This is the interview that I did with Mr R Elango which appeared in the December 2012 issue of the magazine One India One People.

“We are trying to resist urbanization,
but the city will eat up the village sooner or later”

Scientist, Panchayat leader, social worker and an inventor –Rangasamy Elango wears many hats. Hailing from a socially oppressed caste he fought his way up to be an engineer and hold a government job as a scientist at the Central Electrochemical Research Institute. He later quit his job to become a panchayat leader in 1996 and has since focused his energy on developmental work in his village. As the force behind making his village Kuthambakkam that lies to the north of Chennai, a model town, he shares how communities can transform themselves. In a conversation with Disha Shetty, he talks about his efforts to now divert attention to the two major crises in Indian villages – power and sanitation.
Elango is the recipient of ‘the One India One People Outstanding Indian Award’ in 2009.
R Elango 3
Elango interacting with students on a field trip to Kuthambakkam village near Chennai

What was your family’s reaction when you decided to quit your job?
I was a scientist at the Central Electrochemical Research Institute in Chennai. Village issues and development activities was something that I was involved in since I was 18 years old. I visited my village every weekend even when I was working in Chennai or once a month when I was in Karraikudi (near Chennai). So my family was not very surprised when I took the decision. My parents were disappointed as I was an engineer and had worked hard to reach a position that I was now quitting. The real question was what we would do for a living since I was married and had a family to take care of. My wife was pursuing her studies and we decided that once she completes her Masters in Chemistry and gets a job, I would quit mine. In 1994 I quit my job.

What drove you to stand for the panchayat elections in 1996?
I was involved in community work and had contacts with government as well as bank officials but I was just a volunteer. I realised that to make a greater amount of change I will need power. It was a mere coincidence that panchayat elections were just round the corner. I did not see it as a major change but as a part and parcel of my life. For my wife, parents and extended family, my decision was not unexpected. Majority of the people in my village were very encouraging, however, there were some people who who were not so confident if I would be able to achieve much.

What were the issues that Kuthambakkam was facing when you took over?
Kuthambakkam is spread over 4,000 acres of land and has a population of 6,000 people. It is lush green with a natural aquifer. In 1996 Kuthambakkam was like any other village with proximity to Chennai being its only advantage. The land was fertile but agriculture was not well developed while the road connecting the village to the state highway was in a bad shape. On the social side the village had a 60% dalit population and clashes between different castes were common. Illicit liquor brewing was widespread as a result of which most of the men were alcoholics and wife beating was common. There was a lot of social unrest. There was poverty as a result of which the villagers were involved in illicit trading and sand mining as well.

What were your solutions to deal with the issues?
The 73rd amendment to the Constitution gave a lot of powers to the village panchayat. I was the president of a strong panchayat as a result of this amendment. I went through the Act in detail and then tried to use the provisions given to us.

Elango receiving the ‘One India One People’ Outstanding Indian Award’ in 2009 from former External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna

I activated the Gram Sabha in our village which was basically a meeting of all the voters in the village. We discussed the issues of the people, their aspirations and dreams. We made a five year plan based on this, which was further broken down into a annual plan. This kind of planning helped us visualise all that we needed to do, identify our strengths and weaknesses as well as plan where the money could be brought in from. More and more people joined us and within the next 1-2 years our village started getting a facelift.
We followed complete transparency in the working of the panchayat. During every gram sabha meeting we distributed the printouts with details about the panchayat’s income and expenditure. This also ensured that there is no room for any of the ward members to tamper with the finances and cheat people.

Did you have a particular place in mind that you wanted to replicate?
There were many model villages in Kerala. Villages like Vallikkunnu and Kalacheri were our models. We also visited Anna Hazare’s Ralegan Siddhi and Nanaji Deshmukh’s Chitrakoot. We used our understanding of those villages to bring about change in Kuthambakkam. We realised that by people’s participation every one rupee worth funding that we get can be translated into results worth two rupees. Looking at our efforts even the government began to support us with funds.

What kinds of schemes were implemented in your village?
The government in Tamil Nadu started an initiative called ‘We for ourselves’ (Nammaka Naamme). In this initiative the panchayat collected 25% of the funds while the government pooled in the rest of the 75%. People contributed their money, labour and materials for the developmental work. This way we deepened the ponds and built roads. For the construction work we did not rely on any contractor rather we mobilised our own people. This way infrastructure was also built and people found jobs.
In 1999 after two and a half years of effort government sanctioned funds for a project called ‘Samathuvapuram’ (Equal living). Under this project 50 twin houses were built where a Dalit family was on one side and a non Dalit family lived on the other side. The two families lived in adjoining houses. This way we ensured thorough mixing of different castes as a result of which caste clashes came down drastically. The ‘Samathuvapuram’ model was then replicated across Tamil Nadu. We stopped illicit arak brewing too. We were unable to ban it but it is not as freely available as it used to be. This reduced the group clashes and within three to four years people saw a huge change in our village.

You have started a Panchayat Academy in your village. Can you share with us how that came into being?
In my second term in 2001, I won with a huge majority and got over 90% of the votes. I started thinking that if we can bring about so many changes in our village in such a short time then why can we not do so in our neighbouring villages? That is when the idea of Panchayat Academy took root. I travelled extensively and networked with other panchayat leaders. The Panchayat Academy is not a classroom but it is a format where one brother teaches another. We invited those interested to come and stay in our village for three to four days and study the developmental models. It is like a platform where good practices and ideas are shared between different panchayat leaders.

How did your background as an engineer and scientist help?
My background in engineering helped me to understand the problems at the grassroots while my position as a leader gave me an opportunity to rectify them. I am now working on energy auditing models. We have already changed all our street lights to CFLs and are soon going to replace them with LED lights. That will drastically bring down the energy consumption and save almost 70% of the energy. The rest of the 30% can be met with solar energy. I have developed energy saving fans that can run on solar energy. I am currently also working on biogas and biomass as sources of fuel in a village.
There is a myth that alternative energy is very expensive. A centralised grid system will not work for solar energy or any form of alternate energy. It has to be done in a de-centralised way where each house has a small solar panel for itself.

Have you faced any opposition in your village or resistance from the authorities?
I reflect the aspirations of the villagers and hence there was no opposition from them for our work. The authorities on the other hand insist on getting the procedures right. I have been penalised several times for violating the procedures. I have even argued in court saying that though the procedures were violated it was to get the work done. One cannot endlessly wait for permissions. Since all the work is done transparently even they know that nothing wrong was done.

Did you have any problem from the government’s end?
The government wanted to acquire land to create a satellite township. We opposed that move, which was a huge headache as one needs a lot of money to fight in court. In 2008 the government tried to grab the panchayat land to convert it into a solid waste dumping yard. We managed to stop it after going to the court. The judgement said that it is left to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority to decide if the project is to be cleared. The new panel is yet to give its verdict but the government’s press note released in November 2012 says that they plan to resume the project. We are preparing to contest the decision in the court. The land in question is spread across 100 acres and is used for grazing of our cattle. It is also dangerously close to the Chembarambakkam reservoir that supplies water to some parts of Chennai city.

Now that you are no longer the panchayat president, what role do you play?
I am still involved in the work of the village. I am concentrating more on networking with different organisations for further development. I spend my time trying to develop energy solutions. I believe in Gandhiji’s idea of Gram Swaraj and strengthening the local economy.

What is your vision for Kuthambakkam for the future?
We are building a high school in the village. The building is under construction and we would like to extend it to a senior secondary school. I believe that since Kuthambakkam is so close to Chennai city, urbanisation will change it in the next few years. It is something that we are trying to resist but the city will eat up the village sooner or later. My focus now is on replicating the Kuthambakkam model in other villages. I want to see how fast we can replicate this model elsewhere.
Disha Shetty is pursuing a post graduate diploma in Broadcast Journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.