Both Gandhiji and Ambedkar would have been proud of Kapadgaon in Ratnagiri District, an idyllic settlement nestled in the rolling landscape of the Western Ghats, which was the first village to be felicitated by the Maharashtra government in 2002 for being a Tantamukt Gaav (Dispute-free village) and Vyasanmukt Gaav (Vice-free village). In addition, for a village that is home to roughly 2000 people it is remarkably free of the typical rural ills of feudalism, landlessness, caste discrimination and alcoholism. How this came to be is a heartening tale of social reform through caste emancipation and successful land redistribution.
First, the Brahmins were evicted, flotsam in the wave of anti-Brahminism that swept Maharashtra in the 1920s under the leadership of Babasaheb Ambedkar who incidentally hails from Ratnagiri. The contribution of this fact to the prosperity of this village cannot be overstated for the lack of a dominant class and an oppressive upper-caste is central to the egalitarian nature of the village.
The only castes living in Kapadgaon are the Kunbis – a traditional community of tillers in Maharashtra who are classified as Other Backward Castes (OBCs) – the neo-Buddhist Dalits – converts to Buddhism under Ambedkar in the Nagpur Conversion of 1956 – and a smattering of freshly migrated Marathas who live on the fringes of the village. The oldest person in the village, 89-year old Yashwant Pandurang, a retired Kunbi panchayat leader has faint childhood memories of the Brahmins. He said, “Under British rule, there was a lot of strife between the Kunbi tillers and the Brahmin landowners. Eventually, we stopped following their rules and they were made to leave. We stripped them naked and drove them out of the village.”
The two dominant castes have been living in social harmony ever since. The Dalits have even gone on to construct a Buddhist stupa, a prominent high-rise feature in the village, through community savings. In the last 15 years (and some say after Independence), Kapadgaon has not registered a single case in the police station or in the courts. Anuradha Surve, Gram Sabha Sevak at Kapadgaon said, “The police haven’t set foot in the village in years. All disputes are resolved through a Tantamukt Samiti (Dispute Resolution Committee). Sometimes, it takes the entire night to reach a successful negotiation, but the Samiti is dedicated to finding solutions that are acceptable to both concerned parties.”
For administrative purposes, Kapadgaon is divided into 12 wadas (blocks)- Bauddhawada, Kotarwada and so on – each of which sends one representative to the panchayat and the samiti. Kapadgaon is completely free of political posters or any evidence of panchayat electioneering apart from the saffron Shiv Sena flags that are a fixture in the scenery of Ratnagiri flying high on temple tops,. “The villagers have been electing their candidate to the gram panchayat for the last 15 years. The village is entirely locally managed.” Anuradha said.
“There is no bhoomihin (landless) villager in Kapadgaon. Every family has at least 4-5 gunthe (40 gunthe equals 1 acre)”, said Anuradha. However, the villagers grow only a single crop during the monsoon. For the rest of the year, they subsist either on manual construction work in the surrounding villages or migrate to Bombay or Pune seeking petty white-collar employment as sales representatives, peons and clerks. Vinod Kamble, a Dalit who owns 10 gunthe and works 15 km away in Ratnagiri in a sports store as a cashier, said, “Usually, we don’t have any surplus, only enough to fill our own stomachs.”
The typically murky professions of manual scavenging are also remarkably clean here. Mostly, everyone cleans their own toilets. Some of the wealthier households hire kunbis for the job, but their rate (Rs. 500 a day) is higher than the usual wage (Rs. 200 a day). Also, there is no stigma associated with the job. Dignity of labour is a recurrent quality in the people of Kapadgaon that this reporter noticed when interacting with them.
The villagers have comfortable access to educational and health facilities. Kapadgaon has both private and government schools, a PHC and several private clinics at nearby Pali, a town 4 kms away. In fact, the only requests that the villagers of Kapadgaon have from the government are the very urbane ones for a gym, a garden and a playground for their children to play in.
Being free from the state’s interference in the dispensation of justice and the electoral process apart from its near total eradication of social ills, Kapadgaon provides a formidable case for being classified as a ‘model village’.