The village of Ralegan Siddhi in India is a perfect example of how self-reliant villages can be achieved through the commitment and involvement of common people. From acute poverty to prosperity, from drought to water conservation, from alcoholism to participatory methods of development - is it a miracle? Looking at the harmony and interdependence of social, economic and environmental variables, Ralegan Siddhi’s atrocious past is hard to imagine. The huge alluring archway, neat cemented roads, solar street lights, water harvesting structures and school for failed students are all enticing, each having a tale to tell.
Ralegan Siddhi is a small village in the state of Maharashtra in India. Before 1975, the village was clenched by penury, social ill and scarcity of water. Sustainable development of any village, nation or world can be achieved only when all the three aspects (economic, social and environmental) are in complete balance with each other. If, even any one of them is tottering, it creates vicious cycle of deterioration. Ralegan Siddhi was on the same trajectory. Agriculture was the main source of livelihood. But attributable to undulating landscape and poor soil quality, most of the rain water was wasted due to runoff, limiting the prospects of agriculture. Indiscriminate utilization of natural resources and no effort for regeneration led to ground water depletion. Even a single crop was not assured in a year. More than half of the households borrowed money from the money lenders and defaulted in paying back the loans. Large family sizes and lack of education further aggravated the problem. The money lenders exploited the situation and took over most of the land of the village. The people started resorting to all sorts of methods in the hope of a better life. Illicit alcohol distilling raised the income levels of some of the households but degraded the moral ethos of the village. As a result, vandalism, theft, women abuse and street fights became commonplace.
A lean and coltish man named Anna Hazare decided to devote his whole life for the development of the society. Under the leadership of this man, the villagers joined together and decided to turn the situation around. A moral and voluntary code of conduct was the essence of Anna’s ideas. Their first objective was to tackle the problem of paucity of water, so that agricultural yield is increased. They constructed several rain water harvesting structures in and around the village. This helped them to conserve every drop of rain water in the village and recharge the ground water. Horticulture, improved agricultural practices and drip irrigation further increased the productivity. The villagers undertook a tree plantation drive and planted thousands of saplings. Indiscriminate cutting of trees and grazing of cattle were completely banned. Instead, the villagers started cultivating green fodder for their livestock. Milk production increased and another source of income generated. The village has also experimented with the renewable and non conventional sources of energy. Solar street lights, a community biogas plant, solar water heaters and smokeless stoves were installed in the village.
But there were certain social obstacles in the path of progress. Education and moral values are the two most important elements which makes a person to strive continuously towards growth. Ralegan Siddhi was lacking in both of them. Consuming alcohol and smoking was completely banned in the village. All the alcohol distilleries were shut down. At present, the local shops do not sell alcohol or cigarettes. The villagers also took initiatives in the field of education. An educational committee was established and a school was started. The school is unique in that it lays special emphasis on developing mind, body and soul apart from academic education. The school welcomes those students who have failed in other schools. Further, family planning and community marriages were encouraged, banning dowry. This ceased the wasteful expenditure that previously threw the people into destitution.
Ralegan Siddhi is now known to be the model village for its participatory governance, natural resource management and socio-economic development. It is important to note that funding, donations/ grants from different organizations are discouraged as it can create dependency. The commitment and team work of the villagers has been exemplary. The story of this village tells us that development does not mean running incessantly to acquire monetary wealth, constructing concrete jungles and loading them with technology. In a real sense, development means to stop for a while, ponder over things which we do for ourselves but can affect the lives of others, and to work not only for self but also for the environment and the society.