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Story Publication logo December 6, 2011

The Incredible Rise of Anna Hazare, India's Gandhi-Like Protest Leader


Anna Hazare speaks with supporters in Ralegan Siddhi in India.

Anna Hazare, inspired by Gandhi, transformed a village—Ralegan Siddhi, his hometown. Now, 74 years...

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Anna Hazare. Ramesh Lalwani. India, 2011.

(First of two articles)

A year-long battle in India over sweeping anti-corruption legislation, supported by some of the largest protests there in years, is headed toward its third and perhaps decisive round. Unless top lawmakers can strike an unlikely last-minute deal, we will again see tens of thousands of demonstrators flood the streets, again Indians across the world's second most populous country will be glued to the 24/7 media coverage -- and again, in the center of it all, Anna Hazare: a 74-year-old community organizer from a tiny western village who is threatening to starve himself to death if the government fails to enact the anti-corruption reforms he seeks.

Discontent with financial and political elites has been a global phenomenon this year and India is no exception. The anti-corruption campaign there has stirred millions and threatened to unsettle the country's ruling Congress Party, which has dominated the government since independence.

India's movement has much in common with those in the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. this year, but it is also unique. It is sharply focused on a specific goal -- the creation of an independent anti-corruption body with real powers over the Indian government -- and it identifies with a single leader, Hazare. A former soldier with a seventh-grade education, his strategy of hunger strikes, civil disobedience, and the mass mobilization of non-violent street protests is shaking India.

Those were also hallmarks of Mahatma Gandhi, India's founding father and an inspiration for idealists across the world. Hazare is Gandhian in another way too -- he insists that India's route to a successful future lies not through industrialization or globalization but instead through reinvigorating its village life and a reaffirming the principles of self-discipline and non-materialism.

Two earlier Hazare fasts have already forced the government to act in ways it otherwise would not have. In April, it agreed to negotiate with Hazare's civil society supporters on terms for the anti-corruption agency, the Lokpal. In August, after the breakdown of those negotiations led to the brief imprisonment of Hazare and then a second fast, it agreed to pass a strong version of the Lokpal in the current parliamentary session. But the law has so far not passed. Now the clock is ticking again, with the government working to reduce the Lokpal's power and Hazare threatening to fast again.

• • • • •

The community organizer was virtually unknown to most Indians before early 2011, when he suddenly became the face of India's anti-corruption movement. Over the course of the year, he has become a daily staple in the Indian media, his hunger strikes and imprisonment fueling public outrage that was stoked already by corruption large and small, rampant in Indian society -- from national politicians raking in millions on the sale of national cellular frequencies to local officials demanding bribes to issue a driver's license, a new-business permit, or even a death certificate when a family member dies.

But with increased notoriety has come skepticism. Some in India say Hazare is too naive or too uneducated to play a national leadership role. Others question the civil society leaders who have flocked to his side -- and who may be more interested in their own political futures, skeptics say, than in enacting the reforms Hazare seeks.

Much of what has been written and broadcast about Hazare has focused on the movement's goals, its tactics, and its interactions with the national media and political elite. We decided to travel to his hometown, the tiny Maharashtra farming village of Ralegan Siddhi, to find out what his friends and neighbors say about him. The story they told was one 35 years of furthering Gandhian principles and of a remarkable transformation in village life that he has achieved.

Hazare was born in Bhingar, a small village not far from Ralegan Siddhi. He was named Kisan Baburao Hazare -- only later would he be called "Anna," an honorific term meaning "elder brother." His grandfather had been a constable in the British army and his father worked as a vegetable vendor. His family moved to Ralegan Siddhi soon after his siblings -- two brothers and three sisters -- were born. An uncle offered to take him to Mumbai so that he could attend school. He completed the seventh grade, then took a job selling flowers. He later joined the army, where he was the only member of his unit who survived an attack during the 1965 war with Pakistan. In his autobiography, Hazare says he turned inward, trying to understand why he had been spared while those around him lost their lives. Deeply influenced by the work of Swami Vivekanand, a Hindu mystic, he writes that he decided to dedicate his life to the service of others, to renounce material pleasures and to follow in the mystic's footsteps.

After serving 12 years in the army, Hazare returned to Ralegan Siddhi in 1975. There, he set about to transform a village that could have been a textbook case of rural dysfunction. Piles of garbage filled the streets. Few homes had toilets. People routinely relieved themselves on the side of the road. The one well that provided drinking water for the entire village was lined with steps where people gathered to bathe and wash clothes. Diarrhea-related diseases were the norm and the infant mortality rate was high. A lack of irrigation meant that, in this drought-prone region, crops often failed. Primary schools were poor and the region had no high school.

Unemployment was high and alcoholism pervasive. Thakaram Raut, a 68-year old former headmaster, remembered, "People prepared their own liquor and did not know when to stop. They drank too much -- they behaved like beasts."

Hazare has a stubborn streak. He didn't set out to merely improve Ralegan Siddhi -- he planned to make it a model village. And he largely succeeded, by the accounts not just of villagers but also reports for international development agencies and the citations from the dozens of awards he has collected. A 1996 study for the Food and Agriculture Organization said that the "extremely degraded" community Hazare encountered in 1975 was, two decades later, "unrecognizable."

Hazare's first focus was close to home: using his army savings for repairs to the Hindu temple, enlisting local youth to help with the work, and then persuading them to join him in a campaign to rid the town of alcohol.

Dagdu Mapari, now a clerk in the local secondary school and president of the cooperative bank board, was one of the recruits. In the early days, he recalled, chronic drinkers were given three warnings; on the fourth, they were tied to the light pole outside the temple and beaten. The beatings stopped 15 years ago, villagers say, but the pole still stands as an admonishment. The village, they say, has also stayed dry.

Asked if this approach might be considered excessive, Mapari answered, "Alcoholism leads to poverty." Almost 40 years later, he remains a staunch Hazare supporter. The bank he now chairs provides low-interest loans to farmers; any interest collected goes to support the development of the village.

What proved most transformative for Ralegan Siddhi and the surrounding countryside, however, was Hazare's leadership in a watershed restoration project that made the arid hillsides bloom. He persuaded his neighbors to work together, building 31 small dams of cement or soil called bunds that eventually raised the groundwater level from an average depth of 100 feet to less than 50. "Water should not be seen on the surface," Hazare would say; "it should be caught, held and kept below."

Hazare's critics note that Ralegan Siddhi hasn't had an election for its local council in over 25 years. His defenders say this is part of his genius, that he has relied instead on Gram Sabha (village assembly) meetings of all adult residents in which decisions are made by consensus. The operational arm of the assembly, the panchyat or village council, is composed of nine members -- all of them women, at Hazare's urging, on the theory that this would promote their active role in village life.

In the early 1990s, Maharashtra gave Anna control over funds for replicating his model in 300 villages across the state. In recent years, he has more often tangled with the state, most notably through a series of hunger fasts and public protests aimed at spurring enactment of a Right to Information law. He won that battle in 2003 with a state law that became a model for national legislation a few years later. This law helped expose government corruption in ways that set the stage for this year's battle.

The consensus approach in Ralegan Siddhi accounts for the success of policies, largely self-enforced, that range from a ban on tree-felling and free-range grazing to the alcohol ban and the commitment to birth control and smaller families.

Nearly every house in the region now has both a water tap and a toilet -- in a country where four in 10 still practice open defecation. The wastewater flows not to the road, but into soak-pits. At Hazare's urging, again, the government agreed to help poorer families by paying 50 percent of the cost of these improvements. Villagers say that Hazare also led by example: Whenever he saw someone defecate in the open, he would clean it up. Many people felt guilty and changed their ways.

Hazare led by example in challenging traditional caste structures too -- reaching out to Dalits, the so-called Untouchables, and insisting that they be admitted for temple worship and in village life. They are included in another Hazare innovation, community weddings aimed at scaling back the lavish marriage feasts that had traditionally left village families indebted for years.

Hazare himself never married and is celibate -- in Gandhi's term, a brahmachari. Like Gandhi, he calls on his "inner strength" to achieve great things. Local primary school teacher Rajendra Shitole quoted one of Hazare's favorite sayings to us: "If wealth is lost, nothing is lost. If health is lost, something is lost. But if character is lost, all is lost."

In 1979, Hazare led a campaign to get Ralegan Siddhi's schools their fair share of state funds. The result was the village's first high school. Villagers and teachers say the literacy rate is now nearly 100 percent -- village schools even teach dancing, singing, and drawing. People here told us repeatedly that girls and boys receive the same education.

A 42-year-old sari shopkeeper named Nandkumar Marpari says he has watched his village transform under Hazare's guidance. When he first arrived here, Marpari was almost six, one of 10 children in a family that made its living selling liquor. Hazare persuaded Marpari's father to shut down his shop and take up farming instead. Marpari was in the first class of students at the high school Hazare built.

"I've seen all the improvements," Marpari said, "from top to bottom."



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