Urban Update speaks to one of the youngest woman sarpanches in the country, and the first with an MBA degree., she has been consistently working for the betterment of her village Soda in Tonk district of Rajasthan. Clean drinking water, education, empowerment of women, and bridging the man-woman divide topped her agenda.
What inspired you to take up political career, the road less taken by rural women, especially the educated ones? Why did you choose rural political life over a white-collar job in a metro?
2009-2010 was the worst drought the area had suffered and over the years, in spite of funding through Panchayati Raj having increased, I had only seen the conditions in the villages in my area worsen. When my village Soda’s residents made the request for me to run for office as Sarpanch, the hope especially in the eyes of the elderly melted my heart and, on humanitarian grounds I could not refuse.
With my education and experience in the corporate sector I thought of playing the role of a bridging agent between the village, the government and the private sector. The idea has been to connect the dots by bringing in funding and the required expertise of varied sectors and collectively working towards the much-needed integrated development in the village. I am still seeking the required support and hope some of your readers will come forward in this initiative of developing our villages one village at a time.
What sort of difficulties did you face while executing your duties as the village head of Soda?
The post of Sarpanch per se (at least in my area) appears ornamental. A Sarpanch in Rajasthan receives an honorarium of INR 3500/-p.m.; a panch member gets INR 200/-p.m. (provided s/he attends the two Panchayat meetings held every month) while the salary of the Panchayat Secretary (a government employee) is much more than its elected representatives (going up to Rs.50 k/mth). The basics itself is skewed. (Without my parents’ support, I too would have struggled.)
In addition, the Panchayats are at the mercy of local government officials (i.e.officials at the District and Block level) even to get projects sanctioned and can barely use the funds at their own discretion. If the government officials at the grassroots carry the vision, it translates into development on the ground otherwise, the rural sector remains hindered by the apathy and egos of the very folks who are employed to assist that development.
- In that respect: the challenge, created by the system, is that of not empowering and respecting Panchayats.
- Lack of funds and expertise hugely restricts the required development, as does casteism, which I feel is the biggest deterrent to the development of our Nation.
As a young woman working honestly thus, swimming against the tide, male egos often get hurt and insecurities created because the system is not used to someone like me working at the Panchayat level…as a result, every step I take forward it does its best to break and push me back ten steps and more. That’s why there is a greater need for me to receive support from the private sector, which hasn’t been easy either. Unless and until I do not get an opportunity to meet the MD/CEO of a company, support through private sector doesn’t easily come by.
Within my village alone the advantage I have is that the residents see and treat me as “the daughter of Soda”. Development needs to be holistic and should carry a long-term vision, which is the target I set out for my council and myself. It initially wasn’t easy but my village now recognizes, accepts and respects that vision and form of functioning. As a woman, specifically, it is a lot easier to naturally be inclusive and it is perhaps for this reason that apart from women even the youth and children very easily share their challenges, concerns and dreams with me.
Despite the fact that women were given 33 per cent reservation in local bodies under 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA), the power-shift has not happened in true sense. Still, most of the women just represent their male family members. Do you agree? How can we change this?
Through intensive training programs and initial handholding.
Did your management study help you in executing your duties efficiently as a village head?
How is your political career shaping up? Do you wish to continue in politics?Would you recommend more girls to join politics?
This is a medium for social service for me to help develop and improve conditions for my fellow citizens. I would recommend more people to come forward to participate in the process of Nation building in whatever capacity they can and, the youth of India needs to do so as well. We need better people in politics and people should certainly step up to it, at the grassroots level as well because this is where one can actually directly execute and impact the larger base of the society.
There is a also a need for more students from schools as well as professional colleges such as business schools, engineering, architecture, etc. to come intern in villages to better understand rural India and participate in its development initiatives and reduce the divide that exists between the urban and rural India. The private sector employees should spend at least a month in villages with teams working on different aspects and while their contribution will help uplift the village it will also help them better understand the rural market.
Volunteers are more than welcome to come and stay with us in Soda where some of our immediate needs include:
- Improving the quality of education, especially at the crèche and primary school level. We need funds to create recreational spaces with swings for the children.
- We need people to come train our youth and women with simple skill sets so they can have a regular source of income and, help create and set up online market linkages.
- Our girls’ college in Soda needs computers, sports equipment and funds to provide a better infrastructure;
- We need expertise to bring in an ecological balance in Soda and, funds to fence off and secure our common reservoirs, pasture and forest lands to protect them from encroachments.
- Agriculture and animal husbandry needs intervention for our farmers and youth to see it as a viable source of income.
You have set an example by promoting self-reliance and self-dependency by inculcating entrepreneurship among villagers. What challenges did you face in the process?
I have not been successful in that space because I was unable to find the required trainers to come to the village to help train our residents and create the required skill sets. In that space we are still looking for support.
Can we make a rural-urban connect for empowering villages and checking migration?
Yes, by creating skill sets and a better ecosystem within our villages. Without “authentic” smart villages – that does not refer to digital village alone but one with an integrated development – the concept of smart cities itself will never be sustainable.
Financial powers of panchayats are limited to initiate any development work. What can be done to make panchayats financially strong? Do they have scope of generating revenues from their own resources and land pool?
As mentioned in the previous question: Panchayats need to be empowered in the true sense of the word. Funds coming directly into the Panchayat accounts need to be increased; a percentage of land sales should go to the Panchayat as its own income and, it’s important to allow the Panchayat to use its funds at its discretion. In addition, it is pertinent to increase honorariums of Panchayat elected representatives so they can contribute their time towards the development of the Panchayat instead of worrying about how to continue providing for the family – not all Sarpanchs come from privileged backgrounds, even just commuting from the Panchayat to the Block/district level to get the projects sanctioned involves a cost.
Services like health and sanitation, education and internet connectivity still remain issues of concern. Do you think that civil society organisation and corporate houses through Corporate Social Responsibility can play a significant role in correcting the situation on ground?
Absolutely, and they SHOULD participate more proactively. If the government has not been able to develop the rural sector in all these decades, it is about time others stepped up to improve the condition of our Nation.
What will you consider your biggest achievement as the village head of Soda? Are you satisfied with the projects implemented in your tenure? What are your future plans for the village?
The area had witnessed the worst drought in 2009. I received no support from the government nor the private sector at the time and, had to turn to my own family with whose support I was able to raise INR20 lacs. With the funds, I was able to de-silt 10% of our main reservoir which covers a total area of 100 acres. By de-silting, I was able to increase its capacity to conserve rainwater that happens to be our only source of drinking water. Sadly, all ground water in our village has been declared unsafe even for the purpose of irrigation owing to high levels of salinity and natural contamination. 2010 witnessed good monsoon and I was thrilled to see the reservoir fill up with the very first shower and provide some respite to the village where reservoirs would run dry as early as December and residents had no choice but to drink the contaminated ground water for almost 6 to 7 months until the next monsoon and longer if there was none.
Besides this, when I started constructing broader roads keeping the future in mind, I shared that vision with the residents of Soda, their participation and cooperation in coming forward to remove encroachments by going to the extent of breaking down walls of their own homes was the most touching moment for me and;
Just by providing women the required moral support and getting them to start voicing their needs has been my top achievements in the village.
Am I satisfied? No, because I have not received the required funding nor expertise to complete many of my projects and make them sustainable. I am still seeking support and the key areas to work on in my second tenure are to:
- Improve quality of education especially at crèche and primary school levels and introduce mediums of learning to improve their cognitive skills; create playgrounds for children; a stadium for the youth and introduce arts and crafts in our Girls’ middle school and High school for the children to create and recognize their own talents.
- Seeking funding to help revive the girls’ college that has 600 girls from nearby villages most of whom are enrolled for the B.Ed program. The collegeneeds computers, sports equipment and funds to construct two classrooms seating 200 students each and better infrastructure; We also invite people to come interact with our students and empower them and help instil the basic values that could help impact future generations.
- We invitepeople with varied expertise to train and create skillsets for our children, youth and adults and help provide an alternate source of income that’s more sustainable and viable vs. the rain-fed, seasonal agriculture. We have just set up a skill development centre and look forward to receiving support from the private sector to create the talent pool they wish to recruit.
- Seeking expertise to introduce organic farming and improve animal husbandry practices while also creating sustainable and fair market linkages.
- Seeking funds to protect the available natural resources such as reservoirs, pasture lands and forest area by fencing them and protecting them from possible encroachments in the future. Also seeking expertise to revive these common lands and reservoirs in a sustainable manner and create the required ecological balance while also educating and motivating the Soda residents to understand its importance and take care of it.