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Their smile is his mission

A thumb impression could be costly- that's what the villagers of Appanna Valasa in Cheepurpalli taluk, learned one fine day. It all began a few months prior to this day in 1979, when the innocent people of this village collectively decided to buy buffaloes through the Government's Small Farmers Development Association programme, to better their living. After going through the travails of voluminous paperwork and redtapism, the villagers were sanctioned a loan of Rs.1, 300 each.

On the assigned day they all assembled at the local shandy to collect their stock. Each of them was directed to dip their thumb in ink and jab it on a piece of paper. The happy villagers after having done so collected their livestock and left with loads of enthusiasm.

It was not `The End' of the tale. One intelligent person among the unassuming herd had a little bit of knowledge of numbers. After hours of calculation and reconciliation in methods best known to him, he gathered that the banker still had to pay each of them Rs.300. On insistence they were rudely shown the door, stating that they had been paid in full and had been recorded on a piece of paper called the `voucher' with their thumb impressions.

It was during those days that a gentleman who was on a mission to do something for his people, `the downtrodden Indians', landed there. He took up the case and on investigation found out that the innocent villagers were made to put their thumb impression on a voucher that showed the price of each buffalo as Rs.1, 300 instead of Rs.1, 000 as per the invoice. He took up the case with the appropriate authorities and after much deliberation and the investigation by the Government agencies it was found that the field officer of the bank in league with the local veterinary doctor swindled the villagers of Appana Valasa and a few from the neighbouring villages to the tune of Rs.25, 000. The money was later redistributed and the officers were suspended.

That was the beginning for Pennaraju Durga Kameswara Rao, the crusader. Born in a conservative Brahmin family in 1940 in Vijayawada he had an excellent academic track record. After completing his Master in Sciences degree with nuclear physics as the main subject he went on to do a diploma at Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, and in 1966 he left for the US for his MS and Ph.D.

While pursuing his MS in Boston University he was deeply moved by the anti-Vietnam turmoil during the reign of President Lindon B Johnson. The American universities were simmering with discontent and he was drawn into its vortex. His social consciousness expanded and the inherent deprivation of the Indian middle class system was awakened by the violent Black movement which was very much prevalent at that time. Boston was its hub. It was during those days he was deeply inspired by the lectures of Jiddu Krishnamurthy on anti-organisational set up. "Ivan Illich's book, `De-schooling Society', that dealt with the essentials of an organisational structure, limitation of an organisation and how an organisation can destroy creativity, also had a major impact on me," he said.

"The very thought of my country being referred to as a country where every third illiterate person in the world is an Indian and every second sick child in the world is an Indian child played havoc in my mind. Once at home the first thing I did was to travel extensively around the country to have a first hand look at the living conditions of the people in remote villages and the functioning of the NGOs."

In the process of his village darshan he had the distinction of meeting Jayaprakash Narayan and also spent some time with Vinoba Bhave in his ashram. But Kameswara Rao at times is critical of Vinoba's movements. "His great movements like the Gramdan' and Bhudan lacked adequate follow up and in most of the cases they were only in paper and at times it benefited the wrong ones."

After a brief stay in a monastery in Sri Lanka, he came back to his native State and once again traversed its length and breadth and finally arrived at the scene where the innocent villagers were being taken for a ride over a few buffaloes.

"The entry was neither smooth nor encouraging. I was treated as a stranger and not accepted within their social framework. But I stuck to Vinoba's advice to keep my mouth shut and listen to the people for several days. My goal was to reach the people at the grassroot level and hence settled myself in the dalit colony of the village and never visited the village big man. The buffalo issue was the turning point in my life. This not only gave me a clear insight but also built my confidence. The villagers also developed a trust and affinity towards me and since then there is no looking back."

Thereafter he started of with a night school for adults and has the credit of making an adult literate in just six months. Today he has adopted 60 villages where he not only runs night schools for adults but also day schools for children. He personally supervises the teaching process and is extremely sensitive about dropouts.In 1983 he started `Sodhana' meaning `to experiment'. His organisation that had a modest beginning today has 60 youth volunteers, 3,000 women members and 3,000 children enrolled from different villages. The horizons have extended from education to different issues like gender bias, untouchability and land disputes.

Kameswara Rao has successfully inculcated the thrift charity among villagers with an initial collection of Rs.30, 000, but today it has shot up to Rs.30 lakhs. It has made the villagers self-sufficient and they no longer depend on Government sanctions. With this thrift money a number of borewells and open wells have been dug to facilitate the farmers.

A landmark project by this thrift was the construction of a colony of 86 houses in Cheepurpalli that has been solely accomplished by the people's participation, aptly christened as "Vijaya colony".

Asked about his feelings on his work that he has undertaken sacrificing a lucrative career and for which he has not entered into any family bonds. Rao modestly replies, "there is much joy in serving the country men and my happiness is boundless when I see the children of the village reading and moving to bigger cities for higher education. I feel elated when I see the glee in the moist eyes of a farmer on his reunion with the small piece of land that is freed from the clutches of the moneylender. I am ecstatic when the womenfolk participate with enthusiasm in development programmes and are given the due respect. They are my family."

From the complicated equations of nuclear physics in hi-tech environs to `A B C D' in thatched houses is quite a journey, and he still yearns for more.

S.B.

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