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At 61, why there is still hope for India

August 12, 2008 15:10 IST

Events in the last few months have left most of us disillusioned. Unabated inflation, a difficult economic scenario, unbridled terrorism and debauched politics has left all of us, especially the middle class of the country, questioning the very existence of this nation as a political entity.

And all these doubts are not without valid reasons. But first one must hasten to add that we are also a nation of sceptics. Self-flagellation is our national pastime. Defeatism dominates our conversation. Pessimism permeates our mindset. We have genetically modified ourselves to believe in doubt, gloom and doom.

If at all there was one set of people in India which is entirely responsible for the disorder that prevails in the country, it is the educated Indians -- a class that loves to pontificate, yet would not put its hand up and be counted for anything, definitely not for being an instrument of change.

It is all the more paradoxical considering that it is the educated Indian (comprising largely lawyers but not limited to that profession) who led our Independence movement. Strangely the spirit of building the nation seems to have evaporated within years of India becoming a free country.

It is for this reason since Independence that one does not recall any of the Indian middle class, especially the educated, displaying the same spirit and verve as they did during our freedom struggle.

To amplify further, what else would explain as to why our educated class submitted to the outlandish idea of Fabian socialism in the fifties or the imposition of Emergency in the mid-seventies without any demur?

And it is this class that after benefiting for forty years of socialism became free market converts overnight, when it was found that the socialist cow could no longer be milked. For forty years this class believed that the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would build India and for the next twenty it believed that the United States of America would develop India.

In the process we forget that never in the history of mankind has one nation developed another, especially a nation of India's size. Little do we realize that India can be 'built' only by the Indians.

Naturally we are engulfed by a rage caused by our collective impotency in remedying the extant situation. And that coupled with supine indifference on all local, national or international matters fuels our collective deprecation of India. It is often held that when the instruments of change refuse to operate it is imperative to change these very instruments.

And for India at 61, changing this defeatist mindset of the Indian middle class and making it believe that only Indians can build India has remained as the singular challenge to the development of India. It is for this reason that following story is indeed inspirational.

The inspirational tale of Elango and Kuthampakkam village

It was not too long ago that it was called Kutrampakkam (a place of crime). Located a mere 40 km from the center of the city of Chennai, Kuthampakkam like any other Indian village was only dependent on its two (paddy) crops every year for its income. That meant insufficient and unsustainable income. Thus, people there had to resort to unlawful social activities to augment their income.

But that was not all. On all social and development indices the village was a laggard even by Indian standards. Further, governments came and went and grand promises were made and broken.

The net effect: despite sixty years of independence locals there did not even know what was primary infrastructure: roads, primary healthcare or schools.

What accentuated the problem of Kuthampakkam was the caste clashes between the Harijans and others. In short, a place on the outskirts of Chennai (one of the major engines of information technology growth in India) resembled sub-Saharan Africa with its repeated group clashes, abject poverty and abysmal infrastructure.

And all this was as recent as mid-nineties when Rangasamy Elango became the president of the village panchayat. Elango had to walk for 7 km each way everyday for his high school education. But that was a cakewalk considering the challenges he had to face later in his life.

A socially conscious person, Elango even as a teenager had started working on homegrown solutions for the problems confronting his village. So he was able to visualise the transformation that he sought to achieve.

It was these initial experiences that Elango would put to devastating effect years later in his life. After a stint at employment till the mid-1990s, Elango returned to his village. Kuthampakkam has not looked back since then. Neither has Elango.

In the process he experienced opposition from the local politicians, corrupt officials, illicit arrack brewers, land grabbers and others. Yet all this did not deter him from his march to liberate Kuthampakkam. Crucially, he did not offer excuses, like many other middle class Indians.

Luckily for him, in 1994 the Tamil Nadu government passed the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act. It was at this point in time that he started working with the groups in various parts of the State in creating awareness about the new Panchayat Raj system.

In 1996, he contested in the local elections and became the President of the Kuthampakkam village panchayat. His goal: to make Kuthampakkam a role model for other village panchayats. Interestingly, with the participation of the Gram Shaba, Kuthampakkam Panchayat prepared the five-year plan for the term 1996 to 2001 -- a first perhaps in the entire country!

The planning process gave him the opportunity to understand the diverse needs of his community and the outlay required to meet these aspirations. Importantly, to meet the shortfall he prescribed various cost-effective techniques and innovative methods.

Contrast this with the manner in which the governments fail to link outlays and outcomes -- a fact admitted by our Union finance minister, no less.

Instantly, people started realising the growth potential associated with this movement. Naturally this increased their participation further. Leveraging this participation of people, the Kuthampakkam Panchayat successfully mobilised huge support under the various schemes offered by the state government.

Using these schemes all the inner roads were upgraded to concrete roads. Likewise drains were constructed with proper slope at all the required places. A samathuvapuram was constructed where fifty twin houses were constructed to accommodate 100 families. In every twin house, a Harijan family was allocated one side and the other side was allocated to an 'upper caste' family.

That's the extraordinary story of an ordinary man

Of course, this certainly involved delicate handling of sensitive issues, and Elango tells us that this was achieved 'not by debunking castes, but by accepting various castes and persuading each caste to respect the other while not wishing it away.'

What a refreshing contrast to the manner in which our polity pits one caste against the other for narrow electoral gains!

Needless to emphasize it is the samathuvapuram at Kuthampakkam that has become a role model for the whole of Tamil Nadu, a remarkable achievement indeed in a state known for being highly sensitive to castes and related issues.

In October 2001, Elango was reelected. This term, Elango concentrated on providing sustainable employment opportunities within the village. He has designed a process called 'Network Growth Economy Model.' The idea of this scheme is to ensure that virtually all value additions of every village product take place within the network so that the income of the village is well augmented.

And for this Elango identifies and uses appropriate local technology, materials and imparts valuable skills to his people. No wonder, the village became hunger-free last year -- an achievement that eludes many of our villages, towns and perhaps cities.

Further, Elango seeks to network with 'good panchayats' across the states for this purpose. For this he had identified more than 500 good panchayat leaders. He is now running a panchayat academy in order to create a common platform to share good practices.

Elango is targetting to make 200 role model villages before 2011. Likewise, he is aiming to make 2,000 role model villages by 2016 after which he believes that the threshold having been reached, the momentum created by the democratic process will automatically take care of the rest.

The story of Elango is the extraordinary story of an ordinary middle class Indian silently transforming the life of thousands of Indians.

It is indeed shameful that the media, government and the intelligentsia of the country do not even recognize such agents of monumental change. No wonder we feel dejected and disillusioned.

But Elango and the people of Kuthampakkam have demonstrated to us that it is we, the people, who have to be the instruments of change, else we will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

On the eve of our Independence day, the least we can do is salute Elango and the people of Kuthampakkam for it is they who provide us hope and inspiration and once again reminding us that India can be built only by Indians.

The author is a Chennai-based chartered accountant. He can be contacted at mrv1000@rediffmail.com

M R Venkatesh