Updated: June 18, 2012 21:18 IST

A long and bitter struggle

Meena Menon
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Journalist Arun Sadhu’s voluminous biography of Vitthalrao Vikhe Patil, the founder of the cooperative movement in the Indian sugar industry, fills a huge gap in the socio-economic and political understanding of Maharashtra. As Kumar Ketkar says in his introduction, “It is rather strange and unfortunate that there is not much documentation in the English language about contemporary Maharashtra.”

Vikhe Patil, born in Loni in 1897, a year of great famine and raised in a farming family in Ahmednagar, saw at first hand the hardships of an agrarian life and had to drop out of school in class four. It was his own experiences which inspired him to sow the seeds of a cooperative movement for farmers, which is self- sustaining. While there may be several issues of corruption and mismanagement in the cooperatives today, the fact remains that western Maharashtra stood to gain immensely from his pioneering efforts and raised the bar for farmers who now form the bedrock of political power in the state, though that was not the desired outcome. You only have to look at other backward regions of the state like Vidarbha or Marathwada, mired in farm suicides and underdevelopment to appreciate what Vikhe Patil stands for and how his concern for the poor farmer led him to establish a network that would stand them in good stead.

Sadhu, a veteran journalist addresses what Ketkar again refers to — that the saga of the cooperative movement has also gone almost unnoticed in intellectual circles. In documenting Vitthalrao’s life and times, Sadhu does not stop at that alone — he gives you a broad context and understanding of the period in which his protagonist grew up, his political influences and what shaped his thoughts. His son Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, a prominent politician, eight time MP and former union minister of state, in the foreword says “I lived with him, received his guidance and was influenced by his principles; yet I dare not claim to have fully comprehended the enormity of his achievements.”

A revolutionary factory

Vitthalrao displayed a genuine concern, not seen nowadays, for the people around him, mostly dryland farmers, and he realised the torment of the vice-like grip of moneylenders, and non-availability of loans on time. He was passionate about social justice. A Maratha, he was strongly influenced by Shahu Maharaj and Jyotiba Phule’s teachings and was caught in the winds of the anti-Brahmin movement sweeping across the state at that time. His revolutionary Pravara Karkhana or sugar factory was not a mere factory in isolation, says Sadhu. It brought about a transformation in the rural social psyche and this later led on to scores of engineering and medical colleges, mostly sponsored by sugar cooperatives. “Instantly, the Karkhana became not only the symbol of the farmers’ capabilities, but it served as a reminder to poor, exploited farmers of the neighbouring areas of what they too could do,” Sadhu points out. The factory became the harbinger of the Green Revolution in the state, and the subsequent cooperatives freed the farmer from the bondage of moneylenders.

Sadhu shows us the human side of this rather Spartan man who carried his food everywhere, and even shared it with Nehru when he came to formally inaugurate the factory in 1961. He was known for his meticulousness, discipline and his passion for equality. He married thrice, the third wife, Venubai was a 16-–year-old beautiful woman, writes Sadhu, so that he would have a son to carry on his legacy. He rarely had time for his family though he doted on Radhajji, his grandmother and his new young wife but he was a strict disciplinarian as far as his children were concerned.

Zeal for education

Setting up credit societies at first, he went on to start the first farmers’ cooperative sugar factory in Loni after a historic meeting of the Deccan Canal Bagaitdars in Belapur road. The achievement did not come without long-drawn campaigns and the path was not easy. After the factory, Asia’s first, came up in 1950, accommodating even small farmers who were not members in the crushing season, the State Government set up a minister’s committee in 1953 to decide on policy matters and the state’s partnership with sugar factories. The factory drew appreciation from the Indian National Congress and the pattern of finance evolved by the Pravara Nagar factory became a general policy.

Vitthalrao’s aversion to contesting elections continued but his zeal for education especially for the children of poor farmers led him on to form the Pravara Educational Credit Cooperative Society. His efforts to organise farmers and push for a cooperative sugar factory proved its worth in the drought of 1952. The factory sustained its members and Vitthalrao himself visited drought-hit villages mobilising fodder and food.

However, later on, the functioning of the society became mired in politics and mudslinging and finally Vitthalrao at 68, resigned in disgust as chairperson in 1964 after slogging for 15 years to create his pet project. He continued his work as head of the district cooperative bank and building educational institutions. Till his demise in 1980, he stuck to his beliefs though the death of his close family members and the politics of the factory did hurt him deeply. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in her condolence message described Vitthalrao as a “stalwart in our public life,” and that is how he will be remembered.

THE PIONEER Life and Times of Vitthalrao Vikhe Patil, Founder of the Cooperative Movement in Indian Sugar Industry: Arun Sadhu; Rohan Prakashan, Dhavalgiri Apartments, 430 Shaniwar Peth, Pune-411030. Rs. 699.

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