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Journalism of Courage

Unsung Heroes: S R Hiremath, an unassuming activist who has devoted his life to the people of Karnataka

Fighting for the cause of people keeps me happy and makes my life meaningful, says S R Hiremath, whose complaint exposed the Karnataka mining scam.

Sangayya Rachayya Hiremath

In 1979, a 36-year-old engineer from India with an excellent job and an impressive salary in the United States of America decided to give it all up and return home to Karnataka’s Dharwad. Sangayya Rachayya Hiremath was driven by his desire to be part of the social change in rural Karnataka and to fight against corruption. Forty-three years later, social and environmental activist Hiremath’s life stands as testimony to his dedication to his vision.

“There were several reasons to return to India. One among them was that I had made a promise to my mother that I would come back to India and work. But in the back of my mind, I knew I needed to contribute something to India, especially to the rural areas,” says Hiremath, now 78. “I was also influenced by the JP [Jayaprakash Narayan] movement and set up India Development Services (IDS).”

After returning to Dharwad in 1979, Hiremath started working in three villages, focusing on empowering villagers, economically and socially, with inclusiveness. “Every village we worked in, we saw that only 5-10 per cent of the villagers were decision-makers in the welfare of villagers,” says Hiremath. “The marginalised section of society and women are usually never considered. But when our project is implemented, at least 70 per cent of the villagers will have a say in the decision,” he adds.

With Hiremath concentrating on working in rural areas, his initial activism went unnoticed. In 2011, however, Hiremath’s complaint led to the Karnataka Lokayukta submitting a report that exposed one of the country’s biggest mining scams, worth a whopping Rs 60,000 crore, and led to the arrest of then Karnataka chief minister B S Yediyurappa. His relentless pursuit also led to a ban on mining in the state and the arrest of Janardhan Reddy, then tourism minister. Hiremath became a household name in Karnataka.

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Even as his fight to expose the scam was underway, a set of politicians tried to silence him, he says. “There were a lot of people checking my background and some of them tried to portray that my family in the US was benefitting but they failed. Some vested national media persons also arrived to malign my image but the local journalists in Dharwad knew who I was and even those attempts failed,” he recalls.

Though Hiremath is a known name in Karnataka today, his simplicity and unassuming nature have ensured that he has maintained a low profile. With his shirt tucked in and a bag hanging on his left shoulder, Hiremath can be seen using public transport and visiting government offices, seeking documents.

Hailing from a poor family, Hiremath was influenced by Vachana literature, a form of rhythmic writing in Kannada that flourished in the 12th century as a part of the Sharana movement at a young age. Born in Belavanaki village in north Karnataka’s Gadag district, Hiremath later moved to Medleri village, now a part of Haveri district, and continues to live there even today.

Despite losing his father at the age of 5, Hiremath was a meritorious student. He secured the second rank in the Class X exams and went on to complete mechanical engineering in 1967. He subsequently moved to the United States of America to pursue an MS in operations research from Kansas State University and later completed a post-graduation in business administration from Illinois Institute of Technology.

Despite his background, his education in India as well as in the US progressed smoothly because of a scholarship. Hiremath was an investment banker who had worked in several public and private companies, including the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Asked if he regretted his decision to leave his job in the US and return to Karnataka, Hiremath says he only felt so once. “In 1982, when I was working for the development of rural areas, a mob came near my house late at night saying that I was rigging the money that was to be paid to the villagers. I told them that I would give an account of each and every paisa. That night, I felt, ‘Why did I leave my job and come to India?’ But the next morning, the thought vanished after a large group of villagers stood by me strongly and confronted those who questioned me,” he says.

Hiremath has two children and four grandchildren. “They ask me why I have to do this. ‘You can come and spend your life in peace here’ they say. Everyone does what keeps them happy and everyone wants a meaningful life. Fighting for the cause of people keeps me happy and makes my life meaningful and I will continue to do it till my last breath,” says Hiremath.

Besides IDS, Hiremath has been part of many organisations, including the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board and the state-level steering committee for the Western Ghats Forestry project, among others. Founded in 1982, his organisation Samaj Parivartana Samudaya has been instrumental in fighting for the environment, against corruption and championing other social issues.

Asked if he faced threats in his career as an activist, Hiremath says, “I did not get threats as such because the kind of documentation I did on issues was very strong…Once, when the mining scam was exposed, some people tried to approach me through my friends to ‘settle’ the matter…But I don’t call it a threat.”

Hiremath looks back at his 43-year crusade to empower Indian villages, fight against corruption and protect the interests – of the environment and the citizens – with fondness, tinged with disappointment. “My aim was a corruption-free and transformed vibrant democracy. But today, corruption is rampant and there is an undeclared emergency which makes me really concerned,” he says.

First published on: 01-10-2022 at 01:55:05 pm
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