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
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