Fr Herman Bacher: Pioneer of rural development in Maharashtra

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Fr. Herman Bacher, a pioneer of rural development in Maharashtra, especially in Ahmednagar district, breathed his last in his native country Switzerland on September 14, 2021. A tribute to this great Jesuit missionary…

Camil Parkhe
Pune, 15th September 2021: A young man from a small town located at the foot of the Alps in Switzerland decided to follow Jesus Christ and selected Maharashtra in western India as the place for his mission.

He devoted his life to the social and economic transformation of the drought-prone rural district of Ahmednagar. The name of this veteran social worker and reformer is Fr. Herman Bacher. His work was appreciated by the Maharashtra government, which conferred upon him the title of ‘Krushi Bhushan’ (Pride of agricultural sector). He is also the recipient of an ‘Order of Merit’ bestowed upon him by the government of Germany.

Fr. Bacher was born in Switzerland on October 12, 1924. On completion of his preliminary education, he joined the Society of Jesus to become a priest. He completed his philosophy and theology training at the Pune-based De Nobili College. After his ordination as a priest, he worked as a teacher for sometime at various locations in Ahmednagar district- the Dnyanamata Vidyalaya in Sangamner town, Haregaon and Kendal villages.

At that time, India had just acquired Independence from the British. Fr Bacher, who had come from a developed country like Switzerland, first familiarised himself with the social and economic life of the people in Ahmednagar district. There were no proper roads in villages and the use of vehicles was out of question. The bullock cart was the chief mode of transport and the bicycle was a rare sight.

Ahmednagar being a drought-prone district, the financial condition of people there was extremely poor. A majority of the Christians in the Ahmednagar district belonged to the erstwhile untouchable communities. Many people from the untouchable Mahar caste had embraced Christianity towards the end of the 19th century in the district. Even after conversion, their social and financial status had not changed. Except for the new religion, their condition in all respects was similar to that of other Dalits.

Although Fr. Bacher was working as a Christian priest, his mission was not restricted to his community alone. He had taken a vow to serve all needy people and hence did not differentiate between Christians and non-Christians. As a part of his work, the young priest daily moved about in neighbouring villages. Many a time, he used to set out on a bicycle to return only after a week or so. It was during the course of these wanderings that he came in close contact with ordinary farmers from rural areas and the backward communities among the Hindus and the Christians. He strongly felt for these neglected people and wanted to do something to improve their conditions.

In 1966, Fr. Bacher visited his motherland for a while. While returning from Switzerland, he had worked in his mind various schemes for the development of the economically backward people of Ahmednagar district. Immediately after his return to India, the Society of Jesus appointed Fr. Bacher as its Ahmednagar District Superior.

The members of the Society of Jesus, called the Jesuits, were running a number of schools and other educational institutions, besides social centres in various villages and towns of Ahmednagar district. As the district head of this congregation, Fr. Bacher was now called upon to give a new direction to the mission of the Society.

Soon after assuming his post in Shrirampur, Fr. Bacher started giving shape to various schemes that he had thought of earlier. He established a Social Centre in Shrirampur to achieve the economic progress of the backward communities in the district. One of the main goals of this Centre was to offer financial help to dig or repair wells to small farmers. It was the beginning of Fr. Bacher’s social work, which was to gain the attention of the entire Maharashtra.

Fr. Bacher was of the view that poor farmers with marginal landholdings should be offered financial assistance for agricultural purposes through financial institutions like banks. He was against giving financial grants to the farmers directly. He prepared a scheme wherein his Social Centre stood surety to loans for those farmers whom a bank would deny loans on grounds of inadequate security. The Social Centre signed an agreement with the Ahmednagar District Land Development Bank and invested in the Bank’s shares for this purpose. This enabled Fr. Bacher to help marginal farmers in digging new wells, repairing existing wells, buying electric motor pumps and oil engines. Nearly 2,000 farmers benefited from the scheme. Without the help of the Social Centre, these farmers would not have progressed in their agriculture.

The Social Centre offered incentives in the form of subsidies to the farmers who repaid their loans on time. The Social Centre repaid the principal amount of the loan in case of many defaulters who were in distress due to loss of crop due to natural causes. Later, Fr. Bacher made loan facilities available to marginal farmers through the Ahmednagar District Cooperative Bank.

Fr. Bacher had secured funds from the Swiss Development Corporation for this scheme.

SB Kulkarni, a senior journalist from Ahmednagar district, has commented, “The successful move of making foreign funds available to poor farmers through the means of the cooperative bank was an honour to the cooperative movement of the district. Providing funds through the channel of a cooperative bank was definitely a novel experiment.”

There was a severe famine in Maharashtra during 1972-74. People in the Ahmednagar district were worst hit by the famine. Farmers could not reap even a single harvest for three successive years. Many farm labourers were rendered jobless. To make employment available in rural areas, the government of Maharashtra started a scheme of famine relief work under its Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS). Projects like making kaccha roads in villages and digging community wells were undertaken through the scheme. The vast rural population got subsistence due to this scheme. But the scheme was suspended when it rained and the construction of many wells remained incomplete.

Fr. Bacher tried hard to complete the construction of incomplete wells belonging to small farmers. In response to his efforts, Ahmednagar District Cooperative Bank agreed to extend loans to the farmers for completing their wells. The Social Centre offered grants on a large scale for repaying the interest on loans. The construction of 150 incomplete wells was thus achieved. Fr. Bacher himself surveyed the construction of many wells in the district.

Fr. Bacher tried community schemes like digging a common well between five-six farmers instead of each one of them availing a personal loan for separate wells. The Jesuit priest made farmers realise that common wells lessened the burden of loans and also helped inculcate the spirit of cooperation.

During monsoon, excess water runs down the slopes and in the case of a dam it flows into canals. And farmers have to face scarcity of water post-monsoon. To make use of excess water, Fr. Bacher built four percolation lakes in arid agricultural areas around the Pravara River. This ensured the availability of water for several months in a year and the farmers turned to horticulture on land that was arid not so long ago.

In rural areas, there were not many employment opportunities other than those in the agriculture sector. Although means of education were available everywhere, the rural youth did not seem to benefit from the education they had in absence of sufficient job opportunities. Fr Bacher, therefore, started an ‘Electro-Technical Centre’ in Shrirampur town to provide vocational training to the youth who had studied up to the middle or secondary school level. During those days, there were no technical institutes like Industrial Technical Institutes (ITIs) or polytechnics in Maharashtra. Fr. Bacher initially started offering training in electrical and other skilled jobs. Many youths got jobs while some became self-employed after getting training at this centre.

The technical institute benefited the most the youth from the local Dalit Christian community. These Christians, despite being Dalits, are denied to this date various benefits like educational scholarships and reservations in government jobs only because they had converted to Christianity. The Dalits who got converted to Sikhism or Buddhism have however continued to get these benefits despite their conversion. Before the technical training centre started in Shrirampur, the Dalit Christian youths had to seek admissions at the St Joseph Technical School in Pune. This institute too is run by the Jesuits. Even today, the Shrirampur-based technical centre, now named Xavier Technical Training Centre, is much sought after in the area.

Digging of wells cannot be a permanent solution to water scarcity as the water table keeps going down. Depleting underground water reserves lead to the failure of wells however deep they are dug. To overcome this problem, Fr. Bacher stressed developing watershed areas. The Maharashtra government announced its ‘ watershed development programme in 1981. Under this scheme, the government would bear 80 per cent of the cost of preserving water and people were to share the balance of 20 per cent. Fr. Bacher tried to motivate people to implement this scheme. He propagated the scheme by printing Marathi booklets that provided information about the government scheme.

In 1983, Fr. Bacher was appointed representative of a German institute, named ‘Indo- German Social Service Society’, in Delhi. The priest had implemented the rural development programme in the Ahmednagar district. Now he was called upon to work at the national level. With the financial aid of the German institute, Miserior, Fr. Bacher toured the length and breadth of the country, visiting drought-hit areas and devising schemes that could be best implemented in each area.

To eradicate poverty, various donor agencies work in their own way but the financial status of the weaker sections does not change much. Therefore, in Fr. Bacher’s opinion, instead of so many programmes it was advisable to administer well the natural resources like land, water and manpower under the Watershed Development Programme. He stressed this point in various institutional meetings and. Due to Fr. Bacher’s effort many institutions changed their style of functioning.

Fr. Bacher worked in Delhi till 1991 as the representative of the Indo- German Social Service Society. Financial assistance on a large scale was given to weaker sections of India by an organisation, Catholic Aid. He made people and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) aware that watershed area development was the best solution to overcome the scarcity of water and also to conserve the environment. There was not much awareness amongst social institutes or social workers in Maharashtra about it. Nearly 30 years ago, Fr. Bacher’s Social Centre started working on this and pioneered the scientific approach for developing watershed areas in Maharashtra. Fr. Bacher must be given credit for his contribution in this regard.

Fr. Bacher tried to transform the rural areas of the drought-prone Ahmednagar district. The economic transformations in places like Kasare in Parner taluka, Mendhvan in Sangamner taluka and Pimpalgaon Wagha in Ahmednagar taluka are proof of Fr. Bacher’s tireless efforts. During those days, no non-governmental organisations or social workers had dedicated themselves to the cause of rural development. Fr. Bacher who implemented various rural development projects in different areas of Ahmednagar district can rightly be called a pioneer rural development leader. His work inspired many other social workers and social agencies to take up similar work in other areas.

Although a Jesuit priest, Fr. Bacher has never restricted his mission to spiritual or religious activities. As a true missionary, he has devoted himself to the financial and social upliftment of the community in Ahmednagar district. Most important point is that he never restricted his work to the Christian community alone. All the schemes run by him in the district have always been open to all weaker sections irrespective of their religion, caste and creed. For this, he sometimes even had to face the resentment of a section of the Christian community.

Maharashtra Government recognised Fr. Bacher’s contribution by conferring on him the title of Krushi Bhushan (Pride of agriculture sector). He was honoured at the hands of Dr P. C. Alexander, the then Maharashtra State Governor, on October 2, 1994. It is indeed praiseworthy that a person born in Europe spent his lifetime in the service of a drought-hit district in Maharashtra.

Fr. Bacher had left for his country, Switzerland, a decade ago. People from various walks of life have lauded the contribution of this veteran social worker.

Fr Hermann Bacher

(Camil Parkhe is a senior journalist based in Pune. He started his journalism career in Goa and has worked in various newspapers in different capacities.)