The grit and gump­tion of Jabna Chauhan

At 22 and a half years, she be­came the coun­try’s youngest sarpanch. She has since car­ried out cam­paigns to re­form her vil­lage

Business Standard - - DEMOCRACY AT WORK - ADITI PHAD­NIS

Jabna Chauhan, In­dia’s youngest sarpanch, in­ter­cedes se­ri­ously. “22 and a half. That’s how old I was when I was elected sarpanch, not 22,” she said, as if to ex­plain that she was not too young to do a job few con­sider at her age.

Chauhan is 23 now and sarpanch of the Thar­joon pan­chayat in the Mandi district of Hi­machal Pradesh. She is also a jour­nal­ist — and the only woman of her age in her pan­chayat.

It wasn’t her idea to con­test the pan­chayat polls, but her mother’s. Chauhan used to raise lo­cal is­sues through the TV chan­nel, Ori­en­tal Times, where she worked. She gained a pro­file be­cause the ad­min­is­tra­tion be­gan lis­ten­ing to her. “I wailed to my par­ents, ‘not a sin­gle per­son will vote for me’, but they pushed me to con­test” she said. “At first I did no cam­paign­ing — I was too em­bar­rassed. But then I thought how hu­mil­i­ated I would feel if I lost the elec­tion. So I be­gan in­tro­duc­ing my­self to people and promis­ing that I would take up their prob­lems just as I do as a jour­nal­ist.”

After she was elected, much to her sur­prise, she started on a sin­gle-minded cam­paign — get­ting men to stop drink­ing. “In our area, al­co­hol is central to ev­ery­thing — births, deaths, rit­u­als...” she said. “The tem­ple of a lo­cal god­dess, Lam­bo­dari Mata, falls in my re­gion. It can get up to 10,000 devo­tees. The of­fer­ing people make to her is a bot­tle of liquor. If all of them of­fer even one bot­tle… I just de­cided I had to elim­i­nate liquor from our lives.”

Chauhan was at­tacked for her stand . “Part of it was be­cause of my age,” she said. “Men used to ac­cost me and say: ‘what do you know? Who are you to stop us from drink­ing?’ I thought that if they were at­tack­ing me like this, what must they be do­ing to their wives and chil­dren at home?”

She suc­ceeded. If not al­to­gether al­co­hol-free, con­sump­tion of liquor has dras­ti­cally re­duced in Thar­joon. If some­one is found drink­ing, he or she can be fined ~5,000. A sec­ond of­fence at­tracts a fine dou­ble that amount.

Then she got to­gether with vil­lage women to make toi­lets, fired by Naren­dra Modi’s Swachh Bharat cam­paign. “I went to the in­ter­net and found out how we could evac­u­ate the dirty wa­ter and reuse it to wa­ter the fields,” she said. Chauhan cre­ated a What­sApp group for women and wants to start a school for them for em­broi­dery and tai­lor­ing.

Chauhan has a BA de­gree and per­haps only she knows how tough it was for her to study this far: Her col­lege was 40 km from home so she would walk 20 km to the bus stop and travel an­other 20 km by bus to at­tend classes. On the re­turn jour­ney, it was the same rou­tine — travel by bus and then walk 20 km. She now wants a col­lege near her home so that girls like her­self can study. “I come from a very poor fam­ily,” she said. “There were times when I thought I should just give up study­ing. But my re­solve paid off.” The high point of her life was be­ing in­vited to the pre­miere of Toi­let: Ek Prem Katha, where she was hon­oured by ac­tor Ak­shay Ku­mar. She was also in­vited to an all-In­dia con­fer­ence of sarpanches at Gand­hi­na­gar where she was feted.

Chauhan has no par­tic­u­lar plans for the fu­ture. But she is clear she doesn’t want to fight an As­sem­bly elec­tion. “I have made a dif­fer­ence in the place where I am. I’m happy with that,” she said.

Jabna Chauhan has been able to re­duce con­sump­tion of al­co­hol in her pan­chayat

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