A true brother of rural people

A true brother of rural people

Hooch disappears from many UP villages

A true brother of rural people
Vinoba Bhave's follower helps village to get rid of ills

For people of Ban-ka-Tara village in Shahajahanpur district in Uttar Pradesh, he is a 'bhaiya' (brother) in true sense. No wonder he is popularly known as Ramesh Bhaiya. When 62-year-old Ramesh Bhaiya, an ardent follower of Acharya Vinoba Bhave, had arrived at Ban-ka-Tara village, about 175 km from Lucknow, a few decades back, it was a den of criminals and hooch makers.

"Of the 60 homes in the village hooch used to be manufactured in as many as 57. It flowed like water and almost every male and even young boys were addicted to liquor. The village was synonymous with criminal activities," Ramesh Bhaiya says.

What was more disturbing was that the women of the village had also been involved in the distillation of illicit liquor.

"They said that it helps them earn some money," he recalls.

With the help of his wife, Vimla Bahan, and his team, Ramesh Bhaiya managed to persuade the people to shun hooch making and turn to productive work. "Today there is no trace of hooch anywhere in the village. It is now crime-free also,'' he told DH.

The village also in went for an image makeover and it was rechristened as 'Bantara' in place of 'Ban-ka-Tara'. "People wanted to get rid of the hooch tag and hence the name change," Ramesh Bhaiya said.

Hooch manufacturing is quite common in several districts across Uttar Pradesh. In some districts like Lucknow, Unnao and Shahajahanpur it is a cottage industry.

"I came to a conclusion after my experience at Bantara village that the main reason behind hooch manufacturing was the lack of any alternative means of income, especially for the womenfolk," Ramesh Bhaiya said.

With the aim of serving people in rural areas and free villages from illicit liquor manufacturing, Ramesh Bhaiya set up an "ashram" at the village. "The land on which I set up the ashram was used for cremation," he said.

The ashram houses a college, where classes from kindergarten to post-graduation are held, besides a cow shelter. "Women from the nearby villages perform different types of activities in the ashram, ranging from looking after the cow shelter to dairy. They earn a good money," he said.

The efforts yielded positive results and today more than two dozen nearby villages have become alcohol-free. The crime rate has also declined drastically in these villages.

"We try to first understand the needs and aspirations of the people. Our focus is more on women,'' he said. At the ashram, women are introduced to tailoring to make them self-sufficient.

"Our vision is to establish a society, where everyone gets equal opportunity to develop. Everyone must be able to fulfil his or her needs through sustainable means. We try to make the villages self-sufficient," Ramesh Bhaiya said.

The motto of the ashram says it all. "'Don't curse the darkness....light a candle," it reads.

The ashram, which is jointly managed by Ramesh Bhaiya and Vimla Behan, strives to impart knowledge to people, bringing about changes in their attitude and helping them to be socially and financially independent.

"We also train people in various vocational and other activities such as sericulture, carpet weaving, vermi-composting and vegetable growing on the ashram premises,'' he said.

The ashram has became so popular with the people that it attracted volunteers from near and far off places. "We have thousands of full time and part-time workers and volunteers. They are spread in different districts in Uttar Pradesh," he added.

Realising the education was key to development, the couple set up a primary school at the ashram initially. In later years it grew into an intermediate college. "Today, it is a post-graduate college. We are proud to say that we impart education from KG to PG," Ramesh Bhaiya said.

He said that in the initial years very few poor people used to send their children to the school owing mainly to their financial condition.

"We had to work very hard to persuade them to send their children. Gradually they also understood the importance of education and today we have over 2,000 students," he said.

The ashram also set-up adult literacy centres and special centres for educating the girls, who were drop-outs. "We do not get any government help. It is all done through our own efforts," he remarked.

The couple also launched training for women to work with family welfare programmes, healthcare, people with sexually transmitted diseases, nutritional needs and infant mortality.

"We roped in village panchayats for this purpose. We train women representatives of the panchayats in this field,'' he said.

The couple, following their mentor Vinoba Bhave, undertook 'padyatra' (foot march) in rural areas to create awareness and spread the message of gram swaraj (economically independent village).

Recently, Ramesh Bhaiya launched a campaign to "tobacco-free" India. With the help of local authorities, he launched a vigorous campaign to ensure that tobacco products were not sold near schools and colleges.

"There is a law that bans selling of such products near schools but it is not strictly implemented. We must keep our children away from tobacco products," he said.

The local officials in the state capital have promised to take action against the violators.

The couple knows that they have a long way to go. "What we are doing is nothing...a lot needs to be done,'' he said.