@VillageSoda is what she calls herself on Twitter — Chhavi Rajawat holds the position of sarpanch, village Soda, block Malpura, district Tonk, State Rajasthan. Elected as sarpanch in 2011, Rajawat is now running her second consecutive tenure as the head of her village. We caught up with the 37-year-old woman spearheading development in Soda, a village 60 km from state capital Jaipur, sans any political back-up.
Tell us about your journey and why you chose to do what you do?
I didn’t. The village residents did. It was a reserved seat for women in 2010. I agreed. Around 2009-10, the area faced one of its worst droughts, so much so that there was no water, no fodder for cattle, cattle were dying. It is an agrarian economy and the groundwater is insufficient for irrigation. So the farming is completely rain-fed. That’s when I thought that if I, as the daughter of the village (she hails from Soda) didn’t come forward, then how can I expect an outsider to do so? That’s where the journey began.
The first tenure was more about ensuring that the basic amenities and infrastructure are in place — water, electricity, road, drainage, waste management plant etc was worked on. I thought the next tenure would be reserved for the SC/ST or OBC community, but as luck would have it, they opened it up for women. I hadn’t nominated my name, but the villagers insisted that I continue. One of the key things I always wanted to do was empower them to make them realise the power of the collective, so that no matter who was in power, they would continue the drive to change. In the second tenure, my focus is on four main agendas — education, skill development, evolving agricultural practices and bringing about an ecological balance.
Can you elaborate on the ecological balance bit?
Since we have a huge water challenge in the region, the idea is to protect and revive reservoirs and common lands like pastures, forests. We have already revived some forest areas. I am hoping to get some expertise to take it to the next level by creating awareness so that the next generation is able to understand the symbiotic relation that the nature and humans have.
What have been your major challenges?
Lack of funds and lack of expertise have been the key challenges. Be it ensuring quality education, agriculture or striking an ecological balance — these are not my areas of expertise. So I have been hoping that we are able connect the dots with different experts and come together to develop the village. That will lead to a more holistic and integrated development.
How supportive has the system around you been?
System as we know it in India, at least from what I have seen at the grassroots, the Panchayati Raj and the Panchayats themselves are not really empowered in the true sense. While decentralisation has been spoken of, in my area, I haven’t really seen it happening. Normally sarpanchs are from the village and not very well connected with the outside world, they usually depend on the Panchayat Secretary who is a government employee. So the system, as we know it, doesn’t really work as a system but as individual departments. So if all of these individuals in power have a common vision for development, development will happen. It becomes a challenge when this is missing.
The challenges you faced simply for being a woman?
The first challenge is that the panchayats are not empowered, so I believe gender plays a second role. If the elected members were respected as they ought to be, things wouldn’t have been that bad. I have seen a number of male sarpanchs too being flustered because of not getting the support they need. As a woman, of course there is an added layer, more so if you are younger. Most of the government officials are men and if they see a woman sitting across the table, and questioning them, then obviously the male ego does get hurt. There are also ways and means of intimidating a woman, so that also happens. But that is part and parcel of the job.
What is your go-to solution to such situations?
You certainly find good people everywhere. Of course you have to knock several doors, and that gets frustrating at times, but it does come through. It requires a lot of patience and perseverance, but you do manage to get through. One of the major supports is also from my parents, who have been there through thick and thin and ensure that I don’t lose my focus. At the end of the day, when you realise that you make a difference, it keeps you going.
How do you deal with patriarchy?
I often feel that living in urban areas, being relatively ‘more empowered’, we do not understand the psyche behind some norms before judging them. The ghoonghat, for instance, makes many women feel empowered in their own way. It’s their way of showing sheer respect to elders. I don’t think it subdues or disempowers them in any way. It’s an individual prerogative. I don’t see that as a hindrance. When it comes to giving women a voice, and other issues like apprehensions about seeing a doctor, education etc, seeing a woman in charge makes a difference. They know that they are going to be heard since they are being led by a woman. Child marriage is one thing I openly spoke against and have no tolerance to.
Coming to women’s education, seeing a woman sarpanch itself has motivated people to let their daughters study, and when it doesn’t, girls have approached me to speak to their fathers, and more often than not, the fathers have obliged. A simple dialogue is all it takes mostly. One of the sweetest compliments I have got through this work of mine is that people in the village have started naming their daughters ‘Chhavi’. Also, elder women themselves have now started rooting for education, which is a positive sign I believe. People are open to new ideas, it’s only about taking the first step.
Have you been approached by a political party yet, and what will be your stand if that happens? And, how difficult is it to sustain without a political backing?
Not yet. My benchmark of choosing a party is going to be who works at the grassroots. Answering the second question, at the panchayat level, officially there is supposed to be no party politics. That is why it is not called mainstream politics. So I am just going by the book.
What according to you is the key to rural development?
Of course there is no one solution that fits all, given the diversity in our country. But I believe that the provision of basic amenities across states is a must. Water, housing, electricity etc has to be provided, along with education — not only in terms of academics, but also skills and values of citizenship and civic sense. That is important for a stronger rural economy. And casteism I think is the first and biggest deterrent to the development of a nation. Unfortunately it is politicised to a high extent. That needs to be dealt with.