HIGHLIGHTS

  • Desai founded the Bharatiya Agro-Industries Foundation (BAIF). BAIF has been a pioneer in introducing the Indo-European hybrid cattle breed to India.
  • With the creation of the Bharatiya Agro-Industries Foundation (BAIF) in 1967, DESAI began to teach veterinary science and begun a fine herd of local dairy cattle at the ashram.
  • He developed at BAIF, with Danish and British assistance a major artificial insemination program to crossbreed native stock with imported cattle for greatly improved milk yields and a high potency vaccine to prevent foot and mouth disease that damages hundreds of thousands of cattle.
  • After decades of work with his more than 500 co-workers, DESAI still holds to the strategy of mobilizing local resources—people, animals, lands, plants and water—to transform village life.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his practical fulfillment of a vow made to Mahatma Gandhi 36 years ago to uplift, socially and economically, the poorest villagers.”

 CITATION

Rural development has been the theme of both peaceful and violent revolutions, especially since World War II. Along with peace on earth, it remains man’s compelling challenge in most countries. In India—where some 85 percent of nearly 700 million still live on the land, and burgeoning population destroys scarce resources—this need is acute.

Caught up in the struggles of India’s independence movement, MANIBHAI BHIMBHAI DESAI in the early 1940s became a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, who warned that independence for most could prove a mirage unless their daily lives were bettered. DESAI, a 26 year old graduate in physics and mathematics from a prosperous family in Gujarat, had divested himself of all property, chosen celibacy and committed himself to serving the rural poor, before he vowed to Gandhi to “lay my ashes in Uruli-Kanchan”—to spend his life in the village near Pune in Maharashtra State which Gandhi had chosen for rural development work.

Under Gandhi’s direction DESAI had begun in Uruli-Kanchan the Goshala Ashram, a nature cure center for the rural poor which became the base for broader work. Among his early projects was a school in a simple farmhouse for 30 boys, training them to work together as tomorrow’s farmers. Today the school has its own classrooms, workshop and laboratories, and 90 teachers instruct 2,900 students on skills villagers need. To solve the crippling problem of usury, DESAI devised a carefully guided credit cooperative. Another success was organizing 25 poor families to develop 90 acres (36.4 hectares) of poor pasture and woodland, by setting up a cooperative farming society which he himself joined as a “landless laborer” and agreed to head to insure scrupulous use of credit to generate year-round income. For this region of Maharashtra, which averages about 10 inches of rain a year, he also organized irrigation cooperatives which helped bring water to 40 villages, and he solved the problem of the low price of sugarcane by building a 3,000-member cooperative sugar factory. The ashram’s finances improved, as did those of the neighboring villages, after DESAI mastered the physiology of the vine and showed them how to grow Thompson Seedless grapes commercially.

With creation of the Bharatiya Agro-Industries Foundation (BAIF) in 1967 DESAI began broad extension of Gandhiji’s advice to “begin with the cow.” By 1950 he had dissected more than 400 dead cows to teach himself veterinary science and begun a fine herd of local dairy cattle at the ashram. Now he developed at BAIF, with Danish and British assistance in kind, a major artificial insemination program to crossbreed native stock with imported cattle for greatly improved milk yields. BAIF also produces a high potency vaccine to prevent foot and mouth disease, a curse that annually damages hundreds of thousands of cattle.

The vicinity of Uruli-Kanchan is striking for a forest covering 500 acres (204 hectares) of formerly barren rocky lands donated to BAIF by the state government. DESAI personally accomplished the first greening breakthrough with only six barrels of water daily from a neighbor’s well and pouring one glass of water every 10 to 14 days around each of 10,000 seedlings which were circled with plastic to prevent evaporation. After testing many varieties of trees for future planting, he received from Hawaii a small sample of seeds of the Leucaena leucocephala, often known as the Giant Ipil Ipil, or subabul in India. In six years this “wonder tree” is providing high protein forage, fuel, green fertilizer, hedges and timber in the 6,000 villages to which BAIF has distributed seeds—and where half a million farm families also participate in cattle improvement programs. BAIF has sold another 25 tons of seed to other state governments for distribution to villagers throughout India.

After 32 years, with his more than 500 co-workers, DESAI still holds to the strategy of mobilizing local resources—people, animals, lands, plants and water—to transform village life.

In electing MANIBHAI BHIMBHAI DESAI to receive the 1982 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his practical fulfillment of a vow made to Mahatma Gandhi 36 years ago to uplift, socially and economically, the poorest villagers.

 RESPONSE

I have just been given the Ramon Magsaysay Award. I take it as a mark of recognition of our program which draws inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and his concern for the rural poor. Thus it is indeed a day of great joy for me. May I be permitted to express my deep sense of gratitude to you.

Why is India poor? Mahatma Gandhi answered that query, saying that India is poor because her rural man is poor. He analyzed the cause of rural poverty. He said that rural man is poor because he is largely unemployed or underemployed during the major part of the year. He said provision of remunerative year-round employment would enable rural India to get rid of its age-old burden of poverty.

Whatever the common belief, rural man is a wise man. He has acquired wisdom over centuries of experience of living a difficult life. It is this wisdom that has enabled him to survive all oppression, exploitation and difficulties. His experience, moreover, has made him look at anything new with suspicion because everything new to him has so far been used against him. He is also very possessive in regard to his land and livestock, and is not prepared to part with either even if neither is remunerative; he cannot forget that these have been the only instruments which have enabled him to survive against all odds.

However, the villager is no different from other people. He too wants to be prosperous. For that he is willing to experiment with whatever he has, however little it may be, but such an experiment must offer to satisfy at least some of his own needs as he sees them. Besides, he must have faith in the abilities of his counselor, and no doubt whatever about his motives.

We have been working among the rural poor in order to provide them with means of gainful employment. The instruments we have provided have come out of whatever little the poor themselves possessed. We have also seen to it that the abundantly available and yet underemployed manpower in rural India is utilized to the maximum possible extent. Besides, we have ensured that the rural poor find the new instruments as something culturally acceptable to them.

Agriculture and animal husbandry are two major fields that we have chosen for developing and providing new means of gainful employment. To make ours an integrated effort we are side by side working on health, education and cottage industry. Among our activities are: 1) upgrading indigenous cattle with the use of deep frozen semen of excellent exotic sires through artificial insemination; 2) developing and producing veterinary biomedicals to provide adequate health-cover to farm animals, and 3) propagating Leucaena leucocephala as a means of generating employment and providing fodder, fuel and timber, using schools as an important channel of diffusion.

These activities have shown us that technical competence, managerial expertise and involvement of local leadership are essential prerequisites for making relevant technologies generally acceptable to the rural poor. We have, therefore, built up a unique organizational model. It includes technical competence for proper selection, development and adoption of relevant technology. It incorporates managerial expertise to design and operate suitable delivery systems, and it involves a specific role for local leadership as demonstrators of the utility of such a technology, and paving the way for its further diffusion. This model is nongovernmental and voluntary in nature. It operates on a non-profit basis and keeps scrupulously away from any involvement in political issues.

I believe that this approach is the most appropriate for operating programs of rural development. It is an approach which can be adopted by all developing countries around the world.

While I thank the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation once again for granting recognition and thus focusing world attention on our approach to problems of rural development, may I also add that we are ever willing to cooperate with others in this field in furtherance of our common objective: development of the rural man in his own environment.

 BIOGRAPHY

Youngest son of a well-to-do Brahmin family, MANIBHAI BHIMBHAI DESAI was born on April 27, 1920 in the village of Kosmada, Surat District, Gujarat, India. As owner of 68 acres (27.5 hectares) of ancestral lands, MANIBHAI’s father, Bhimbhai Fakhirbhai DESAI, was a respected leader among the farmers of the 10 or 15 villages in the area. From their father the DESAIs’ five children—one daughter and four sons—inherited excellent managerial talent which they carried to their respective careers. Their mother, Ramibahen DESAI, passed on to them her “very strong common sense.”

When their father died in 1927, the eldest son took charge of the ancestral farm while the next two sons pursued careers in the textile industry, one becoming a gold medal spinner and the other an expert weaver and the general manager of one of India’s largest textile units.

At the time of his father’s death MANIBHAI DESAI was in first grade at the elementary school in his native village. For the five years he attended that school (1927-1931) he ranked first in his class; he was also good in sports and a leader in the Boy Scouts. India in these years was being shaken by Mahatma Gandhi’s hartals (abstension from work) and satyagrahas (literally “insistence on truth,” but in fact calls for civil disobedience) against British rule. DESAI vividly recalls an incident that happened when he was ten that influenced his future life. A young man from the village, Narottambhai Patel, joined Gandhi on his march from Ahmadabad to Dandi where the demonstrators raided the salt stocks as a protest against the imposition of a salt tax. It was Patel’s duty on his return to the village, to see that a pinch of salt, which had become a symbol of the struggle for independence, was distributed to each household. He chose young DESAI to carry out the task. Deeply moved by the sight of villagers bowing down as they ate the salt, DESAI felt at age 10 the call of Mahatma Gandhi.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)