Mumbai: As 14,234 gram panchayats in Maharashtra went to polls on 15 January, there was ‘unusual activity’ in one village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district.
For the first time since 1985, residents of Hiware Bazar — which has earned its fame as a model village in Maharashtra, metamorphosing from an under-developed water-stressed hamlet to an affluent, self-sufficient one — started queuing up in long lines on election day.
They had to ‘choose’ this time, for a change.
Hiware Bazar residents have been picking their gram panchayat representatives by a simple show of hands in a meeting at the courtyard of a local temple, since the elections in 1990. By consensus, they always chose the panel led by the person credited for the turnaround of the village’s fortunes, Popatrao Pawar.
This time, a local school teacher, Kishor Samble, rejected the village’s tradition of picking their representatives by consensus and put up his own panel to oppose Pawar.
However, even after the election, it was Pawar’s panel that won with a crushing majority on all seven seats, while Samble’s panel lost its deposit on all seats.
“The village had a tradition of electing me and my colleagues as gram panchayat members unopposed. We would do this by a show of hands, but this year, a few people thought the process was very undemocratic,” Pawar said.
“Our three-decade old tradition was broken, but I am glad that people have formally stamped their approval for the hands that shaped this village,” he added.
Pawar credited for success story
Pawar took over as the sarpanch of the village in 1989 and has been intermittently holding that position ever since. The few times when the post of the sarpanch has been reserved for a particular caste category or for a woman, Pawar has run the show from the position of the deputy sarpanch.
He is seen responsible for taking some tough decisions in the early 1990s itself to ensure that the village stands out like a green oasis even in the worst of the summer when the groundwater is depleted, there isn’t much rain and every hamlet surrounding Hiware Bazar is battling severe water scarcity.
Soon after he took over as sarpanch, Pawar implemented certain forest regeneration schemes; banned cattle from grazing in designated forest areas; encouraged ‘shramadaan’, asking villagers to volunteer as labour for village development activities; implemented population management schemes; moved away from water-guzzling crops such as sugarcane and pomegranate; and introduced the concept of social audit, displaying the village’s status of funds as well as water resources publicly.
In tough years of lacklustre rainfall, under Pawar’s leadership, the village would foresee the impending water crisis and take early decisions on rationing the use of water. In 2019, villagers collectively even gave up the rabi crop.
Last year, the Union government recognised Pawar’s contribution to the village with a Padma Shri award, India’s fourth highest civilian honour.
Elections in Maharashtra
Maharashtra has a total of 27,920 gram panchayats, of which almost 50 per cent went to polls last week. Actual voting took place for 12,712 gram panchayats as 1,523, there were single candidates likely to be declared unopposed.
The State Election Commission also cancelled gram panchayat elections in two villages — Umrane in Nashik district and Kondamali in Nandurbar — where the panchayat seats were reportedly auctioned off for are Rs 2 crore and Rs 42 lakh, respectively.