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The BAIF Saga - in Dr Manibhai Desai's words

Part 2: Problems of Urulikanchan ~ A temple, a school and an irrigation scheme ~ A start to farming

The situation was miserable but I was trying to understand the people's perception regarding their condition as a whole. To obtain a real clue of their feelings, I started gathering the reactions of women, rural poor, Harijans and also the Mang Garudis who were engaged in criminal activities and were identified as criminal tribes. I was surprised to note that at every level these groups shared a feeling that God Hanuman or Maruti was unhappy because the temple was in a bad condition. This was why there were no rains and hence no crops. As a result, they were facing poverty. So there was an immediate need to renovate Maruti temple. From the social development approach, I thought that we must first take up this work as an entry point to the community although it was not a part of the Gandhian programme. It looked like a communal activity restricted to Hindus. But in reality it was not so. Staunch Gandhiites working with me in the Ashram were not able to appreciate my decision. But I was not perturbed and at last a beautiful temple was constructed. With the consent of the villagers, I also constructed 12 class rooms for the primary school in the same complex. The rural people collected funds from the large farmers, business communities in the area and I collected funds for the school building. For a new person like me, not knowing even the local language, such a strategy of searching for an appropriate entry point to the village was crucial.

An old man told me there was no ground water at Urulikanchan. He directed me to a well which was opposite the railway station.

I started some agricultural activity as demonstration in the Ashram. It is not sufficient to give employment but it should be gainful self-employment. I purchased a pair of bullocks and built a hut. Gandhiji desired that Balkobaji should drink cow's milk. So I had to maintain some cows. I started with a small number of Gir cattle, which I brought from Saurashtra region of Gujarat.

In 1948 I started growing some crops. There was no water. So I dug a wide well after a hydrological survey but even at 14 metre depth there was no water. An old man told me there was no ground water at Urulikanchan. He directed me to a well which was opposite the railway station.

The water was not suitable for steam engine due to its high salt content but it could be good for agriculture. I found the well was almost filled with soil. I met the Divisional Railway Engineer who after a lot of paper work permitted me us to use this well. I started deepening the well and found water at a depth of 5 metres. I had to put two oil engines to pump out water and clean the well. As I was not allowed to build the pump-house near the railway track , I purchased an acre of land very close to the well and erected two engines which were gifted by Cooper Engine Company and Ruston. As the well was 1000 metre from the Ashram I developed a lift irrigation scheme. Then I started studying oil engines.

From this experimental irrigation scheme, I got an idea to lift water from the nearby river. This motivated me to start the Bhagyodaya Cooperative Joint Farming Society in a small village, Bhavarapur located 5 km away from Urulikanchan on the bank of the river Mula Mutha. It was a piece of about 35 ha of land owned by 24 farmers. It lay fallow with naturally grown Acacia trees. The farmers received about Rs.240 annually for the entire area for allowing cattle to graze or for harvesting grass. The poor farmers after some deliberation agreed to the land development experiment. We organised the cooperative farming society. As per the cooperative rules for membership, one must be a farmer holding land in the area. The farmers insisted that I should be a member of the Society. I joined as a landless member. As the land had very high pH content I went through literature on soil chemistry and introduced salt loving crops such as brinjal and also applied high quality gypsum. I designed a lift to bring the entire land under irrigation. Gradually we started growing many crops - even grapes, wheat, sorghum, millet, fodder and sugarcane worth over Rs.300,000 per year. The villages accepted me as an honorary consultant. Seeing was believing for them.

...and then news spread all over the village that Manibhai was an expert in agriculture besides being an expert in cattle management.

It was a great success and then news spread all over the village that Manibhai was an expert in agriculture besides being an expert in cattle management. I opened many dead carcasses of cattle to learn the anatomy and physiology of animals. It is important for a social worker to sell himself as a knowledgeable person in the basic activity of the village. It is not sufficient to have a clean character, simplicity or commitment; you should also have the ability, professionalism and technical know-how to implement development programmes. So people started coming to me.

Only work is not sufficient. It must be remunerative work. Employment Guarantee brings you bread but only bread is not sufficient. We must have something in saving. So I put the word Gainful before Self-Employment.

I was keen to associate with the villagers. So I started Sevadal. I was a good athlete and a good player of kabaddi, kho kho and volleyball. So I started playing with the boys and I was surprised to see about 50 boys line up in the old Marathi medium school.

Meanwhile, the Pathan wrote me a letter: "If you don't leave this village, you will be cut into pieces. " I met him next day. He was angry. I said: "I got your letter and I want to know when I should come to you [for being cut up]." I said that since the visit of Gandhiji to this village the entire situation had changed and the people would not tolerate his terrorism anymore. So, a big terror disappeared.

On August 15, 1948 I organised the Home Guards at Urulikanchan. I was wearing the uniform and also handling a rifle. This was a big shock for the Ashramites. But my intention was to organise the village youth.

In 1950 I collected 30 boys who had passed their seventh standard and started a school in a hut. There were no teachers and so I became the first teacher. There were some spare huts available at the Ashram. These became the first shelter for the school. After four years we shifted to the temple school complex. At the same time we organised a Sanskar Pathak which staged cultural dramas as an alternative to vulgar tamashas for which Urulikanchan was famous. In the course of time, the tamashas disappeared. Now it is one of the biggest and perhaps the best rural school in Maharashtra having 3800 students of whom about 1500 are girls. Then I started Mahila Mandal [Ladies Forum] and the people started knowing our activities. Then the Safai Sena [ Clean-up Corps] was organised like Shanti Sena [Peace Corps]. The villages were cleaned by women and men and I too joined them. This was just to make people realise that although Gandhiji had left for Delhi, his activities were going on.

Gandhijii was not against machines but his ideas of a machine was one which would be able to help the person. He was thinking in terms of a sewing machine - a very complicated machine that would not replace the person and make him unemployed, but would help to improve employment opportunities. I started installing engines at farmers' wells.

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