Fascinated by the works and life of Mahatma Gandhi, he wondered if he could ever meet someone like Gandhi.
This desire led him to a book penned by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, who is considered to be Mahatma Gandhi’s spiritual successor. The book left him restless and with a strong desire to meet the author. In 1975, he participated in a padyatra which was promoting Sarvodaya ideology, Bhoodan movement, and other thoughts of Vinoba Bhave. His restlessness to meet Vinoba Bhave increased manifold after the padyatra experience and eventually in 1976, he met Acharya Vinoba Bhave.
And life changed thereafter for Ramesh Bhaiyya, then a 20-year-old youth from UP’s Shahjahanpur.
Such was the impact of Vinoba Bhave that a few years later Ramesh eventually left his job as a college clerk to dedicate his life to the cause of social welfare. His wife, Vimla Behan, gave him the much-needed support to pursue his cause.
“I wanted to touch lives. I was looking for problems to experiment with. This search took me to local police officials who told me that whenever they want to find a criminal, they go to a village named Ban-ka-Tara, which was infamous for the trade of country-made liquor. It was then that I decided to start my social experiments in this village,” says Ramesh.
He managed to secure a small patch of land in the village and the husband-wife duo laid foundation of the Vinoba Seva Ashram in 1980. The ashram, then, was nothing but a tattered hut. Today, it is spread over 11 acres of land, almost half of it is dedicated to a cow shed and bio-farming.
Sharing her initial experiences with Ban-ka-Tara, Vimla Behan tells, “We noticed that every household in the village was involved in liquor trade. They used to purchase a tin of molasses for Rs 5 and then make liquor worth Rs 65 from it. After all the overheads and commissions to middlemen and police, they were making a profit of Rs 30 on a daily basis. Everyone, except the women, seemed happy with what was happening in the village.”
The duo decided to focus on the women and make them self-reliant. Vimla started training them in stitching and tailoring and Ramesh managed to rope in the district administration for some logistic support. They also started teaching them about self-reliance and social service. Soon, the women started participating more in the ashram activities. They started earning about Rs 20 a day from the tailoring work. The women found it much better than the Rs 30 earned from a day’s toil in the liquor-making process and subsequent ill-treatment by the men.
“About a year and a half later, the men came forward and vowed to completely ban production, sale, and consumption of liquor. They could feel the positives of the ashram on their lives and wholeheartedly supported the cause of Vinoba Sewa Ashram,” tells a satisfied Ramesh.
“We believe it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness,” he says.
He adds, “If we find a problem, we try to address it locally and as a family. The approach has worked so far and it will work in future as well.”
Ever since that first ‘experiment’, as they call it, the couple has laid emphasis on overall development of village folk. They have thousands of volunteers spread across UP who are now promoting the idea of self-reliance, as conceived by Vinoba Bhave.
“If a village becomes self-reliant, the women become educated and economically independent, and the men become socially responsible, change is bound to happen. We have been trying to do just that,” tells Vimla, who started a school in the same area in 1982 with just three students.
“Today, the school has 1,400 students and it has in fact evolved into a college. We call it the Vinoba Vidyapeeth. Vinoba ji conceived the idea of ensuring access to education from KG and PG on one campus. After three decades, we have finally managed to do that,” says Ramesh.
A recipient of the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation Award, the couple has empowered and transformed lives of thousands of women through sericulture, carpet weaving, and other entrepreneurial works. Today, there are about 150 volunteers who live on the ashram campus and work, while there are 5,000 others spread across the state.
Talking about their overarching vision, Ramesh explains, “Our mission and vision is reflected in the name of our ashram. The word Vinoba encompasses teachings of Vinoba. The word 'seva' reminds us of being a servant of humanity, so much so that it is a medium to spread the thoughts of Vinoba. And lastly, the word 'ashram' conveys the thought that we have to live as one big family.”
Recognising village as the basic unit for development, Vinoba Seva Ashram has made considerable progress in the past decades and today, several awards and recognitions later, the couple is happy. But they don't plan to stop.
“We can do nothing else other than what we’ve been doing. So, we’ll do this till we can. And it is all a big family, which we have to take care of. Once we are gone, our two sons Mohit and Mudit will continue the modest works we have been trying to do. It is a big world and much more needs to be done. We wish and pray that more and more people take to the idea of selfless service,” tells Vimla as Ramesh nods in agreement.