We asked Anna Hazare, a social activist and a prominent rural development leader, about his assessment of Narendra Modi's government, what the 21st century self-government should look like, how natural resources should be treated, and whether he considers himself a Gandhian.
Your involvement in the India Against Corruption movement in 2011 had a significant impact on the Indian political scene. Activist Arvind Kejriwal managed to establish the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party, AAP) based on this movement in Delhi. It also helped delegitimize the incumbent government of the Indian National Congress. Are you satisfied with the current rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, BJP)?
Narendra Modi’s government has actually done nothing against corruption. According to a study by Transparency International, India is the number one in taking and accepting bribes among the Asian countries. In 2011, we fought for the anti-corruption law, Jan Lokpal Bill, which would establish an independent citizen’s ombudsman with broad powers to investigate corruption in public administration. But politicians do not need and do not want such a law. Since 1968, when Shanti Bhushan came up with the first proposal, the law has been proposed several times, but has never been passed. That's why we started a big movement, and on 16 August 2011, the whole country stood up against corruption. The government of the Congress had to succumb and prepared the on Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act in 2013 [however, the first Lokpal did not assume office until 2019 – JK’s note]. Then Modi’s government came, which, however, changed and weakened the law in 2016. In the original version, all officials and their families had to declare all their assets every year. But the government legislators had this section dropped, which led to a further increase of corruption.
Yes. And there is another big problem that the government has still not solved in the issue of peasants. India is primarily an agricultural country. But farmers have ever higher expenditures and lower incomes. Because of this distress, they go bankrupt and commit suicides. They need to get appropriate value for their work, the purchase prices should be based on costs. In 2006, the Swaminathan Commission proposed that minimum prices for agricultural products should exceed the cost of producing them by at least 50 percent. However, despite promises, no Indian government has yet complied with this recommendation.
Your organization is called the Hind Swaraj Trust, which is an obvious reference to Mahatma Gandhi's most famous book. What do you think the “Hind swaraj”, ie. Indian self-government, should look like in the 21st century?
Even today, Hind Swaraj is a book that shows the direction. As humanity, we must abandon the path we are walking now. If we keep following it, in a hundred or two hundred years we will run out of gasoline, oil, coal – everything from which we generate electricity today. We build large dams for drinking water, which increase soil erosion. At the same time, their lifespan is not much longer than a human life. In two hundred years, they will all become clogged with silt.
Do you still consider yourself a follower of Gandhi?
The idea of rural development instead of development of cities is still a great inspiration to me, as well as the path of nonviolence and renunciation. Gandhiji said: Do not exploit the nature. Do not exploit humanity. Use the resources provided by your family, neighbourhood and village. Do not accept any gifts from outside. But what are we doing instead? We keep extracting fossil fuels. This increases the Earth temperature, melts glaciers, raises sea levels. Gandhiji was well aware that such a development was unsustainable. Therefore he preached: Go to the village, the future is there. Eighty percent of people in Ralegan Siddhi used to sleep with an empty stomach. But they got rich by using natural resources properly.
You returned to Ralegan Siddhi in 1975, after twelve years of military service, and it took you another three years to persuade the villagers to get involved in your project. How did you get them to do that?
The people of the village think only of their benefit, not of the good of the country. You have to tell them what they will gain from the change. When I started, everyone was up against me and I heard a lot of insults. People often think that everyone does everything for their own enrichment. Therefore, a person who sacrificed something for them must appear before them. So I picked up a broom and just swept the streets in the nights for a year, only then people started trusting me. You will not convince anyone with words, you need to combine work and sacrifice.
Some of your persuasion methods are said to have been violent – for example, beating those who continued to drink alcohol despite prohibition and explicit warnings. Is such use of violence in line with Gandhian beliefs?
Alcohol ban and prohibition are very important. How does society benefit from alcoholism? I don't know of anyone drinking and behaving properly. Another case, however, are the people who make a living from alcohol distillation, who have to take care of their children. We have no moral right to forbid their businesses until we resolve the question of what they will earn a living from. That is why we put emphasis on education and showed them that a lot of money can be made in water management and agricultural development. Only then I did accede to the bans. Once there were forty distilleries in Ralegan Siddhi, but they were all closed within a year. Today, even cigarettes and chewing tobacco are not available in any store. Only when you create other livelihood opportunities for people, you have the right to command and forbid them.
In Western countries, there are many efforts to reduce the production of plastic waste, which is perhaps an even bigger problem in India. Are you also planning any restrictions on disposable plastics?
People use what they know. They have no idea how our plastic production is increasing and what damage it is doing to the environment. We must try to open their eyes. The breakthrough can happen only when they realize that they are hurting their country and society by using plastic products. But it is necessary to go from village to village and convince both children and adults to achieve this change in their mindsets. And once the waste is already generated, it is necessary to use it somehow. We are just a small village, but the nearby towns of Shirur or Parner produce up to twelve tons of solid waste per day. Now they are preparing a new incinerator plant there to generate electricity. So far, it's just a small two-megawatt project, but we also want to get involved.
In 2014, the first election to the local panchayat (village council) since 1981 was allowed in your village. What led you to make it happen?
It does not mean that I have been opposing the election. In 1992, we adopted the Panchayati Raj, ie. the administration of the village by elected representatives, so why not organize an election? I even left the village fifteen days before the election in order not to put pressure on anyone. I told the people: You have two groups, so run a campaign, just do not commit any violence. On the voting day, I came to vote myself. The atmosphere was very nice, no quarrels or fights. After the election, I said: You did one great thing by holding an election. Now do the second thing: let the defeated group recognize the victory of the elected one, and start working together for the development of the village. It often happens that the losers oppose the winners after losing the election. Once a split occurs, every progress stops. The elections are fine, but mutual respect is as much as important.
When I arrived in Ralegan Siddhi, it was raining. However, the whole region is considered to be relatively very dry. Is it just a coincidence, or have you even managed to change the local climate by the watershed development?
There has been a good rainfall this year, but this is not always the case. It has been forty years since we reduced tree felling. Of course, the villagers need wood for heating or construction. But before they start felling, they have to get a permit from the panchayat. There is also an obligation to plant at least five new trees for anyone who starts harvesting. Besides that, no cattle is allowed to graze freely without supervision in order not to bite young trees and saplings. We mow the grass for fodder and we feed the animals in corrals. This helps to protect the soil and water resources. It takes a hundred years to form one centimetre of the topsoil.
How do you recruit volunteers for your projects?
We have a system called shramdan here, literally a gift of labour. From each family, one person must submit two days of work on joint projects each month. It can be anyone. This also helps strengthen the neighbourhood ties. We have constructed a large school building worth six million rupees. We did not ask for any state subsidy, people built it as a part of their volunteer days.
Have you been already able to inspire other villages in India?
The locals have already done a great deal of work in five villages. And in eleven years, nine hundred thousand people came to us from various parts of India for excursions. I guide them through the village and show them how to do things sustainably. We do not need any smart city, but a smart village. That is exactly what Mahatma Gandhi has always been talking about.
Kisan Baburao Hazare (born 1937), called Anna (an elder person or father in Marathi), became world famous in 2011 for his participation in India's anti-corruption movement and his hunger strike for an anti-corruption law. In India, he has previously gained reputation for the administration of the village of Ralegan Siddhi in western Maharashtra. By enforcing a sophisticated rainwater harvesting system, he managed to build a completely self-sufficient agricultural zone and one of the most prosperous regions in India from a formerly barren place in a semi-arid area. In 1992, he received the third highest civilian award Padma Bhushan for his long-time efforts. His approach to the management of the village and natural resources constitute a model example of conservative activism. The interview was conducted in the autumn of 2017.
This text was created with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation