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TBI Blogs: How a Gandhian Husband-Wife Duo Turned a Crime-Ridden UP Village into a Model for Development

Ramesh Bhaiya and Vimla Bahan, a husband-wife duo, have brought sweeping change and development to Bartara village, formerly one of the most crime-ridden and neglected areas of Uttar Pradesh.

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Ramesh Bhaiya, a law graduate and an ardent follower of Acharya Vinoba Bhave, along with his wife Vimla Bahan, a Post-Graduate, set out on a Padyatra with the vision of uplifting and empowering rural people. They found and chose a neglected and highly crime-infested village Ban-ka-Tara (presently Bartara) for setting up Vinoba Seva Ashram in 1980.

The Ashram began under a thatched structure on a piece of land used as a crematorium. Gradually people got involved with the Ashram. The village women were engaged in illicit distillation of liquor, and earned a small living from the money so earned. With the objective of making the village alcohol-free, their efforts were channelized in that direction. Today, there are around 20 alcohol-free villages in the region.

Ramesh Bhaiya and Vimla Bahan took steps to meet and understand the people. After regular and constant interactions, understanding, and judgement of the life, needs, and development prospects of the village women, they were introduced to sewing classes. These subsequently helped them generate income through tailoring. Gradually this brought an end to the illicit brewing and boosted people’s confidence to move towards upliftment and development.

Vimla Bahan works shoulder-to-shoulder with Ramesh Bhaiya and looks after the administrative work. Their diligent and patient efforts finally helped get rid of social evils and malpractices. Their vision is to establish a society where every individual gets an opportunity for integrated development based on a self-sustainable and rural-based economy, focusing mainly on women empowerment. The vision of the Ashram is “Andhkar ko na dhikkaren, accha hai ek deep jalayein” (“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”).

Today, the Vinoba Seva Ashram is spread over 11 acres of land, and carries out many diversified activities for the development of the most neglected areas.

The quantum of work is quite large, qualitative, and in line with Gandhian principles.

The couple strives for:

  • Imparting knowledge to the people.
  • Bringing and developing attitudinal changes in the minds of the people.
  • Directing and helping the people be socially and economically independent.

In the initial five years (1980-1985), the focus was on creating awareness and changing the mindset of the people, followed by implementing small-scale activities under various government schemes during the period from 1985-1990. During 1990-1995, the dairy programme was initiated with the involvement of 30 women. Gradually, the Ashram undertook various vocational and enterprising activities like sericulture, carpet weaving, vermi-compost, and vegetable production programmes.

The Ashram has around 1,100 karyakartas, of which 500 work full-time with the various projects, and the balance 600 are in 32 districts of Uttar Pradesh.

In 1984, Vinoba Sewa Ashram decided to provide primary education at Bartara village in Bhawalkheda development block. This primary school has now become an Intermediate College.

Both these educational institutions run with local contributions, setting an example for effective educational programmes that children can access in resource-deficient areas even without government support.

In its initial days, the Ashram observed that only a few children attend schools because of poverty in the area. This resulted in designing several interventions for the community, mainly for children and women, laying emphasis on education, healthcare, income generation, goseva, and sustainable agriculture.

To educate the community, the karyakartas created awareness and spread the importance of education amongst women and children. Finally, after continuing persuasion for over two years, in 1984, Ramesh Bhaiya laid the school’s foundation with only three children. Today, the school has enrolled 1,200 students, catering to the inter-college level with no government grant. The Ashram has 100 Adult Literacy Centers and an Institute of Management and Health Science (Vinoba Vidhyapeeth) to cater to professional education, in addition to 40 girls’ primary centres catering to 1,600 dropout female children in Hardoi district.

To promote the attendance of women in awareness sessions about healthcare, the duo, jointly with other associations, initiated activities focusing on family welfare programmes, healthcare, sexually transmitted diseases, nutritional aspects, training to traditional birth attendants, etc. Most importantly, they addressed the concern of maternal and infant mortality rate by involving Gram Panchayats and educating the women Panchayat representatives.

The Radha Project in Shahjahanpur district imparted healthcare training to 13,830 members of 922 Village Health Committees and prepared the village health improvement plan for the community. Among other projects are the Kastoori project in Bhawalkheda and Dadraul blocks to promote family welfare programmes, the Devki project to impart training to 2,120 traditional birth attendants (TBAs) in all the villages of Shahjahanpur and 968 TBAs in all the villages of Pilibhit district, the Rachna project for implementing improvement of malnutrition of pregnant mothers and children in Pilibhit district, and the Hanuman Pariyojana.

To practice Vinoba Bhave’s philosophy of Swavalamban, Ramesh Bhaiya and Vimla Bahan have promoted khadi as a means of employment generation since 1984. The village women received 200 spindles from Akhil Bharat Krishi Goseva Sangh, Gopuri, Wardha on subsidised rates for producing khadi cloth.

Khadi Bhandars and the Khadi Mahotsav in Shahjahanpur and Pilibhit district market khadi.

There have been several steps towards making women and the community self-reliant. Over 5,850 women are occupied in sericulture and carpet weaving projects. 6,000 self-help groups now exist. These help in making food and dairy products, embroidery, tailoring, agriculture and farming, etc. 25 women work in the goshala activity. Around 5,000 work in vegetable cultivation in Shahjahanpur, Lakhimpur, and Pilibhit districts.

Women in 14 districts of UP have received education on their legal and land rights. The Ashram is voicing its opinion to title women as farmers as they primarily and significantly participate in farming and agriculture work. The AAROH Campaign is working for joint ownership (of husband and wife) in land records.

The Ashram also rescues and rehabilitates cows rescued from slaughter houses and cramped and rough transportation. Starting with 11 cows, it now has 250 rescued cows. The milk from the injured cows feeds the calves. Herbal and ayurvedic medicines and organic pesticides use gomutra in their preparation. Cow dung produces vermi compost.

As a demonstration, the Ashram produces organic grains like wheat, rice, and some varieties of pulses to promote organic farming. This has resulted in the formation of a district-level set-up called the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN-UP) in Uttar Pradesh.

The Ashram has spread the message of Gram Swaraj in villages through community meetings, seminars, padyatras, literature, etc. It has also organised several Sammelans in collaboration with Akhil Bharat Rachnatmak Samaj. To celebrate the golden jubilee of the Bhoodan Movement, Ramesh Bhaiya conducted 35,000 km. of Padyatra.

He walked in phases from Dharmshala, Himachal Pradesh to Pochampally, Andhra Pradesh between 1996 – 2001.

Ramesh Bhaiya and Vimla Bahan have striven to implement numerous developmental initiatives jointly with various national and international organizations.

Recognizing the village as the basic unit for development, Vinoba Seva Ashram has made considerable progress over 29 years.

Each villager recognizes the Ashram as family, and each Ashramite recognizes the villager as a part of his family. Ramesh Bhaiya and Vimla Bahan have built a new world of swadeshi in Bartara, and are striving to do more.

Ramesh Bhaiya and Vimla Bahan have received recognition and honours for their contribution through various awards. These include the National Youth Award (1990, 2004, and 2005), the SHG Award from NABARD, and Gandhi Puraskar. They also received the Janpad Ratan (2004), Swayam Siddha Award, Mahila Siromani Award, Matra Shakti Samman, and Prakriti Rama Award.

In 2011, Ramesh Bhaiya and Vimla Bahan received the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Outstanding Contribution in Constructive Work.

For more information about other past winners, visit the Jamnalal Bajaj Awards website.

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Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation was established in 1977, in memory of Jamnalal Bajaj, a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. The Foundation aims to serve the ideals to which he had dedicated his life and promotes Gandhian constructive activities in which he was deeply involved during his lifetime.