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AGRI-CLINIC & AGRI-BUSINESS CENTER: AWARE has been approved as Nodal Training Institute (NTI) by MANAGE (Government of India, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare) to conduct Training in Agri-Clinic and Agri-Business for Unemployed Agricultural Graduates /Diploma Holders/similar qualification. The training is for 60 days at Pujyashri Madhavanji Agricultural Polytechnic, at Aswaraopet Campus, Khammam District.... Read more...
Integrated Rural Development Program
India Today
The Missionary Zeal of An Autocratic Reformer - By Amarnath K. Menon

For about a million Harijans and Tribals in rural Andhra Pradesh, he is almost god incarnate. Held in awe by the people, his portraits occupy pride of place in homes alongside Gods from the Hindu pantheon. If Pudhucode Kongot Sethu Madhavan, the 47-year-old founder of Action for Welfare and Awakening in Rural Environment (AWARE), is revered to the point of deification, it is not without reason. Thanks to Madhavan’s tireless efforts, millions of helpless tribals have stepped out of the quagmire of poverty to stand on their own feet.

Madhavan stumbled into the world of development work by accident. Seventeen years ago, a social anthropologist by training, he visited Andhra Pradesh to write a book on the Chenchus, one of the country’s most primitive tribes. He never did write it. Instead, horrified at their appalling living conditions, he started working for the upliftment of the tribal. As the chubby-faced, potbellied reformer says: “The Chenchus awakened me.”

But the awakening by itself wasn’t enough. He needed something more tangible, namely money. His mother got him started with a small contribution. After a chance meeting with an Australian at Madras airport, Madhavan had his first foreign donation of `13,500 with which AWARE put down roots in 1975. Since then AWARE has come a long way: today it resembles a multinational corporation with an annual budget of `6.99 crore- much of it from fording agencies and staff of 700. Although highly religious, Madhavan studiously avoids taking funds from any agency, which uses rural development programs for proselytisation.

The confident, and some would say pompous, Madhavan is in many ways a bundle of paradoxes. Though his method is based on people’s participation, he has a steak of the autocrat in him. He may delegate authority, but the ultimate decision is always his and he is intolerant of dissent. He seems to revel in the adulation: “It’s the magic of faith in an individual that people keep my photograph in their homes.”

Yet the bespectacled reformer is the picture of humility. He draws no salary and lives in Spartan conditions in a two-bedroom house in Hyderabad. Perhaps as a hangover of a stint as a sanyasi in the Himalayas in the ‘70s’ he still sits on a deerskin attached to a chair. “This symbolizes the absence of all wants,” he says. He remains a bachelor, starts his day with meditation, eats just one vegetarian meal and fasts on Thursdays, the day his mother died.

Alongside the abstemious habits is a demon, which drives him to work tirelessly. His day begins at 4.30 a.m. and he often puts in 18 hours of work. It certainly shows. His baby, AWARE, has moved out of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka to Uttar Pradesh and Orissa in a limited way though. The Madhavan method is simple and has elements of Gandhi and self-help. Madhavan often provides the start- up money to help the villagers.

The commitment has brought his acclaim. He has received awards from FICCI and the Indian merchants Chamber. The biggest triumph came when the Federation of Non-Government Development Organizations in Belgium awarded him membership. Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere are the only others to be similarly recognized. Madhavan, however, explains: “But for the collective effort of the staff, I may not be here today.” The biggest testimonial to his success is the voice of the tribals. Bakkya Naik from Amangal village is profoundly grateful: “I couldn’t have become a mandal president if AWARE hadn’t opened my eyes to my rights.”

The list of achievements totted up by Madhavan speaks for itself: over three lakh families have benefited from AWARE’S economic programs and two lakh landless poor have been helped by its employment generation programs. The reason for such success lies in Madhavan’s attitude: he isn’t condescending. Participation is the buzzword for him. “Development isn’t charity,” he says. There are some firm ground rules though. Alcoholics and wife-beaters are forbidden from taking part in his programs. “Where there’s alcohol there’s no development,” says Madhavan vehemently. The consciousness-raising exercise has been effective. With the help of AWAREs initial contribution and money pooled in by the villagers, over 67,818 acres have been cultivated and 8,007 wells dug. Madhavan has also helped to start the Chaitanya Nidhi, a fund of ` 1.05 crore raised by contributions from 37,000 women.

Thanks to his tireless efforts, the former sanyasi has pulled many villagers out the quagmire of poverty and helped millions of tribals to stand on their own feet.

Among AWARE’S other achievements: planting three lakh trees, commissioning 700 biogas plants and building 4,326 houses and 17 shelters in the cyclone prone coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh. When 47 children were orphaned by the 1977 cyclone, Madhavan came up with a unique scheme. “I promised to feed 800-odd children in 10 villages provided the 47 were allowed to sleep in some home,” he explains. The scheme worked. Today the children have been adopted even though the feeding program has been discontinued.

His success makes it sound as though it has been a smooth ride. But when he first visited Mahaboobnagar district in the ‘70s the tribals were hostile. With his alien style of dressing-trousers and a shirt-many even thought he practiced witchcraft.

But he wasn’t deterred. His informal manner won people over gradually. Though a Malayalee, Madhavan used his smattering of Telugu and the tribal dialects to establish a rapport with the people. The fact that he didn’t discriminate socially against the Scheduled Castes also helped. “I drink water from the same glass as them.”

An organization of this size, though, inevitably gets dragged into the vortex of murky politics. Trumped-up charges of corruption were made against him in the Assembly and some politicians threatened to kill him. He has even been accused of being a CIA agent. Following such allegations, the Intelligence Bureau kept tabs on him and a team of auditors scanned AWARE’S account books only to give it a clean chit. Then the Supreme Court asked Madhavan to be its commissioner to inquire into cases of bonded labour in Andhra Pradesh.

Madhavan comes down heavily on corruption. When seven of his staffers were found guilty of stealing ` 1,48,000 he made sure they were prosecuted. “Corruption is like a cancer. I’d kill myself rather than accept it.”

For all his altruism, Madhavan remains a loner. The graduate from Victoria College in Kerala, who later got a Masters from Sagar University in Madhya Pradesh, is driven only by his idealistic dreams. After the mindless tedium of a job as an evaluation officer with the Planning Commission, “an inner determination to change things inspired by the life and teachings of Gandhiji and Hindu philosophy brought me back to work with the people.” To date, his only other interest is reading on religion, philosophy and development. His favorite reading material: the Upanishads and Gandhian writing. Biographies of people like Vivekananda and S Radhakrishna are also “sources of inspiration”.

Madhavan may have packed in more in his 47 years than many have in a lifetime. But for him the mission has just begun. With so much still to do, he fears he many run out of time. There’s lurking fear of what will happen when I die. In any case, his achievements so far assure him a prominent place in the reformers of hall of fame.

(September 15, 1992)