Break­ing stereo­types, 33-year-old Ch­havi Ra­jawat, elected head of Soda in Ra­jasthan, is de­ter­mined tomake­her vil­lage a model of de­vel­op­ment in In­dia, says Nil­ima Pathak

Friday - - Contents -

Meet 33-year-old Ch­havi Ra­jawat, the first fe­male vil­lage chief in In­dia.

It was late evening when Ch­havi Ra­jawat and her fa­ther Naren­dra Singh were walk­ing home after meet­ing some friends in their vil­lage, Soda, in Ra­jasthan, In­dia. Ab­sorbed in con­ver­sa­tion about the day’s work and mak­ing plans for the next day, they failed to no­ticed a bab­ble of voices that was com­ing from afar.

But the mo­ment they turned a cor­ner, they saw an angry mob of around 20 peo­ple, armed with sticks and iron rods, block­ing the way.

“I’d known that my life and my fam­ily’s was un­der threat ever since I had gone ahead with build­ing an IT cen­tre on a piece of land that a few po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful peo­ple in the vil­lage had been claim­ing was theirs,” says Ch­havi, who is the only woman vil­lage chief in In­dia to hold a Masters in business man­age­ment and, at 33, is also the youngest woman chief.

“But I was shocked to see the armed mob ready to at­tack us.”

Be­fore they could re­act, the angry crowd rushed to­wards them and started at­tack­ing them with iron rods and sticks. As Ch­havi started shout­ing for help, her fa­ther suf­fered a se­ri­ous blow and fell. Ch­havi sus­tained an in­jury to her head too, but luck­ily, be­fore more harm could be done, a few other vil­lagers who heard the com­mo­tion rushed to their aid and chased away the mob.

While her fa­ther had to be ad­mit­ted to a lo­cal hos­pi­tal, Ch­havi was given first aid and al­lowed to go home. “It was a scary sce­nario, but it’s not the first time I have been at­tacked,” she says.

She may be one of the savvi­est sarpanches (elected vil­lage chiefs) in In­dia and has re­ceived sev­eral awards in­clud­ing the Young In­dian Leader by TV chan­nel IBN Live for bring­ing far-reach­ing de­vel­op­ment projects to her re­mote vil­lage, but threats and at­tacks this one that took place ear­ler this year are all in a day’s work.

“I know there will al­ways be a few fringe el­e­ments who may be op­posed to de­vel­op­men­tal plans but once they re­alise how much the projects are go­ing to help them and the com­mu­nity, they will eas­ily come around,” she says.

Thanks to her ini­tia­tive, Soda is far ahead of other vil­lages in terms of de­vel­op­ment. Among other things, it re­cently earned a po­si­tion on the in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy map of In­dia when it be­came the first vil­lage in the coun­try to be­come com­pletely IT-en­abled.

Un­til re­cent years, most homes in Soda lacked toi­lets, elec­tric­ity sup­ply was er­ratic be­cause of faulty lines, lit­er­acy lev­els were be­low 50 per cent and the fear of drought was never far away. With agri­cul­ture the only source of in­come, res­i­dents were to­tally de­pen­dent on sea­sonal rain but all ground­wa­ter in the vil­lage was con­tam­i­nated by pol­lu­tants from neigh­bour­ing fac­to­ries, so crops of­ten suf­fered. This has now changed since Ch­havi as­sumed charge four years ago.

One of the first things she did after be­com­ing vil­lage chief was to tackle the power prob­lem. “With only three to four hours of elec­tric­ity ev­ery day, kids were un­able to pre­pare for exams and the farm­ers were un­able to set up pumps to ir­ri­gate their lands,” she says. Look­ing for eco-friendly

‘Ch­havi’s grand­fa­ther did a lot of good, so we felt she would be able to con­tinue the tra­di­tion’

ways to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion, she got in touch with a so­lar power company in New Delhi and ar­ranged to in­stall so­lar lamps in key ar­eas of the vil­lage. She is plan­ning to ex­pand this to in­clude all the houses so clean re­new­able en­ergy will be avail­able across the vil­lage.

Another tar­get is to con­struct toi­lets. She is rais­ing funds from sup­port­ers, cor­po­rate houses and the gov­ern­ment in a bid to en­sure ev­ery house has a toi­let. Thanks to her ini­tia­tive 300 of the 800 homes now have them.

And that’s not all. A vo­ca­tional train­ing cen­tre she set up for women has also be­gun to yield re­sults. For in­stance, Asha, 42, a widow learnt how to source, grind and pack spices, which she sells in towns. The earn­ings have al­lowed her to im­prove the qual­ity of life for her four chil­dren, aged 13 to 20.

Says Ch­havi, “Asha took ad­van­tage of en­trepreneur­ship schemes we launched by pro­duc­ing and mar­ket­ing spices called Spices of Soda. We pro­vided her the ma­chin­ery with the help of a char­ity called I-Cre­ate. We are also help­ing her sell the prod­ucts in ci­ties.”

Ch­havi, who is sin­gle, is an ex­am­ple of an In­dian woman who be­lieves in smash­ing stereo­types. She ad­mits it was not easy break­ing into the world of vil­lage chiefs, a post tra­di­tion­ally held by el­derly male vil­lagers who were of­ten il­lit­er­ate and had deeply con­ser­va­tive at­ti­tudes.

After tak­ing an MBA de­gree, she worked in the sales di­vi­sion of a ma­jor news­pa­per be­fore join­ing the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try, then a mo­bile phone net­work firm where she was head of the cor­po­rate sales team.

“I liked the cor­po­rate sec­tor and en­joyed my time there,” she says. But it was dur­ing her work in the city that she re­alised that “while in the ur­ban ar­eas, de­vel­op­ment and wealth had in­creased, in most vil­lages the con­di­tions had de­te­ri­o­rated”.

Dur­ing her vis­its to her vil­lage, she no­ticed that the vil­lagers’ lives were go­ing from bad to worse.

“My grand­fa­ther, an ex-army of­fi­cer, had been unan­i­mously elected sarpanch of Soda three times dur­ing the 1980s and early 1990s. He brought about a lot of de­vel­op­ment in the vil­lage – dig­ging wells, im­prov­ing hy­giene lev­els – dur­ing his 15 years as sarpanch [each term is five years],” she says. “How­ever, his suc­ces­sors could not con­tinue the good work and de­vel­op­ment and con­di­tions de­te­ri­o­rated.”

Since she had grown up in the vil­lage and be­cause her grand­fa­ther was a sarpanch, almost ev­ery­one in the vil­lage knew her well and re­spected the fam­ily.

It was dur­ing one of her vis­its to the vil­lage four years ago that a few vil­lagers turned up at her house and asked that she be­come the new sarpanch.

Says Hari Kr­is­han, a vil­lager, “Ch­havi’s grand­fa­ther did a lot of good things for the vil­lage so we felt she would be able to con­tinue the tra­di­tion and pro­tect our rights, fight for us if needed and work hon­estly to­wards the de­vel­op­ment of Soda.”

“The mo­ment they asked me, I de­cided to give up my job and work to im­prove the plight of the vil­lagers,” Ch­havi says. So she de­cided to meet with as many lo­cal peo­ple as pos­si­ble so that she could un­der­stand their prob­lems bet­ter. Go­ing door-to-door she sought their views.

“Their main re­quire­ments were reg­u­lar potable wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and roads,” she says, adding that she knew it wouldn’t be easy. “Un­like in ci­ties, de­vel­op­ment work in vil­lages can be a gi­gan­tic task.”

So, while win­ning the sarpanch elec­tion was easy for Ch­havi, she faced the hard facts when it came to cross­ing bu­reau­cratic hur­dles. “There were a few peo­ple who found it un­com­fort­able when I, a woman, be­came a vil­lage head. But I was very re­spect­ful to the cul­ture and although firm, was never over­bear­ing.”

How­ever, one of the big­gest prob­lems she faced was red tape. “It was stalling many of Soda’s projects in­clud­ing con­struct­ing a reser­voir that would help the wa­ter woes of the peo­ple.”

In ad­di­tion to the lack of wa­ter for agri­cul­tural ir­ri­ga­tion, safe drink­ing wa­ter has been the fore­most is­sue in Soda, so there was an ur­gent need to build rain­wa­ter-har­vest­ing reser­voirs. But Ch­havi dis­cov­ered that many projects were not able to be cov­ered un­der gov­ern­ment schemes. It was here that her MBA came in handy. “Rather than wait for the gov­ern­ment to get mov­ing, I de­cided to rely on avail­able re­sources,’’ she says.

Turn­ing to her fam­ily and friends for fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance and us­ing avail­able farm­ing equip­ment, she got a few vil­lagers to­gether and de­cided to de-silt the reser­voir.

“I also de­cided to in­crease its ca­pac­ity to har­vest rain­wa­ter and pro­vide safe potable wa­ter that would pro­vide some respite to the droughthit vil­lage.”

Ch­havi’s day be­gins early. “Ev­ery day is a Mon­day! Peo­ple come in with a whole lot of prob­lems – at home and the of­fice,” says Ch­havi, who earns a salary of Rs3,500 (Dh208) per month. Rang­ing from wa­ter

‘I wanted vil­lagers to be par­tic­i­pa­tory agents, rather than just giv­ing things to the­mon­aplat­ter’

woes to fam­ily is­sues, she is ex­pected to in­ter­vene and help them with so­lu­tions. “I am work­ing with them 24/7,” she says.

She also makes sur­prise field vis­its to over­see projects be­ing ex­e­cuted to en­sure the work is be­ing car­ried out prop­erly.

“With so much to do, it is im­per­a­tive for me to also take up speak­ing en­gage­ments at con­fer­ences at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals to raise funds for the vil­lage. I want to soon see Soda as a model vil­lage.”

One of the big­gest chal­lenges she says she faced was in at­tempt­ing to change mind­sets. Here again her aca­demic back­ground came to her aid. “Most of the vil­lagers know about rights, but not their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. They are aware that the gov­ern­ment has schemes and the pan­chayat has to ex­e­cute the project, but what they shy away from is the up­keep of the project. Their de­pen­dency upon the gov­ern­ment or the elected coun­cil is so high that the small­est of is­sues, which could be re­solved through their par­tic­i­pa­tion, are left unat­tended.”

She made them un­der­stand that they could be part­ners in progress and be­come key stake­hold­ers in the projects com­ing up in the vil­lage.

“I wanted them to be par­tic­i­pa­tory agents in the changes hap­pen­ing rather than just giv­ing things to them on a plat­ter,” she says. “I de­cided to see my­self as a fa­cil­i­ta­tor, try­ing to con­nect the dots in the hope of cre­at­ing a model vil­lage. I want to cre­ate a model that can then be repli­cated to other vil­lages.”

Recog­nis­ing the need to em­power the women and youth of the vil­lage who would be able to take her vi­sion for­ward, she de­cided to fo­cus on th­ese two groups.

She set up sev­eral projects in­clud­ing those that pro­vide women and youth the nec­es­sary skills and op­por­tu­ni­ties to be in­de­pen­dent. “I wanted to make ar­range­ments to pro­vide train­ing to vil­lagers and re­vive old crafts such as pot­tery and weav­ing.

“Another mis­sion is to help farm­ers sell their pro­duce by open­ing an out­let in Jaipur. They need fair prices and an out­let in the city would ben­e­fit them as well as the buy­ers. I’m work­ing to set up such a mar­ket. Ear­lier, we opened a shel­ter for stray cows to support and en­cour­age or­ganic farm­ing in our and neigh­bour­ing vil­lages.”

Although the vil­lage is pro­gress­ing, Ch­havi is not happy with the pace of de­vel­op­ment.

After be­com­ing the sarpanch, Ch­havi had at­tended the 11th Info-Pover­tyWorld Con­fer­ence held at the United Na­tions. She was in­vited to pro­vide an in­sight into the strug­gles in de­vel­op­ing ru­ral In­dia. “I put my words across on an in­ter­na­tional plat­form and gave them a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the is­sues we face. I hoped peo­ple and or­gan­i­sa­tions would come for­ward to adopt our vil­lage projects as ru­ral de­vel­op­ment can­not hap­pen with­out ex­ter­nal support.”

Sadly for her, noth­ing much came out of the con­fer­ence. “None of it has trans­lated into mean­ing­ful trac­tion for the vil­lage,” Ra­jawat elab­o­rates.

But she is not will­ing to give up. “I’ll surely make this a model vil­lage,” she says. “I have sev­eral more plans and will ini­ti­ate all of them.”

Ch­havi is plan­ning to de­velop a restau­rant that she has opened in Jaipur. “My fam­ily also op­er­ates a ho­tel. Part of the prof­its from the ho­tel and restau­rant will be chan­nelled into de­vel­op­men­tal works for the vil­lage be­cause I re­alise that sourc­ing funds is not easy.”

“What are my plans when my term as vil­lage chief ends? I haven’t thought about it. I would like to stand in the elec­tions again. But what­ever hap­pens, my fo­cus will con­tinue to be­ing a fa­cil­i­ta­tor for ru­ral In­dia.”

Ch­havi’s grand­fa­ther (left) poses with her team. As a for­mer chief of Soda, he in­spires her

The young sarpanch has a close re­la­tion­ship with her vil­lagers

With vol­un­teers on a clean­li­ness drive. Ch­havi wants vil­lagers to be part­ners in change

Ch­havi leads a pan­chayat – or lo­cal gov­ern­ment – meet­ing

The Soda chief says vil­lagers come to her home and her of­fice to list their com­plaints

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