Hiware Bazar, before 1989, was like any other village in India. Scarred by a drought in 1972, this village in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district was deep in poverty. Agriculture - the main source of income - was a failure. There were few jobs and people were migrating to nearby towns and faraway cities. Worse, many of those who stayed took to drinking and gambling as more than 20 liquor shops sprouted like weeds. For a government official, a transfer to the village was considered a punishment.
Today, a drought does not affect the village, agriculture is flourishing and villagers who once left are coming back from Mumbai and Pune. The social indices have improved, too, as almost 98 per cent of its 1,300 inhabitants are literate. An equal percentage is above the poverty line, and as many as 56 villagers earn a staggering Rs 10 lakh annually.
How did this transformation happen?
Rs 30,000 per capita income in Hiware Bazar Village, UP from Rs 830 in 1996/97
The village's fortunes began to change after Popat Rao Pawar, a cricket-loving youth, was elected as its sarpanch in November 1989. Pawar had completed his post-graduate studies in commerce from Pune University in 1987. In his student days, he had stayed mostly in Pune and Ahmednagar. But whenever he visited home, he felt dismayed at the village's conditions. He had almost taken up a job as an accountant with Ahmednagar Cooperative Bank but, on the insistence of women and youth, returned to the village determined to make a difference.
"Stopping migration was my first priority," says Pawar, who was 29 when he first became sarpanch. He had to convince the villagers they could prosper only if they stayed back and worked together. For that, agriculture had to be revived. The panchayat took up soil and water conservation programmes as well as tree plantation. "Those days, panchayats hardly got any direct funds. The villagers did all this work for free," says Pawar. There were hiccups initially. Some tree plantation work was vandalised. But, gradually, he won over almost everyone. With the help of the youth and women, he also convinced the men to give up their vices. By 1991, the panchayat had banned production and consumption of liquor.
To save water, the panchayat banned using tubewells for irrigation and growing of waterintensive crops such as sugarcane. Drip irrigation
was made compulsory, and sprinkler irrigation was made mandatory during summer. The panchayat barred villagers from selling farm land to outsiders. Land could, however, be sold to landless farm labourers from the village.
The panchayat's efforts attracted the government's attention. Pawar points to the afforestation work taken up jointly with the forest department in 1994. The village soon had a thick forest cover, which the villagers maintain themselves.
In 1995, the Maharashtra government launched the Adarsh Gaon Yojana (model village programme) and Hiware Bazar was selected as a model village. Under this programme, about 52 earthen bunds, two percolation tanks, 100 loose stone bunds and nine check dams were built. The conservation programmes have replenished the groundwater level, and the results are showing. Apart from rain-fed crops such as bajra, cash crops such as onions and potatoes are grown. This has increased farmers' incomes. "The per capita income, which was at Rs 830 in 1996/97, has now gone up to Rs 30,000," says Pawar, who was sarpanch until 2000, deputy sarpanch from 2000 to 2005, and sarpanch from 2005 till 2010. He is currently deputy sarpanch as the post of sarpanch is reserved for women every alternate term.
There has been drought for the past three years, but Hiware Bazaar has been unaffected. The village is also seeing reverse migration.
"Ninety-three families who had left Hiware Bazar earlier have returned," says Pawar. The village now has 315 families, compared with 236 in 1997/98, he adds. Vishwanath Bajirao, 57, is one of those who came back. Bajirao left in 1975 for Ahmednagar but had retained his seven acres of land. As the groundwater levels improved, he diversified into onion farming that vastly increased his income. In 1994, he bought 16 acres more. "In 1998, I decided to return for good and become a fulltime farmer," he says.
The turnaround story is summed up best by Pandurang Kadam, 67, who left the village in 1970. "I would not have left had the situation been as good as it is now," says Kadam, who came back in 2007 from Mumbai where he worked in a textile mill.
Bringing about positive change is, perhaps, only a matter of conviction.