Soda, My Village
Growing up, my family taught me not to look at people differently. They encouraged me to consider my village, Soda in Rajasthan, as my family. Whenever I would come home during my school holidays, I visited different families in the village. It did not matter whether I knew them or not. I enjoyed taking tractor rides with elderly men, who would go from one farm to the other. My grandfather or my parents never questioned me. I was allowed to make my own decisions.
I did my schooling in Andhra Pradesh, far away from Rajasthan, a state where caste-related issues are prevalent. While I was aware of societal ills like inequality or patriarchy, they did not affect me. I think my childhood experiences have helped shape me into the person I am today. To be able to be empathetic to people and their needs helped me when I was a sarpanch.
Becoming a Sarpanch
In 2010, it was solely the decision of the villagers who wanted me to be elected as the sarpanch of the Gram Panchayat of Soda village. Of course, the reservation for women in Panchayats contributed to my winning but I feel it was largely due to the strong emotional connection I have always had with the villagers. And they accept this.
Perhaps, if it were not for the reservation, they definitely would have chosen a male candidate as a safer option. But they believed in my capabilities and gave me a chance. I think what also helped me during my tenure was that I have always seen my family work tirelessly for the development of the village. Perhaps I have inherited these qualities from them.
Understanding the Problem
The drought of 2009 was one of the worst that the region had seen. People were suffering and animals were dying due to the lack of water and fodder. The little water that was available was so saline that it was declared unfit even for irrigation. The village has been like my family, so I decided to step in and understand the crux of the problem.
Education and awareness came in handy. While I was aware that the government had been providing funds for the development of rural India, what struck me was that despite the funding, my region was still grappling with the same challenges. This meant that there was a gap somewhere. The government had the right intentions, but there were some missing links.
Having worked in the corporate sector, I knew about the corporate social responsibility (CSR) component and knew individuals across the country who were willing to help but didn’t know how to. They didn’t have the expertise. I hoped to be that bridging agent.
There is a need for different stakeholders, including the government, to identify people like me who would work together, connect the dots and transform a village holistically, even if it meant transforming one village at a time.
The Gendered Lens
I must admit that there were challenges on the way. Often, my age and gender would lead to ego wars. These were major roadblocks. Initially, my own Panchayat Secretary would tell me not to waste time trying to do things differently and give in to the system. I persisted and eventually managed to garner the support of people. It took him three years to accept me for who I was, but after that, he stopped using the gendered-tinted language.
Having served as the village sarpanch for two terms, that is 10 years, I chose to step aside as I had other commitments. I was not sure if I was in a position to take the responsibility of my village. Also, I realised that the villagers were getting too dependent on me and individual efforts for change were missing. Hence, I relinquished my post because I also believe that change in leadership is important.
I was never affiliated to any political party. In my view, people need to have a positive outlook. They need to believe that things will change and these changes can happen with or without the support of the government. When the intentions are right and all the forces come together, nothing can stop development from happening. I firmly believe in this and this reflects in my work even today. I am still connected to my village and I continue to work for the betterment of the people. As someone who grew up in a village environment, I will always be glued to my roots.
(As told to Shreya Basak)
Chhavi Rajawat was the sarpanch of Soda village in Rajasthan for two terms (2010-2020). She is a social worker who focuses on rural development and women’s education