The Importance of Rangaswamy Elango
Rangaswamy Elango, an engineer for whom the outer world lay but he chose to return to his village. He was born a Dalit, a people who have many justified grievances with Indian society. He chose to harmonise passions. He had choices enough to stay away from the rough and tumble of politics, as most educated Indians do. He chose it as the means to lead his village, Kuthambakkam to prosperity. He can spend his life basking in the successes he has wrought so far in Kuthambakkam. But he has chosen to evangelise village centered development. He is a family man with longings for his loved ones. But he lives a solitary life for his cause, Gram Swaraj [the Autonomous Village]. Most of all, at a time when it is the vogue to belittle Gandhi, he adores the great man as the one who truly understood India. The career path of Rangaswamy Elango needs to be widely known. Just fifty more Panchayat leaders like him across India are enough as nodes from where sensible village development can radiate in all directions.
Well to do but ill at ease:
Elango was born on Nov 12,1960 in Kuthambakkam where his family has lived for close to a thousand years at least. They cherish the association an ancestor of theirs had with the great reformer philosopher Sri Ramanujar, who was born in Sriperumbudur, nearby. Despite being Dalit they have not felt alienated from mainstream Indian thought. Village realities of ghettoised living however, had seemed inevitable. Elango's family owned some lands and his father was a Government employee. So they were reasonably well to do, but young Elango grew up amidst squalor and hopelessness in the Harijan 'colony'. Drunken brawls, wife beating and wails of women and children were nightly fares in houses around his. An academically inclined Elango could not quite shut these out nor ignore the filth and the bogs as he picked his way to his school. His mind however filed these away.
"At lunch I saw my mates had nothing to eat," he recalls. "They would gulp glasses of water and pretend they were alright. I always shared my lunch box. But, there was never enough nor did it seem a solution." His mind filed that away too. Walking back from school on hot days, through upper caste streets he found people were willing give him water but not to his mates. Was it because they knew he came from a sober family, was well washed and studious? His mind did some sums with this and the filed information and came to a rough conclusion at an early age. Later as he grew up, he redid those sums and realised what it added up to: there can be no individual happiness if there is misery all around.
Elango was a good student and so entered the A C College of Technology, Chennai to study Chemical Engineering. He tried staying in the hostel for a few months. But was disturbed by thoughts of having run away from his reality. He began to commute the 40 km from his village by changing many buses each way. In the village he teamed up with his old mates to try and put some hope and dignity in their lives. They formed youth clubs, stuck wall posters with reformist messages, organised study groups, gave special tuitions and tried a number of other heart-achingly inadequate activities. Elango seems to have intuitively understood the importance of human development but was lost for a platform.
Flying on reluctant wings:
The first technical graduate from Kuthambakkam was grabbed from the campus in 1982 by Oil India and posted in an exploration site in Orissa. For most young men in India to be on such a promising career belt is dream come true but Elango found himself tethered to his village. A brief holiday revealed his youth club members were drifting away. He quit his job and joined the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research [CSIR] in Chennai. Commutes to his village began again. His youth club revived.
In a while Elango was married to a young lady who was a chemistry graduate. Two baby girls arrived in quick succession. By then Elango had visualised a long term road map. He and Sumathy had many conversations and agreed on a plan. They would make a home in Chennai, he would take care of the children and she would do her Masters in chemistry. Then she would find a job and provide for the family and he would return full time to the village. He speaks feelingly of her: "I can't quite estimate her contribution in whatever I have done. Until I began getting some money from an Ashoka Fellowship in 2002, she has been the bread winner. She has supported the family for over a decade without a murmur and raised our two girls."
In 1994, Sumathy got a job in the Oil and Natural Gas Commission [ONGC] and Elango promptly quit his. Two years earlier there had been caste riots in the village. Kuthambakkam is a Dalit majority village. There had been upper caste taunts and mob fury in response. Vanniars fled the village. After about a week when they did not return, Elango began to make many trips seeking the scattered Vanniars and persuading them to return. He was but a young man in his early thirties.
Not many Indians are sufficiently aware of the impact of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment spear-headed by Rajiv Gandhi in 1993. It sought to create totally self governing villages with far reaching powers. A plenary of village people [Gram Sabha] was mandated to meet every quarter and elections to the office of Panchayat President [Sarpanch] was mandated for every five years. The intention was to create village level Republics. Tamil Nadu ratified it in 1994 and elections were announced soon after.
Elango threw his hat in and won. But despite his long term commitment to the village and work with harmonising it, he found the margin of victory disappointing. But he understood the powers at his disposal. He rolled up his sleeves. His objectives were two: create jobs and bring in hope.
He did not know his Gandhi formally, but seemed in accord. He would build drains in the poorer ghettos and show them the difference. At the outskirts of the village was a factory that polished granite slabs. It had a huge disposal problem with its random off cuts. It was willing to pay for it to be carried away. Engineer, President Elango was delighted. He employed local labour, and built a drain which had smooth granite mosaic walls. The 'colony' drained fast down the slick 2 km long works. Of the budgeted Rs.15 Lakhs for this project Elango had spent just Rs. 4L, half of which went in wages for local folks. But, the specification was to build the drain with rubble stones from a nearby hill. He had violated 'prescribed norms'. In other words, he had deprived transporters their ferrying opportunity and contractors their civil works one. Vested interests worked overtime. Elango was suspended from office under Section 205 of the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act [TNPA].
He was devastated. He thought he had made a novel environmental, economic and development statement and he had been thrown out and humiliated for his pains. Why had he not heeded those that had said politics was a cess-pool? Why had he abandoned a promising career? What had he to show for Sumathy's support? He went into a deep depression. He thought of quitting.
The Gandhi moment:
Sumathy left him alone for a few days and then made one of her rare visits to Kuthambakkam. She held him and asked him if that was the end of his passions? 'Are you going to give up because of this one set back?’ She had brought a book for him, 'Satthia Sodhanai', a Tamil version of Gandhi's 'My Experiments with Truth'. She left him alone again.
Elango says though he had heard of the book he had not read it. His predicament gave it immediacy as he read it now. It seemed written for him. He understood the mind of a dogged man who had faced greater odds. The book taught him grit. Within a few days he was in Chennai calmly telling the Secretary to the Government: "No, I will not sue you but sit in protest until you convene a plenary session of my village. Let your charges be read out, my defence heard and the villagers decide my fate." He contacted the press. On Jan 10, 1999, 1300 people gathered and Elango defended himself. Before the sun set on the day long trial, the Government sent in an order revoking the suspension. The entire village had rallied behind him. "I understood Gandhi that day," he says. "First be truthful, and then be fearless."
There has been no looking back since then. Elango was re-elected with a huge majority at the end of five years. The graft mafia ran away. Officials backed his approach of cutting out contractors and employing locals instead. As he created jobs, liquor menace receded. He had always paid above the market average, currently Rs.70 per day; and most revolutionarily, precisely the same for women.
He mastered the TNPA and availed of every scheme for the village. "There are enough well meaning schemes announced by the Government. It is up to the local leadership to go and get them," he says. He has been an efficient conduit between his people and available opportunities.
One of the housing concepts that the Tamil Nadu Government promoted was Samathuvapurams [Harmony Estates]. The idea was to make different castes and religions to live together in a campus of about 50 dwellings each. Over 150 came up all over the State. Most were shoddily built mockeries left to fast buck contractors in cahoots with local leadership. Elango demanded and got a say in the design and execution. He got HUDCO to design a soulful campus. Local soil was pressed by people into mud blocks to build the houses. The community hall was designed to be an activity centre where now vocational courses and village businesses are run. The money set aside for that darling of the Government -a commemorative arch was used to build a meeting place. Of the Rs.88 Lakhs that the project cost, over a fourth was spent on wages for villagers. More was saved by using local materials. Villagers assimilated many cost effective building technologies. Houses in this Samathuvapuram are about 40% larger and are better designed.
So it is with all activities in Kuthambakkam. Extensive water management works, processing of agricultural produce, collective businesses run by women, all emphasise local involvement.
Economics for village clusters:
This approach recurs in Elango's economic thinking which is deeply influenced by J C Kumarappa. "If you bring in the contractors you are exporting jobs," he says. He got a door-to-door survey done in the village and found the village consumes Rs.60 Lakhs worth of goods and services per month. Elango discovered to his astonishment, that nearly Rs 50 L of that can be produced at the village level. Since then, he has been evolving an economic theory of village clusters. In simple terms about seven or eight villages form a free trade zone. They identify and produce goods and services without overlap. They consume each other's produce. And the money stays back and gets invested in human development. Ever the Gandhian and a Kumarappa acolyte, he challenges the theory of competition as being good at all levels. For villages it is co-operation that holds the key. Extreme Competition Theorists are heartless. 'People have to be able to begin again," says Elango, "especially if they are able to see where things went wrong the first time."
So he is building these village federations now. He has an appropriate technology development centre in the village. Over 21 schemes are ready. A few weeks ago, he made a presentation to 40 Panchayat leaders who are likely to form 3 federations. The District Collector attended. They are talking of budgets of Rs. 5 and 6 crores per cluster.
Elango is optimistic for India. What does he think of the recent attempts to nibble away Panchayat's powers? "Look, the system will come up with the necessary resistance," he says. "In Tamil Nadu alone I have personally identified 1000 honest, successful Presidents. We have begun to network and stay connected.
This number will only increase. I am sure similar is the case in other States. I am starting a Panchayat Academy to teach the Presidents their powers and villages' entitlement. All these will rouse people's expectations. There is an emerging force not visible to the media and most people. It is at work changing India from below. This force cannot be stemmed."
It is 8 am. People are astir all over Kuthambakkam. They are all at some task. The streets are clean, the fields green and strangely in these times of drought, ducks are cavorting in its several ponds. Young men on swift motorbikes are racing out of the village on errands, with goods, to jobs. Signs of prosperity in village India? You are counting the bikes as they zing past, one, two... ten.
Keep counting -and wish: "Won't a few have Elango on their minds?"