Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Indian social activist 'Anna-Ji' shows leadership in the most unlikely of circumstances

I always find it inspiring reading about someone who's prepared to stand up for what they believe in and fight a cause. My vote this year has to go to Anna Hazare, the villager from western Maharashtra who is taking a stand against the corruption in Indian society by going on hunger strike.

The corruption is pervasive, whether you want a new passport, to get your children into a particular school or need a doctor's appointment you need to pay a bribe, otherwise known as a graft, or 'Permit Raj'.

Here's Anna-ji's story from a fantastic feature by Peter Popham in Saturday's Independent. If you're reading this Peter, I hope that you don't mind me relaying your words, which (undersantably liken Anna Hazare to Ghandi). See: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/anna-hazare-in-the-footsteps-of-gandhi-2340759.html

"When India went to war with China over Kashmir in 1962, Anna Hazare signed up for the army, aged 23. For more than 15 years he worked as an army lorry driver along the narrow, vertiginous mountainous roads of the frozen north as well as on India's other borders.

But long before he left the army he had already made up his mind about his future path. On 12 November 1965, during India's war with Pakistan, an air raid on India's base at Khem Karan in the Punjab killed all Hazare's comrades, leaving only him alive. It was the turning point in his life: the fact that he had been spared meant his life had a purpose.

Inspired by the 19th-century sage Swami Vivekananda, who preached commitment to social improvement, he discovered that purpose on his own doorstep. Every year he spent his army leave with his family, but on every visit, conditions in the village were worse. Ralegan Siddhi is in the drought-prone area of Maharashtra. During the frequent droughts, villagers were dependent on government water tankers for drinking water. Farm production plummeted; many villagers walked miles every day to labouring jobs, using the wages to buy grain from better-provided villagers nearby. More enterprising villagers set up drinking dens serving home-distilled "country liquor". The quality of life in the village, never opulent, went from bad to worse.

Hazare resolved to turn the village around. He planned his moves carefully. He took a vow of celibacy, so the need to provide for a family would never distract him from his goal. He remained in the army for another dozen years to qualify for a pension, so he would never be in material want. Then finally in 1977 he returned home for good, and began the task of redeeming the village.

In the process he became one of the green pioneers of the Indian countryside, persuading his fellow villagers to dig wells to harvest rain water, to terrace their fields, to make small dams and weirs to prevent water wastage and to plant thousands of trees. The results were spectacular: the rise in the water table made irrigation available for 1,500 hectares of land instead of 300 hectares before. The village began to prosper. A school, a hostel and a new temple were built. Following Gandhi's example, Hazare cracked down on the liquor dens: one of the most popular stories about him is how he tied village drunks to trees and flogged them with his army belt. Instead of the villagers walking miles to find work, the village was now importing labour.

This was development as Gandhi had conceived it, small-scale, village-based, a world away from the grand megastructure projects favoured by Nehru; a world away equally from the industrial and software development that has made India rich in the past 15 years. And it didn't stop with water: Ralegan Siddhi installed solar power right across the community, with individual panels for the street lights, with the result that it is now self-sufficient in energy. The village's achievements and those of its leader have been recognised with numerous awards at home and abroad.

What was to stop the village's example being copied right across India? Hazare came to believe that the problem lay in corruption. In 1991 he set up an organisation known in English as "Public Movement Against Corruption", focusing on a case in which dozens of forest officers had cheated the state out of hundreds of millions of rupees. He presented the evidence to the government but no action was taken as one of those involved in the scam was a minister in the ruling party. In disgust Hazare returned the high awards he had received from the government, and launched a hunger strike, "unto death" as Gandhi used to put it – an action which, thanks to its frequent use by Gandhi against the British, has unique symbolism in India. The government caved in: six ministers implicated in the scandal were forced to resign and hundreds of corrupt forest workers were sacked.

Suddenly, thanks to the simple commitment of a brave old man, the nation has awoken from its dreams of easy money. Anna Hazare offers his country a mirror: here is the squalid reality behind your prosperity, he says – and here is the cure." 

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