India's youngest woman 'sarpanch' puts focus on roads, toilets and power

India's youngest woman 'sarpanch' puts focus on roads, toilets and power
As the sun begins to set on the village of Soda in the Tonk district of Rajasthan, Chhavi Rajawat walks through the dusty streets, stopping to chat with residents who emerge from the wooden doorways of their homes to greet her.

Folding their hands together and bending to touch 39-year-old Chhavi's feet, women in colourful saris and elderly moustached men with turbans seek her help on everything from family feuds to neighbourhood littering.

The MBA holder has not only been head of the village for the last seven years, she quit her city job at a multinational firm to do it - and made history as India's youngest elected sarpanch (village head) in 2010.

"I know I don't fit the typical mould of sarpanch which is a man, and usually an elderly one," said Chhavi, dressed in leggings, a loose top and hiking boots.

"There are some officials who find it hard to take orders from me, not only because I am a woman, but also because I am younger than them. But the villagers here don't care and are more interested in the work I do ... that's what matters." But Chhavi's story is more than just about shattering stereotypes.

As demands mount for women to have more say at the highest levels of politics, her efforts at the lowest rung of governance make a compelling case of how effectively women can rule, if given the chance.

Since taking office, Chhavi's council has built roads, constructed toilets and brought water, power and even a bank to Soda's 7,000 residents, all thanks to a law which reserves at least one-third of village council seats for women.

"The villagers asked me to stand for elections as it was required that the sarpanch be a woman," she said.

"If it wasn't for the reservation policy, I don't know if I would be here and whether the development we've achieved would have happened."

From MNC to mud and brick

Born in Jaipur and educated at private boarding schools and colleges across India, Chhavi's ancestral roots lie in Soda village.

Her grandfather, a retired decorated army officer, was Soda's sarpanch for 15 years until 1990, and Chhavi fondly remembers spending many of her summer holidays as a child in the village with her parents and grandparents.

After finishing her MBA, she was working as a manager for Airtel when a group of Soda's elders approached her at the age of 32 to stand as sarpanch.

"The village had seen little development for many years and the residents knew me and my family well due to my grandfather previously being the village council head," she said.

"I understood the development challenges faced and wanted to help the village. Also knowing that government funds would be limited, I thought I could use my business background to get support from the private sector for Soda."

Leaving her corporate life in Jaipur, Chhavi moved to Soda - a collection of mud-and-brick hamlets built around two large reservoirs - to work as sarpanch, earning a monthly income of Rs 3,500, not even a fraction of her previous salary.

Since then, she has revived part of the reservoir - the only source of water for thousands of people - through an ambitious desilting project involving the community.

She has also constructed roads, built hundreds of toilets, improved power and piped water supplies and enlisted young volunteers to register the village's most needy inhabitants for social welfare schemes such as food subsidies.

Chhavi also managed to convince the country's biggest bank, State Bank of India, to open a branch in Soda, complete with a working ATM.

It has so far opened savings accounts for over 20,000 people from Soda and neighbouring villages.

 "Chance to change things"

Re-elected in 2015 and now almost halfway through her second term as sarpanch, Chhavi admits being a woman in grassroots governance has not been easy.

Not only has she and her father faced a physical attack over a land dispute, but she has often had to deal with dismissive attitudes of low-ranking government officials, unaccustomed to dealing with women in senior roles.

Political opponents have also tried to disrupt her work - motivating residents to oppose decisions made by the village council such as a project to plant trees or to establish a computer literacy training centre.

"It's not been easy, but I have no regrets and still feel I have so much more to do," said Chhavi. "But it's one thing to have reserved seats for women at the village level, women should also be given these chances at higher levels of politics."

Few women in India are encouraged to enter politics, and those who join political parties are rarely selected to stand as candidates in polls. Often they face abuse such as sexual harassment and character assassinations, yet few report it.

And while the law reserving seats for women in village councils has resulted in over one million women being elected, a similar draft law for assemblies and Parliament has been sidelined by successive governments for two decades. As a result, women are barely represented in the highest echelons of power.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) ranks India 147 out of 193 nations on women political representation, lower than nations such as Chad, Pakistan, Eritrea and Bangladesh.

Women hold only 12% of seats in India's lower and upper houses of Parliament combined, compared to the global average of about 23%, said the IPU.

There are of course notable exceptions such as former prime minister Indira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi, who now heads the main Opposition party, the Congress.

India's foreign and defence ministers are also women and there are a string of strong women politicians in states ranging from West Bengal to Rajasthan. But these women are a minority.



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