I went to Sevagram but Gandhiji had gone out. So I went to an Institute managed by Shri Narharibhai Parikh where training on village development was being conducted. Then Gandhiji came and I met him. He called me to Sevagram Ashram. The first assignment was to clean 25 latrines, each with two buckets. He showed me how to clean and said "You must be able to see your face in the buckets". I worked for about forty days. One day while I was on my way he called me and said, "from today you are my Accountant." Hence a sweeper became an accountant.

I knew that if I married, my mission of serving the villages would not be easy. Hence, I took an oath on January 28, 1946 at Sevagram that I would observe celibacy. On that day we were all at the flag hoisting ceremony and then I wrote 12 letters to all my relatives and friends. Later, in 1947 I wrote him about this oath but Gandhiji told me that it was not a correct decision - but I was adamant. We came to Pune. He was in search of a small village to start an institute on health - a Nature Cure Ashram.

He suggested that I should settle in Maharashtra but I wanted to go to my own village in Gujarat. Gandhiji said, "Why do you want to go to Gujarat?" I replied, "I have promised Shri Morarjibhai Desai that I will be returning within two years to Gujarat." Morarjibhai had said, "You will not be able to come. Once you are caught in the net of Mahatma Gandhi, you are lost for Gujarat." I narrated the incident to Gandhiji. He told me he would convince Morarjibhai. We went to Urulikanchan on March 22, 1946. Of course, in the beginning Gandhiji wanted me to continue in Pune but I was not happy living in a city. Being a young man and a student of Physics and Mathematics and having been involved in underground movement, I was slightly impatient. Gandhiji asked me, "Have you seen a fire bucket?" I said, "Yes". Gandhiji said, "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." I did not argue.

In the evening prayer he [ Gandhiji ] said, "If we don't build Urulikanchan we will not be able to manage Delhi."

On March 30, 1946 a special train reached Urulikanchan. A young diplomat named Mr. Sudhir Ghosh came with a letter addressed to Gandhiji from Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India, to the cottage where Gandhiji was staying. Gandhiji was writing an article for 'Harijan' . Lord Wavell had invited Gandhiji to Delhi for final negotiations on transfer of power from the British to the people of India. Mr.Ghosh suggested that they leave within an hour. Gandhiji said, "I can't leave now, because I have promised to attend the evening prayer. We will leave in the evening. After all, who is he to give the freedom? We will take it". In the evening prayer he said, "If we don't build Urulikanchan we will not be able to manage Delhi." This was his last message for me. This was his approach to rural economy and rural life as he had seen a direct link between poverty and power. Hence, at the age of 25, I had to start with a difficult situation. Shri Balkobaji Bhave was the senior most person in our group but he was suffering from tuberculosis.

I tried to understand Urulikanchan mainly from its social and economic aspects. I came to know that the village was in a bad shape. It was a scarcity area where drinking water was a problem. A large number of people were addicted to drinking. There was gambling because there was no work. The conditions of the Harijans was pathetic. They were suffering from poverty and starvation. There were many criminals belonging to a tribal community known as Mang who looted houses and crops around the village. There was no school. There was an Afghan money lender, Shah Karimkhan known as "Pathan" who was charging 300% interest and not accepting any principal amount in return. He was collecting interest. I wrote a long letter to Gandhiji describing Urulikanchan. He replied that pauperism of Harijans, tendency of collecting interest, exploiting people, mentality of Mangs, gambling, the shabby entertainment known as 'tamashas' and drinking are socio-economic diseases which required treatment from a real social worker. Gandhiji had already told me that unless they are put to work, the problem will not be solved.

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