With files and sheets of paper scattered all around, the small room in a lodge in the Majestic area looks hardly impressive. Clad in simple clothing, its elderly inhabitant seems at peace here. You may be forgiven for assuming he is a retired government official fighting cases to get his pending dues. For 67- year-old SR Hiremath has indeed been a tireless fighter of cases, except he has been doing it on behalf of the public.
Hiremath may not be a media sensation like Team Anna, but has championed some of the defining causes of our times and brought about lasting change. He has successfully taken on some of the mightiest politicians and corporations in the state, most famously those associated with illegal mining.
Perhaps more than any other individual or organisation in recent times, it is the quiet activism of Hiremath and his Samaj Parivartana Samudaya (SPS) that has proven that it is still possible for public interest to triumph.
Hiremath’s work has brought him many honours, including the Karnataka Rajyotsava award in 1987 and the recent 'Man of the Year 2012' award by the Bangalore Press Club. While his campaign against illegal mining brought him media attention in recent times, his activism goes back a long way.
And an incredible story it is too, of a boy who grew up poor but managed to top his class throughout, of a young idealist who pursued his social concerns alongside a demanding corporate career in the US, and of a selfless dreamer who gave up all his comforts to work in the most backward of villages.
Growing up poor
Sangayya Rachayya Hiremath was born on November 5, 1944, in Belavaniki village of Rona taluk in Dharwad district. His father Rachayya was an agriculturist, a leader of the co-operative movement, and a freedom fighter, and his mother Rachavva a housewife. His parents had seven children, four of whom died young, and Hiremath grew up with an elder brother and sister. Rachayya, while a farmer, would also take up the cause of the poor, and was active in the co-operative movement.
Once, Rachayya's co-operative society had taken up a case against a local landlord, which it won. The landlord and his men turned against Rachayya, threatening to kill him. He was forced to flee the village with his family and take refuge in Bijapur, where his wife's family was based. Rachayya attempted to start a new life in Bijapur, where he took up civil contracts, but soon developed tuberculosis and died.
Young Hiremath was just five years old at the time, and with just his mother to take care of the family, spent the rest of his childhood in utter poverty. After school he would work in groundnut fields or help out a local khadi-weaving unit for a daily wage. His elder brother soon found a job as a bus conductor and started taking care of household expenses, but Hiremath still had to earn his own school fees.
Remarkably, the hardships wouldn’t stop him from excelling at his studies. He always stood first in class at his Bijapur school. He finished his SSC in 1961, coming second in the state. He recalls being congratulated by the then chief minister BD Jatti, an alumnus of the same school , who had been invited to felicitate the rank winner. Hiremath then went on to get a first class in PUC and did his BE in mechanical engineering from BV Bhoomaraddi College in Hubli. There, too, he stood first in his class.
After completing his BE, we worked as a lecturer for a year in the same college. Around this time, some of his friends, who had migrated to the US, started pressing him to join them there.
Life as an NRI
His friend Sharanu Nandi helped him get to the US, where he did an MS in industrial engineering from Kansas State University. After completing his course, he joined the Bank & Trust Company, Illinois, as a research analyst, assessing technical inputs for the bank's investments. He later moved to the Chicago office of the US Federal Reserve Bank, the American equivalent of the Reserve Bank of India.
During his tenure at Federal Bank, he met his future life partner, Mavissa Sigwalt. Hiremath had been invited to a friend's place for dinner, where he ran into the young sociology graduate. The socially conscious Mavissa had volunteered with the Peace Corps and worked in West Africa's Sierra Leone for two years, something that drew Hiremath's attention.
The two young idealists got talking, and discovered that they had much in common. They were drawn to each other, and courtship followed. When they decided to get married, Hiremath's mother insisted on traditional Hindu custom. The couple flew down to India for the wedding, which took place on December 24, 1972 in Hubli.
After marriage, Mavissa changed her name to Shyamala Hiremath. The couple returned to a comfortable life in the US, where they raised two children—son Raj and daughter Sheela. To further improve his career chances, Hiremath did an MBA from Chicago's Illinois Institute of Technology, and moved to investment banking, holding senior positions at firms like Franklin Park and Oakbrook.
Making news in America
Throughout his career in the USA, Hiremath had kept in touch with the goings-on in India. He and a group of likeminded friends would regularly meet and discuss the situation in India, particularly about how to improve the conditions of India's rural poor. In 1974, some of them founded a non-profit group, India Development Service, with this very objective in mind.
But these politically aware Indians abroad were dealt a blow the very next year, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency in India. In the United States, Hiremath's group protested openly against the harsh measures imposed by her. This irked the Indian regime, which put pressure on the US government to impound the passports of four of them, including Hiremath.
But the move backfired when it provoked widespread outrage in America, forcing the US government to return the passports weeks after it had seized them. The incident received widespread media attention, which put Hiremath's group in touch with the vanguard of the Indian resistance to the Emergency, including prominent figures like Ram Jethmalani, Subramanian Swamy, HV Kamat, Ramdhan, and (future Prime Minister) Chandra Shekar, apart from the foremost opposition figure, Jayaprakash Narayan himself. Hiremath recalls meeting the socialist leader when he visited America for his treatment in 1977, and discussing with him the political situation and the problem of rural poverty.
The experience also put Hiremath in touch with a wide variety of people and organisations on India-related issues in the US, England and India. One such group, formed by a bunch of former IITians, was working with the rural poor in India. He got more and more drawn into the issues they were working with, and started raising funds for their activities.
While corresponding with the group, which would regularly send him articles on the situation in India, Hiremath came across a reference that provoked his curiosity.
An article he received referred to a book, Small is Beautiful, written by the British economist EF Schumacher. It was essentially a warning against the craze for development without paying attention to its economic and human cost, and was being widely discussed in policy circles as well as in the budding environmental movement in the West. Hiremath tracked down the author, who presented him with a copy. On reading it, he found that it raised the same concerns that he had had about the industrial model of development. It was to prove one of the biggest influences in his life.
Return to India
When he returned from America with his family, Hiremath had no plans of going back. Given her background and concerns, Shyamala was also enthusiastic about the move. Hiremath found that unemployment was the raging issue in India. This prompted him to consider setting up an industry so it could provide jobs for some people. But following discussions with his activist-friends here, he realised that would achieve very little, and instead, decided to work towards bridging the social and economic gap in rural areas.
When he returned on July 1, 1979, Hiremath had funds worth US$ 33,000 (approximately Rs 18 lakh) donated by his friends for India Development Service, a large sum for the time. He went to Medleri village in Ranebennur taluk of Dharwad, the area he grew up in, where he took a small house on rent for Rs 90 a month. He sent his children to the village school, while he and Shyamala got fully involved in development work.
He then registered a non-profit organisation under the name of India Development Service (International), with the primary aims of rural development and women's empowerment. Simultaneously, he started talking to village people from all walks of life, in an attempt to learn more about their conditions of life and how best they could be served. In the initial phase, the organisation targeted 30 of the most backward villages in the area. Using the funds at hand, they introduced several development programmes in health, animal husbandry, handicrafts, environmental planning and horticulture, most of them involving women.
Recalling those early days, Hiremath says, "You cannot live in a city and claim to work for the rural poor. That doesn't happen. If you really want to work for people in rural areas, you should live in a village and experience their living conditions, understand their way of life. When the villagers, especially the women, saw that an American woman and her children were living with them, they began to trust us. They opened up to us and opened themselves to change. Our work also became easier."
In 1982, Hivos, a Netherlands-based organisation that funds non-profit groups, bestowed on him the Jaap Van Praag international award, named after a prominent Dutch activist. The popular Kannada magazine Sudha did a cover story on Hiremath and his work. The organisation gradually began to attract volunteers who were inspired by their work.
Strength to strength
In 1983, with three years of rural development work behind him, Hiremath took up the first of his environmental campaigns, something he would become known for later. Along with local activists, he started a campaign against the Birla-owned Harihar Polyfibre factory, which was releasing pollutants into the Tungabhadra. The effluents released into the water were killing fish by the thousands, and had affected 16 villages in the Harihara and Ranebennur area that were dependent on the river for water. Hiremath joined the Tungabhadra River Pollution Committee and filed a petition in court, giving a new impetus to the struggle.
To their surprise, the court ruled in their favour, which brought the largely inexperienced Hiremath no small amount of confidence. They had stood up against one of the biggest industrial groups in the country, and won; it was a victory that would inspire many more campaigns to come. The following year, Hiremath started the Samaj Parivartana Samudaya, the organisation that has played a pivotal role in the state's rural development and environmental protection, and with which he is associated to this day. Based in Dharwad, the SPS undertook several campaigns; to protect community land, generate local employment and to rehabilitate forestdwellers and villagers evicted from their land in the name of conservation and development.
During his campaign against the Harihar Polyfibre Factory, Hiremath had also come into contact with some of the most key figures in cultural and civic life. At the time, many of them, including such prominent names such as Jnanpith awardee Shivram Karath, Chipko movement leader Chandiprasad Bhat, former state chief minister Kadidal Manjappa, former high court justices DM Chandrashekar and VM Tarkunde, and journalist Kuldip Nayar, had joined hands with activists in the state and elsewhere along the Western Ghats to protect the ecologically fragile region from being opened up for 'development.' At a time when awareness of ecological issues was low, the state government had been handing over forest land to private companies at throwaway prices, something the group opposed.
Hiremath and his friends jumped into the fray eagerly. In 1984, they took up a campaign against the Karnataka Pulp Wood Company, which had got 30,000 acres of community land near Kusnur village in Dharwad district from the state government for a pittance. Under the deal the company was to grow eucalyptus trees on government land.
World media take note
Hiremath's organisation found that the eucalyptus trees had made the land dry and infertile, while the pesticides used there had been affecting people's health in nearby villages. It was in protest against this that he initiated the famous 'pluck and plant Satyagraha,' where about 100 young volunteers entered the plantation and plucked out the eucalyptus plants and planted fruit bearing saplings in their place.
The campaign captured the imagination of people everywhere, and got widespread attention both nationally and internationally. Foreign television channels like Channel 4 and Discovery sent their crew to the spot to make documentary-length films on this unique protest. The BBC journalist Charles Pye-Smith wrote about it thus: "Nowhere in India has the power of the meek to change the course of history been more brilliantly demonstrated than in Kusnur where the people cast themselves in the role of David against the Goliath of Karnataka Pulpwood Limited…"
They eventually won the case against the company and the state government, and the plant was forced to shut down in 1992.
In 1987, the SPS was among the organisations instrumental in starting the 'Save Western Ghats Movement,' a pioneering civil society movement against deforestation in this ecologically fragile region, which called for conservation and protection of natural resources without affecting the local people's livelihoods.
In 1989, forced to recognise the organisation's achievements, the Union Environment and Forests Department gave them the Indira Gandhi Environment Award for the year, ironically, named after the very leader Hiremath was fiercely opposed to in the early days of his activism in the US.
In 1992, Hiremath formed the National Committee for Protection of Natural Resources, which sought to play an active role in the shaping of environmental laws, forest regulations and rehabilitation of forest-dwellers displaced in the name of conservation and development projects. He didn't know it then, but the biggest battle for the NCPNR and Hiremath himself lay ahead, against some of Karnataka's most powerful politicians and business interests in a series of cases that exposed one of the biggest scams in the nation's history.
Around this time, the Hiremath-led SPS also seeded two organisations, the Jana Vikas Andolana (JVA) and Grama Ganarajya Vedike (GGV), to extend its reach and involve more people in working towards rural empowerment in accordance with the principle of 'Azaadi se Swaraj' (from independence to self-rule). Their agenda was to strengthen local self-governance by deepening the Grama Sabha and Panchayat Raj systems. In the early 1990s, the GGV became the number one platform for people's struggles in the state. It worked for changes in the Panchayat Raj Act of 1993, which resulted in the Panchayat Raj Amendment Act of 2003.
Their successes brought nationwide attention to Hiremath as one of the key architects of these changes. In 1996, he was contacted by an activist group that was fighting the local timber mafia in Madhya Pradesh's Bastar (now in Chhattisgarh). The mafia was felling valuable trees like teak on a large scale in a forest area whose traditional ownership rights rested with the adivasis. They had colluded with some adivasi chieftains and forest officials, and unleashed violence on anyone who dared to stand in their way. The District Collector had written to the government about the deforestation and atrocities against the tribals, but nothing had happened.
He readily volunteered to help, and travelled to Bastar to start a campaign. He also filed a PIL in the Supreme Court requesting the apex body to look into the matter, which soon bore fruit in the form of a CBI inquiry. Based on the findings, the court ruled in favour of the adivasis and prohibited tree-cutting in the area for three years.
Recalling the experience, Hiremath says, "All our movements, including the one in Chhattisgarh, taught us valuable lessons. They not only taught us to organise people and put up protests but also to use the law to our advantage. All this proved to be of great use in our fight against illegal mining in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh."
The big fight
Illegal mining has always gone on in the state, especially in the ore-rich northern areas. But from the late 1990s, spurred by demand from a rapidly industrialising China, it reached an all-time high. There were reports about hundreds of acres of forest land being encroached and mined, and in one particularly alarming case, that of a stretch of several km on the Karnataka-Andhra border being erased as a result of extensive mining.
It was a scandal of staggering proportions— it has since been estimated that the loss to the exchequer amounted to at least Rs 50,000 crore—but having profited from it directly, neither the ruling BJP nor the opposition parties would take a stand against it at the time. Intellectuals and cultural figures held protests, but fell silent after some time. The media too carried only limited coverage, and rumours floated around that many journalists had been paid off to keep their mouths shut.
Hiremath had been spearheading a campaign against illegal mining in the state from 2006 onwards, but in his characteristically methodical fashion, would make his move legally only in 2009, when he had accumulated enough evidence. He made several field trips to the Bellary area, and procured incriminating documents that revealed plunder of natural resources on an unprecedented scale, all of it with the knowledge of government officials who chose to keep quiet or were intimidated into silence.
In November 2009, he filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court through leading advocate Prashant Bhushan (later of Team Anna fame), against the widespread illegal mining and export of iron ore in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The supporting documents that Hiremath filed ran to about 1,400 pages. In addition, he filed a separate petition on the Belekeri port scam, wherein nearly 35 lakh metric tonnes of iron ore that had been confiscated by government officials, was surreptitiously exported, causing a loss of Rs 16,000 crore in royalties.
The documents submitted showed that widespread illegal mining had taken place in the state under chief ministers SM Krishna and N Dharam Singh of the Congress, HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S), but above all under the BJP's BS Yeddyurappa, when it reached unprecedented proportions. Mining baron-turnedpolitician (and kingmaker of Karnataka politics) Janardhana Reddy, who was also the tourism minister of the state at the time, was revealed to be the kingpin of the mining racket based in Bellary. Others named included current BSR Congress leader Sriramulu and current tourism minister Anand Singh. The documents also accused Congress leader DK Shivakumar of indulging in illegal mining during his tenure as a minister with the SM Krishna government.
Since the ruling government and officials were hand in glove with the mining lords, indicting them wasn't easy. But Hiremath was determined and made a 499 page list of reasons why mining licences issued to some firms ought to be cancelled. The greed for mining was such that the Reddy brothers had even demolished the historic Suggalamma temple to get at the iron ore beneath it. Hiremath submitted evidence for all of his allegations to the Supreme Court appointed committee, which accepted them and cancelled the mining licence of the Reddy brothers. The CBI raided Janardhana Reddy's house and arrested him. He was sent to jail, where he remains to this date.
It was also a petition filed by Hiremath that helped topple the powerful BS Yeddyurappa from the chief minister's chair. A Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry found that Yeddyurappa had misused his position to denotify land for two mining companies, Jindal Steel Works and South West Mining Ltd, in return for large donations to a 'trust' run by his family members.
When asked if he has faced any serious threats for his campaign against illegal mining, Hiremath responds with equanimity, "Threat calls are part of our work, we cannot ignore them or take them too seriously. But when it came to our anti-mining campaign, what really saved us was that the Reddy brothers had totally underestimated us. They never thought that we could take them on, and were totally unprepared. In fact, we faced more pressure from Yeddyurappa's people after we went after him in the land denotification case."
SPS now has 17 full time volunteers who work in the field. Their primary task is to collect information about issues affecting people, and to use a variety of methods including RTI applications to address them. Hiremath himself survives on the Rs 15,000 salary he receives from the organisation, which also funds his expenses when he's travelling.
The soft-spoken Hiremath lives a simple life, shuns modern amenities and travels second class by train. He simply shrugs off his victories, saying they come from people's power and in making the best use of the law.
Chatting with him at the Majestic lodge room rented by SPS, which serves as his permanent office and residence in Bangalore, we ask him what inspires him to take on the bigwigs.
"My mother inspires me. After my father's death she took upon herself the responsibility of the family. Her courage inspires me. She showed me that if a person decides on something, she can do anything. People from my village encouraged me to pursue my education. Then there were the words of Shivaram Karanth (renowned Kannada writer and Jnanpith awardee), who on a visit to our school, reminded us of what we owe to society. He said, "We talk about our debts to our parents, teachers and elders. But we don't think about our debt to society. If we ignore what happens around us, it grows more and more unhealthy until its evils spread to the entire nation." His words had a great impact on me; it was as if he had said it just for me," he says with a smile.
There are plenty more examples that inspired him, he says: from the ideas of socialist leaders Jayaprakash Narayan and HV Kamat, to his IIT friends working in the rural areas, from the late Dr Rajnikant Arole and his wife Mabelle, a couple who worked to improve rural health in Maharasthra's Jamkhed, to some models of primary agriculture practiced by Kerala farmers, and so on.
When asked which books he would credit with shaping his thinking, he lists, apart from Small is Beautiful, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre's work on Indian independence, Freedom at Midnight.
"More than all this, I was motivated the most by Dr BR Ambedkar's last speech to the Constituent Assembly, delivered on November 25, 1949, which I find relevant to our predicament today. It was his concern for the underprivileged and the rural communities that turned me to the villages," he says. He then goes on to quote from Newton, "If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have stood upon the shoulders of giants."
Hiremath believes that more than ideals, it is trust and sincerity that is required for a struggle like his. "That way, people will stand by you, and you need not fear anything. Our movement had always adopted the Gandhian methods, perhaps why the people, courts and the media have always stood by us," he says.
Hiremath retains his faith in democracy. "Both good and bad can happen in the system. Honesty still exists in society. Good people are still around. It's because of them that we have won," he says.
His work provides him with peace of mind. "Justice has prevailed. What else does one need?" he says, looking back at a life well lived.
‘We can’t ignore threat calls, or take them too seriously’
The war against illegal mining
2006: SR Hiremath starts campaign against illegal mining in Karnataka
2008 December 18: The then Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde submits his report on illegal mining to the government
2009 January 27: Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde meets Hiremath
April 29: The then Andhra Pradesh chief minister, the late YSR Reddy tells the Supreme Court that there is no illegal mining, and so there's no need of investigation
November 17:Hiremath, along with two of his activist friends, Vishnu Kamat and Ravi Kangavi, files a public interest case against illegal mining In the Supreme Court
2010 July 26: Karnataka government bans export of ore from 10 ports
2011 April 15: The Supreme Courtappointed Central Empowered Committe submits its report detailing extensive illegal mining
April 29: The Supreme Court directs the Karnataka government to close 19 mines
July 27: State Lokayukta files its report on illegal mining to the Karnataka government
July 29: Supreme Court bans all mining in Bellary district
July 31: Faced with corruption charges, including those related to mining, Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa resigns
September 31: Mining lord Janardhana Reddy arrested for his role in illegal mining
2012 April 12: Supreme Court orders CBI inquiry against Yeddyurappa and his sons for illegally denotifying land to help mining companies in return for favours
August 6: Karnataka Milk Federation president Somashekara Reddy is arrested on charges of bribing a judge to grant bail to his brother Janardhana Reddy
The Reddys underestimated Hiremath’s strengths
Indira Gandhi had his passport impounded by the United States
He topped his class always, but had to work as a field labourer