Gramdan Villages in India

After Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, political leadership of his movement fell to Nehru.  Spiritual leadership fell to Vinoba Bhava.  Gandhi’s “constructive program” for post-colonial India had envisioned a decentralized society, built on the basis of autonomous, self-reliant villages.  Gandhi had also
Gandhi with spinning wheelarticulated a concept of “trusteeship,” asserting that land and other assets should be held in trust for the poor.  Vinoba Bhave made Gandhi’s vision his own and inherited Gandhi’s concern for the plight of the rural poor.

For 13 years, beginning in 1951, Vinoba marched across India with
throngs of followers.  Walking from village to village, he asked rich Gramdan March in 1960- Acharya Vinoba Bhave at Sirsalandowners to donate a portion of their land to impoverished families.  Hundreds of landowners generously responded.  The “Land Gift” (Bhoodan) Movement was born.  At its height, Vinoba and his followers were collecting 1000-3000 acres a day.  By 1954, over 3 million acres had been distributed to the poor and Vinoba was being hailed as the “Walking Saint of India.”

But poor peasants had a hard time hanging onto the small plots they were given.  Much of their land was quickly lost to moneylenders and speculators.  Seeing this, Vinoba recalled one of Gandhi’s earlier statements about land reform: “It is far better for a hundred families in a village to cultivate their land collectively and divide the income Vinoba Bhave-ink portraittherefrom than to divide the land any how into a hundred portions.”  Vinoba slowly transformed the Land Gift program into the “Village Gift” program – the Bhoodan Movement became the Gramdan Movement.  He began insisting that any gifts of land must be donated to entire villages, not to impoverished individuals.  The land would be held in trust by a village council – and leased – to local farmers.

TIME Magazine-May 11 1953The first Gramdan village, Mongroth, was created in 1952.  It would take another three years, however, for the next crop of Gramdan villages to appear and begin gradually supplanting the Bhoodan Movement.  In 1953, Vinoba and his followers initiated a forceful campaign of land reform in Orissa (or Odisha), a state located in the northeastern part of India.  By the time Vinoba left the state in October 1955, there were 812 Gramdan villages.

Vinoba Bhave-photoAt the Movement’s high-water mark in the 1960s, more than 160,000 Gramdan Villages had been established, but the Movement ebbed in the decade that followed.  Gramdan had been successful mainly in remote tribal villages where class differentiation had not yet emerged and where there was little disparity in the ownership of land between rich and poor.  Gramdan had found less acceptance among villages in the plains or among  villages near urban centers.  By the 1970s, few new villages were being brought into the program and lands held in trust by many older Gramdan villages were reverting to individual ownership.  By 2009, only 5000 Gramdan villages remained in all of India.

Ralph Borsodi was teaching in India during the period of Gramdan’s greatest prevalence, influence, and hope.  He saw in these local experiments in land reform an affirmation of his own ideas about rebuilding rural economies on the basis of self-sufficient villages on leased land.  Returning to the United States in 1966, he founded the International Independence Institute to provide training and technical assistance for people who were interested in promoting rural development in the United States and in other countries along the decentralist lines he had witnessed in India.  The community land trust was born, in part, out of Borsodi’s dream of sowing a Gramdan Movement in America.

Key Dates

1869:  Birth of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

1895:  Birth of Vinoba Bhave.

1916:  Vinoba reads an essay by Gandhi and decides to discontinue his formal education and to become involved with Gandhi’s call for India’s spiritual – and political – renewal.

1923:  Vinoba begins publishing a monthly newsletter, Maharashtra Dharma.  It later becomes a weekly and continues for three years.

1930:  Gandhi leads a 250-mile march challenging the British-imposed tax on salt (the Dandi Salt March).

1932:  Bhave is sent to jail by the British colonial government because of his activism against British rule.  There he gives a series of informal lectures about the Bhagavad Gita to his fellow prisoners, later published in a widely translated book Talks on the Gita.

1940:  Vinoba Bhave is chosen by Gandhi to be the first individual Satyagrahi.

1942:  Gandhi calls on the British to “quit India.”

1947:  British rule comes to an end in India.  The country is immediately partitioned into India and Pakistan.

1948: Mahatma Gandhi is assassinated

1951:  The Bhoodan Movement is launched in Pochampally, India by Vinoba Bhave on April 18th after a rich landowner responds to Vinoba’s appeal and donates 100 acres of land to a group of 80 impoverished families.

1952:  The first Gramdan Village is created.

1953:  Vinoba Bhave appears on the cover of TIME Magazine (May 11).

1955:  The Bhoodan Movement is supplanted by the Gramdan Movement during Vinoba’s march through the northeastern state of Orissa.  Vinoba and his followers begin concentrating their land reform efforts on the “village gift” program.

1958:  Vinoba is the first recipient of the international Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.

1960:  In December, Bayard Rustin and George Willougby, national director for the Committee on Non-Violent Action, travel together to Calcutta to meet Vinoba Bhave. They spend several days with him, trekking from village to village.

1961:  Ralph Borsodi accepts a job teaching economics at a university in India.  He is exposed to – and enormously impressed by – the Gramdan Movement, which reaches its height during Borsodi’s time in India.

1966:  Ralph Borsodi returns to America after five years in India.  He is introduced to Bob Swann through a mutual friend, Porter Sargent.

1967:  The International Independence Institute is founded in Exeter, New Hampshire.  Bob Swann is hired as one of two “field secretaries” and assigned responsibility for finding ways of transplanting India’s Gramdan model to America.

1978:  Bob and Marjorie Swann travel to India.  Paying a visit to Vinoba, they tell him about the fledgling CLT movement in the USA, modeled in part on India’s Gramdan villages.

1982:  Death of Vinoba Bhave.

Further Reading

  • Borsodi, Ralph, “The Possessional Problem,” in Seventeen Problems of Man and Society.Anand, India: Charotar Book Stall, 1968.  Repr. in Green Revolution, 1978; ed. and rev. by Gordon Lameyer and Lydia Ratliff.  Reprinted in The Community Land Trust Reader, John Emmeus Davis, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2010).
  • Chester Bowles, The New Dimensions of Peace (Greenwood Press, 1955).
  • Tharaileth Koshy Oommen, Charisma Stability And Change: An Analysis of Bhoodan-Gramdan Movement in India (Thomson Press, 2001).
  • Mohandas K. Gandhi, Trusteeship (Ahemadabad, India: Navajivan Trust, 1960).
  • V. Raghunathan, Biographical Sketch of Acharya Vinoba Bhave (Raj Publications, 2006).Book Cover
  • Mark Shepard, “The King of Kindness: Vinoba Bhave and His Nonviolent Revolution,” in Gandhi Today: A Report on Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors (Seven Locks Press, 1987). Reprinted in The Community Land Trust Reader, John Emmeus Davis, ed.), (Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2010).
  • Bob Swann, “The Community Land Trust—Borsodi and Vinoba Bhave,” Chapter 18 in Peace, Civil Rights, and the Search for Community: An Autobiography. Great Barrington, MA: Schumacher Society for a New Economics, 2001).
  • Hallam Tennyson, The Saint on the March (Gollancz , 1955).

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