By Megha Bajaj
A real leader creates leaders. here is the story of how one of india’s finest mentors inspired such dedication from his followers that even today millions are reaping the benefits of their work
There is something about Mahatma Gandhi that always inspires me. How, I wonder, did a tiny man clad in bare minimum move an entire nation’s people to lay their lives down for freedom? I have trouble influencing a single person; how then, did one man create a revolution spearheaded by people and the human spirit alone? As I read more about him, and understood his principles better, I realised that the Mahatma’s greatest power lay in his simple belief, “be the change you want to see in the world”. The world follows not advice but example, and by walking his talk, Gandhi became the symbol, the very epitome, of virtue.
Of Gandhiji, people are known to say, “Where he sat, temple became.” His mere presence was invigorating and inspiring, purifying and empowering. Gandhi could never have done what he did alone – but with his ability to identify a seed here, a seed there and nurture it, he was able to create a forest of human change. He understood that it was not enough to be a leader, but to create leaders. Manibhai Desai is one such leader, mentored by the father of the nation whose life story and achievements are so rousing, that one cannot help but admire the beauty with which dreams crystallized into reality, thoughts became truths, and an entire village was uplifted from centuries of stagnation, and converted into a dream village through Gandhi’s simple, yet profound, guidance and Manibhai’s ceaseless efforts.
‘A handful of pine-seed will cover mountains with the green majesty of a forest. I, too, will set my face to the wind and throw my handful of seed on high.’ – Fiona Macleod
Urulikanchan is a small village 30 km east of Pune city in Maharashtra. The small, colourful village, nestled in the arms of nature, seems to throb with historical importance. Young Manibhai in his 20s, had proved himself worthy of Gandhi by participating eagerly in all the freedom rallies, and even undergoing imprisonment readily. In fact, he was amongst Gandhi’s only disciples who bravely went into the cholera-afflicted Wardha district in 1945 to heal patients and immunize others, convincing Gandhi that it is not age, but courage that made all the difference. This, and Manibhai’s unflinching affection towards the poorest of people, made Gandhi take the decision of calling him to Urulikanchan so that he could work on rural development and health management in the village. Although anxious to begin a rural development programme in his native Gujarat, Desai agreed, and undertook the development of an ashram on 10 hectares of land acquired by the Gandhian movement through donations.
Gandhi gave Desai two general guidelines. First, the programme should be labor intensive; a capital intensive programme, he believed, would produce development but at the cost of increased disparities in income. Second, he must make use of all possible resources, even those that at first appear to be liabilities. Under or un-utilized manpower is a resource, Gandhi gently reminded his young disciple, and year-round gainful employment for the farmer and his family should be his goal. Desai last saw Gandhi in April 1947 when they met to discuss progress at Urulikanchan. Desai, who still hoped to work in Gujarat, informed him that he had taken an oath to remain at Urulikanchan for 12 whole years. Unimpressed, Gandhi responded, “I want your life-committed perspiration.” Therefore on April 13, a day regarded by many Indians in the Independence Movement as a day of sacrifice, Desai bowed his head and vowed to lay his ashes in Urulikanchan. Although his programmes have spread far beyond the confines of that village, Urulikanchan has remained the headquarters.
“Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn’t have it in the beginning,” Gandhiji had said once. Keeping his mentor’swords close to his heart, young Manibhai began by finding out the true needs of the village folks. Since they were reluctant to speak openly, he would often hide behind trees near wells or other meeting points, and eavesdrop on conversation to gauge the problems of his people. He learned that the villagers were united in a desire to rebuild their temple. Accordingly, he called a meeting and organized a committee to raise money for a new structure. When the committee was preparing to go to Bombay to solicit funds, Desai convinced them that by adding a school to the temple proposal they would be more likely to obtain donations. His advice proved sound.
By 1954, the new temple and a secondary school had been built. Rated nationally as one of the best schools in a rural area, Mahatma Gandhi Vidyalaya today has about 90 well-qualified teachers to instruct 3,000 students in its three categories of study – academic, agricultural and industrial. A hostel accommodates boys from distant villages. From the beginning, the school was recognized by the Central Government, and therefore has always enjoyed financial support; in 1980 it received a grant from the state in recognition of its performance and efficiency. Historically, it was a stepping stone for Manibhai too, as it won him the support of the villagers who began to trust him like they trusted Bapuji.
Desai was asked by local entrepreneurs if he would persuade some of the wealthy landowners in the region to invest in a sugar co-operative. He agreed on the condition that smallholders would also be allowed to join. With his help, some 500 smallholders applied for a loan of Rs. 5.3 million to invest in the Yeshwant Cooperative Sugar Factory, which proved a success from the beginning. It soon developed numerous branches and began engaging in other community socioeconomic projects, e.g. schools, hospitals and water resources. The dusty, uncivilized village slowly, but surely, began to get a face-lift.
A Healing Touch
Gandhiji proclaimed, “I hold that where the rules of personal, domestic and public sanitation are strictly observed, and due care is taken in the matter of diet and exercise, there should be no occasion for illness and disease. Where there is absolute purity, inner and outer, illness becomes impossible.” He had set up the Nisargopchar Ashram in Urulikanchan in 1946, but could not invest too much time in it due to the political unrest at the time. However, with the efforts of Manibhai, along with other Gandhi believers, within a decade the ashram began to play an important role in the health of the village. From yoga to sun bathing, from right diet to correct attitude, all was taught at the centre. Even today the organisers remember Bapuji and his activists with great love, and Dr Preethi Pushkarini, the resident naturopath doctor, says, “No matter what the ailment is, we treat with the words of the Mahatma, ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others’ in our mind.’” Eighty-year-old Mrs Desai from Solapur, who has come to the ashram for treatment of paralysis, says, “Healing takes place quicker in this place as one can still experience Gandhiji’s vibrations. When I walk, I think to myself, the father of the nation too must have tread this path decades ago, and my step becomes more lively.” Says Madhavi, a local masseur who works there, “Even today, Hindus and Muslims live in this village in peace and come together to help each other whenever required – they can never forget Gandhiji or Desaibhai’s work for them.”
Gandhi had always believed in scientific practicality. He had suggested that Desai take up cattle development to ensure a good supply of milk. When Desai protested that he knew nothing of veterinary science, Gandhi responded: “Learn veterinary scientifically by studying a book and practically by dismembering dead cows! The Brahmin Desai did both. He dissected over 400 carcasses, and in the process became an authority on cattle physiology. Although India had the largest cattle population in the world, it had one of the lowest milk yields; from an economic point of view the average Indian cow was a liability to its owner. But cattle, Desai came to believe, were a better choice of livestock for local farmers than pigs, sheep or goats. Pigs eat what humans eat, and in a land of scarcity, compete with man for food. Goats and sheep, who like cattle, can eat agricultural wastes which man finds inedible, graze closer to the ground than cattle, pulling up roots when hungry, and are therefore more damaging to pastureland. Good milk-yielding cows, he reasoned, could increase both the nutrition and the income of the local farmers. In 1948, he started a herd using the local Gir breed. The herd made such excellent progress that in 1953, the then Bombay state (comprising of Gujarat and Maharashtra), donated eight top quality heifers, one bull calf and one adult bull, for the herd’s further improvement. From 1957 through 1962, the Urulikanchan Ashram’s cows captured first and second prizes for highest milk yield in the country.
From Village to World
It had become apparent to Desai by now that if the fruits of his 20 years of labor were to have a national impact, a sophisticated professional organization utilising top-level managerial skills was required. Accordingly, he founded the Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation (BAIF), which was registered as a Public Trust on August 22, 1967. However, for the next two years, BAIF existed only in concept due to lack of funds. Manibhai had once heard Gandhiji say, “Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it,” and following this advice he would speak of the project to almost everyone he met in the hope that aid would arrive from some quarter.
In 1969, Tristram Beresford, Chairman of Britain’s Agricultural Society, visited Urulikanchan and unknowingly became the catalyst to project BAIF onto the national and international scene. Although he had come for a brief look at the dairy herd, Beresford found time to visit the rehabilitated farmland at Bhavarapur, and the rest of the ashram’s projects on Manibhai’s request. Deeply impressed with what he saw, he offered to help raise funds for the ashram. More importantly, he produced, through the British Milk Marketing Board, a consignment of 7,000 doses of frozen semen from top quality Jersey and Holstein-Friesian bulls for the cattle project. BAIF ceased being merely a concept, and became a functioning organisation, and Manibhai won several awards including the Padma Shree, Ramon Magsaysay Public Service Award, and the Indira Priyadarshini Vrikshmitra Award for afforestation and wastelands development.
Indian Express writes of a farmer in Thane who benefited from BAIF, “Ten years ago Mohan Kirkira’s daily routine consisted of trudging 10 km to nearby Jawahar in search of odd jobs which would earn him a paltry Rs 10-20 per day. Now he owns more than five acres of land in his village, Vanvasi, and earns more than Rs1.7 lakh per year.”
All this became possible because of the wadi (orchard) project of BAIF. “We were asked to grow drought-resistant food crops like mango, cashew, amla, tamarind and custard apple. Since such food crops are grown only in coastal areas, villagers were reluctant and only four of us joined the scheme to begin with,” says Kirkira. Seeing his success, over 5,000 families from the area have joined in, and are living lives of happiness and fulfillment.
In 1993, when Desai passed away on the soil of Urulikanchan, he did so with a smile that said, “Bapuji, I did my best.”
“You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind,” wrote the Mahatma; and indeed, today decades after his death, his mind, his ideology, his spiritual alignment, his ability to create leaders, is transforming lives and inspiring writers to re-kindle some of his profound philosophies into the everyday lives of seekers.
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