Breaking stereotypes, 33-year-old Chhavi Rajawat, elected head of Soda in Rajasthan, is determined to make her village a model of development 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 last 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 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 drought-hit 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 Rs.3,500 (US$ 56) per month. Ranging from water 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-Poverty World 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.” Courtesy : Friday/Gulf News