The Redeemer

  • 30/03/2002

The Redeemer Dada, as a child in a Marathi family, was a witness to the discordant practices. But unlike most people, he couldn't turn a Nelson's eye to existing conventions. Finally in 1958, he founded Swadhyaya (self-learning), an institution where faith, irrespective of religion, matters. From the motley group of 19 people, who started listening to Dada's discourses in Mumbai and spreading the message in far-flung villages, Swadhyaya is now a big family spread across the world.

"God resides within all of us. So whatever you do God is a partner to that activity - good or bad" the octogenarian articulates. Despite being rooted in the Gita and Upanishadshe focuses on krutibhakti (action-oriented devotion) to restore human dignity and the spirit of oneness. Dada says that when people utilise their skills and intellect for society, their efforts are equivalent to performing a puja (worship). The thrust is on selfless love, uniform opportunities and equitable sharing of resources.

For the Swadhyaya family in Gujarat, the focus is on water. During 1998-99around 960 nirmal neer (percolation tanks), 208ponds and 1000wells were recharged, all of which was done by the Swadhyaya volunteers.

At Swadhyaya, the community does what it thinks is essential for its survival. As it happened in Vavadi village in Rajkot district. The Swadhyayees proposed a percolation tank in 1997but many villagers did not show interest. Swadhyayees knew what they had to do and got started with digging and shovelling. In no time, there was more labour than work in hand to complete the tank construction in record time.

Ditto Nakhrawadi. But the results here included social makeover. Once infamous for alcoholics, petty fights and caste conflicts, the construction of percolation tanks changed everything, avers Chaturbhai Galabhai, a resident of the village. About 250 people devoted 1-2 hours per day for 13 days. "A person contributing two hours every day towards the building of nirmal neer is equivalent to eight hours of a government relief work" says C L Kotak, Swadhyayee and former engineer with the Gujarat government. Now, drinking water is plenty, and the villagers harvest three crops every year. "We now travel far less to fetch water", says Kumedbena resident, just one among the millions who have benefited from the patriarch of the Swadhyaya family.

Water as social reformer
Swadhyayees act methodically. First, they identify the most respected person in the village and elicit his support. Then they garner the support of other villagers. But strategies can change from village to village. For instance, during the construction of the first tank in 1993 in Chowkli, Janugadh, the youth were initiated. "The youth in this village were successful in mobilising support in the face of strong opposition from the village elders", says Jayantibhai Gajera, a Swadhyayee and resident of Chowkli.

But there were problems. The tank was supposed to be constructed on community pastureland, which housed a samadhi (grave). The belief that relocating graves would bring ill luck brought the youth in conflict with the panchayat, as well as other villagers. But the persuasive powers of the Swadhyayees worked. The advantages of constructing nirmal neers dawned upon the villages. Now there is water in the village even during drought. "The nirmal neer not only minimised the water stress, but also helped develop the village into a cohesive unit. We addressed two issues simultaneously", adds Gajera.

The nirmal neer movement has changed the face of semi arid western Gujarat, where underground water resources have been all but exhausted. Overuse of underground water resources has pushed the water table even below 150 metres. Athavale's logic was simple. He used the metaphor of balance in a bank account that would disappear if withdrawals exceed deposit. By recharging abandoned wells and impounding run-off water in ponds, Swadhyaya has produced dramatic results. Now, farm productivity has gone up by 300 per cent. The cost incurred by Swadhyaya in recharging a well is just one-tenth of the cost incurred by government programmes.

The sheer efficiency of Swadhyaya is amazing. "Local people, when empowered, can be excellent managers", says Athavale. Since everything is based on the spirit of volunteerism, there is no problem of motivation. The communication systems too are incredible - the speed with which orders are conveyed and followed is amazing. Enough to teach management schools a lesson or two.

The Swadhyaya family now extends to more than 20 million people in over 1000villages. The approach is novel. As there are no new institutions, the community is in charge of all development activities. There is no question of people's participation: there is nothing but the people doing what they think is essential. "Swadhyaya works on the spirit of volunteerism to create common property resources" says Kotak. "Swadhyaya is neither a cult nor a sect. It is neither a party nor an association. It is neither directed against centralising state power nor overcoming flaws in India society" says R K Srivastava of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

The theory of impersonal wealth doesn't just stop with water. Swadhyaya has made a contribution in almost every sector - farming, fishing, forestry, irrigation, potable water supply, hygiene, water harvestingdiary farming, trading, vocational training. For the fisherfolk of Maharashtra and Gujarat, Swadhyaya has worked wonders. Community service has bought them 71 boats worth Rs 3 crore.

One popular initiative of the Swadhyayees is the vruksh mandir (temple of trees). Since it was first started in 1979 in Rajkotit now extends to thousands of villages across India. "These temples of trees make humans receptive to the environment", says Jagdishbhai Manubhaia Swadhyayee from Ahmedabad. In a typical vruksh mandirthere are about 20 plants and these are managed without the use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides. Swadhyaya's technical team has designed a drainage pattern, which diverts rainwater from adjoining structures to talavdis (ponds). The water from these talvadis is used for farming.

Projects like lokanath amrutalyam (community prayer sites) and shridarshanam (collective farming by a group of about 20 neighbouring villages) have shown how cohesive communities can raise economic resources for poor and needy members of the society.

Way of life
Athavale has single-handedly spearheaded a silent revolution, which aims at social and cultural transformation. "Swadhyaya is both a metaphor and a movement. It is a metaphor in the sense of a vision, and a movement in terms of its orientation in social and economic spheres" adds Srivastava. Swadhyaya does not need mahants, or a hierarchy of priests. A system of each one teach one is followed.

"The communal problem in India will be solved if we accept Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammad as avatars of God" says Dada. For example, in the Gulf, Swadhyayees donate blood on the birthday of Prophet Mohammad. "The laboratories are usually closed on this day, but the Sheikh keeps them open to receive our blood. After all that holy day has significance; Swadhyayees are not interested in donating blood on any other day" he adds. Words of wisdom in troubled times.

Guns and water
The lines on his chiselled face are the trade marks - too many for a man only in his late 20s - of a life lived dangerously. It's only when he breaks into a smile that the scowl metamorphoses into an almost childlike grin, albeit in a moustachioed man. Much like his own transmutation from a bandit - living in the twilight zone between terrorising others or being terrorised himself - to the crusader of water harvesting in a resource-scare world.

Meet Jagdish Gujjar. Former dacoit. His image as a marauder is better left to the reader's imagination but as of today, clothed in a white shirt and a well-starched dhoti, Jagdish is every bit the village respectable as many others in Sapotra tehsil of Karauli district of Rajasthan.

Enlightenment comes at the strangest of places in the strangest of times. For Jagdish, it happened when he had taken shelter from the police in a school run by Tarun Bharat Sangh (a

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