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A folk hero returns to inspire a rural revolution.

Villagers of Maharashtra surprise officials by their readiness to help themselves.

For decades donors like the World Bank and the Governments of Japan and Germany had waited with millions of dollars in funding for self-help projects in rural Maharashtra. The only precondition was that the villages must contribute 10% as their share. Politicians and bureucrats were certain villagers wouldn't fork out that share. Then suddenly starting October,2000 Maharashtra villages were abuzz. Seeking nothing from outside, villagers had created public assets worth Rs.200 crores [$40 million]. What had happened suddenly?

Gadge Maharaj was back among his people. That's what.

Rising from folk memory:

Actually Maharashtra's beloved folk hero of recent times, Gadge Maharaj had died in 1956. By a stroke of inspired genius Rural Development Minister R R Patil, launched a village cleanliness campaign and named it after the Maharaj.

The Abhiyan --or campaign-- offered no funds. It however offered very attractive prizes to villages that emerge on top. The villagers' enthusiasm rose from a desire to earn honour and prizes associated with the name of their beloved hero.

Who was this man -- Gadge Maharaj -- who can motivate from his grave the simple folk of India, in a manner money could not?

We find the spry Mr.Jaisingrao Shinde in a Pune Dharamshala [free inn]- one of the many the Maharaj built to help the poor. Shinde had been as a boy, a part of the Maharaj's constantly travelling group. He manages the large sturdily constructed inn now. He warms to narrate the legend of Gadge Maharaj.

"The Maharaj was born in 1876 in Runmochan a village in Amaravati Dt of Maharashtra. His father was a dhobi and a small time farmer but a hopeless drunkard. The bewildered young boy went to grow up in his uncle's care. When he was a young man - married with a child- misery continued to chase him. His farm was possessed by a money lender who drove him and his family away. He then began to labour for a wage.

"One day as he ran around busily chasing birds raiding grain, a sadhu happened to pass by. He saw the panting young man and began to laugh loudly. "Do you think you own the grain?" asked the mendicant. That was the young man's aha moment. He walked out and into the world. And thus began a life that lives on in the collective memory of our humble people.

The Do-It-Yourself Preacher:

"For many of us, Gadge Maharaj was Gandhi's equal or greater. He was a big man who dressed to attract attention. He wore his eating pan on his head and always carried a broom in his hands. On arrival in a village he would lead his entourage in briskly sweeping the streets clean. His meetings --satsangs-- would begin with a token nod to God and quicky arrive at his pet themes. "Give" was his keyword. "Give food to the hungry, shelter to the needy, clothes to the naked, protection to animals and trees, aid for girls' marriages," he would say. "Live clean and simple. Shun intoxicants. Care for the environment."

"Till his death in 1956 Gadge Maharaj travelled everywhere in the then Bombay Presidency. Astute Chief Minister that he was, B G Kher gave the Maharaj a car to travel in. Packed to the hilt it would arrive in a village. Every morning began with 2 hours of sweeping and cleaning. Not a drop of water passed his lips till he had done that. He affected people everywhere. Money poured in for his projects. He built inns, schools, animal shelters and medical centres that thrive till this day. Yet the Maharaj stayed rarely for more a couple of days at any place. He was forever in a hurry and on a mission."

Shinde pauses.

The resurrection:

Nearly 50 years after B G Kher had co-opted the Maharaj to reach the people, politician Patil was repeating the act. And it worked. The invitation to villages to compete for prizes in the name of Gadge Baba electrified them. 33,000 villages [-of a total of 42,000 in Maharashtra] have stepped forward to participate in the Gadge Maharaj Swacheta Abhiyan.

There are handsome prizes to be won. Three cash prizes in each district in the sum of Rs.5 lakhs [$10,000], Rs.3 lakhs and Rs.2 lakhs. The best village in the entire state gets Rs.25 lakhs[Rs.15 for the second and Rs.10 lakhs for the third ] from the Chief Minister on Maharashtra Day, May 1. The villages can spend the prize money on projects they collectively decide on.

Beyond the prize money and the administration costs the Government incurs nothing. The Maharaj's name spurs the villagers to action. The state has set out elaborate guidelines that are to be adhered. The Abhiyan which began in Sep,2000 as a one time programme is now an annual event. To begin with there is a 14 day drill that every participating village must go through.

It is worth running through the prescribed agenda: Day 1: district level Abhiyan meeting with a 'guardian' Minister presiding, 2: taluk level meeting with an MLA presiding, 3: village level meeting with the sarpanch presiding, 4:Gram Sabha or village plenary meeting on Oct 2, Gandhi's birthday, 5:clean-up and garbage disposal, 6: cleaning and repairing of septic tanks and sanitation works, 7:cleaning up the school, 8:cleaning up homes and surroundings, 9:talks and workshops on cleanliness, 10: repairs to toilets, 11: water issues, 12: personal hygiene, 13: shramdan or physical participation to repair roads and public places and 14: care of livestock and their dwellings.

Travelling judges:

The Abhiyan then enters the evaluation phase. There are elaborate checks and balances in the selection of judges and the judging process. Judging committees are a mix of officials and non-officials. IAS officers have to ensure that no one judges a village in his own block. Also scores have to be awarded on the spot and the reasons explained. For the state level prize there is a review by a second team. The costs are met from local government funds, the state contributing nothing.

The judges are required to consider as many as 85 criteria. Some of them are eye-openers. What is the popular involvement? Have the works been fobbed off to contractors and window-dressed? What is the state of the toilets and what is the count? Has the village rid itself of human scavengers? Are non conventional energy devices in use? How well are the schools kept? What is the awareness level regarding plastics' potential to degrade environment? How clean are the shops and eateries? Are irrigation and utility charges paid on time? How well is water managed? Are fuel efficient, smokeless stoves in use? Have there been epidemics or chronic heath problems? How well is the small family norm adhered to? The list goes on. The scope, the depth and the transparency are striking. Villagers acknowledge the fairness of the process.

The ground reality:

The spirit of cheerful competition is palpable. Mahesh Vijapurkar reporting in the 'Hindu' says: "...the people of Tung village decided everything should be in pink like Jaipur. But when they came to a mosque, they stopped in their tracks. But the Muslims said it was all right to daub pink on its walls too, instead of the preferred green." The programme appears to have ignited a sense of pride and belonging. A World Bank team also noted talent, innovation and aethetics in the villagers' approach.

Let's take a look for ourselves at two villages chosen at random. Neither of these won any prize. The first Jategaon Budruk, some distance off the Pune Ahmednagar Highway, is --in the month of March-- sparklingly clean. The large school campus is full of trees and well scrubbed children sit under one and are into a robust sing-along. This village focuses on tree planting. A nearby factory --Milton's-- was approached and assistance came forth. Many saplings arrived and the village tends them diligently. The tea shop exudes peace and friendliness. More than 50% of the household have private toilets. More are applying for the Rs.3000 loan that is available.

The second village picked for our visit is Karegaon on the highway. It was obviously a walled village once. Its fortress like entrance is in good repair. The elected head Pushpalata Pravin Ostwal receives us in her office before taking us on a walkabout. This village is not as clean as our first because dwellings are cheek by jowl as is typical of walled habitats, but Karegaon still got a letter of appreciation from the judges for its efforts. So the Abhiyan is not just about appearances. Piped water and a sewage system are being installed. The village has a good income from the numerous industries in the area paying it rent. The school's large campus has a compound wall. Dr. Gawde arrives on the scene and is introduced as the chief motivator for the Abhiyan. "I want you to know I went to this very same school, then went out to graduate in medicine and have come back to live right here," he says. He is obviously a village success. The children assemble to meet the visitors. Dr.Gawde tells them that their efforts at cleaning up the village had attracted media attention. Children cheer wildly with delight. Dr.Gawde proudly informs us that the village had spent Rs.350,000 of its own funds to participate in the Abhiyan.

Enduring spirit:

"Gadge Maharaj took ill in Bombay in 1956," resumes Debhoji. "It was the monsoons and he had been working the streets nevertheless. We took him to a hospital. But he refused to take any medicines. "Take me to the animal shelter I built in Amaravati," he said. So we drove through the rain but he kept getting worse. He died within minutes of arriving at the village. You could feel the emotion fill the air. People from miles afar raced in their bullock carts loaded with sandalwood and tins of ghee to give their hero a grand cremation."

Gadge Maharaj used to repeatedly declare, "it is the broom that made Gadge Baba." The millions of simple folk who still revere him, may make Maharashtra a different place yet - with that legendary broom in their hands.

[1]- It is a policy with GoodNewsIndia to give additional information to its readers who wish to follow up a story further. In this case it is simple. If you are driving through Maharashtra you could stop most anywhere and ask for villages participating in the Abhiyan. You would probably be directed to one within an hour's drive. If you are doing this between September and January you could even see the process at work. How about this for a holiday idea with a difference?

[2]- In the two years that GoodNewsIndia has been reporting on positive developments in India, a definite prescription for success has become discernible. Everytime people close to the soil have been heard and their wisdom was accommodated in planning a project, enduring success has resulted. Thus Rajendra Singh in Rajasthan fought government engineers' designs in irrigation works and backed people's johads to create a revolution. Vilasrao Salunkhe in Maharashtra created a democracy based on water. The new forestry policy is paying off because the government realised it must induct people as partners and not police them. Kiran Bedi at Tihar turned the prison from a place for punishment into one for transformation. And now this story. Clearly the colonial mode of administration has to change. The state does not own the land - the people do. And they know what law is just, beneficial and workable. India's success when it comes, will have been largely due to the people who stay back and work on the society - and only marginally from those who have arrived at the gates of power or prosperity.

GoodNewsIndia is highly indebted to veteran journalist Mahesh Vijapurkar of Mumbai for help in the preparation of this story. First of all he broke the story in early March,2002 and started the excitement. Then when GNI needed some background information, he always responded. Once he called up the Ministry got the notes, translated them from Marathi and promptly sent them on. GoodNewsIndia is both grateful and honoured.