This ‘jeans-clad’ city-girl used her MBA and corporate career to become the sarpanch of her village

Chhavi Rajawat was poised to rise to the top of the corporate ladder, but when the villagers from the drought-riddled hamlet she calls her hometown approached her with their predicament, she decided to use her professional network to develop the rural pocket at an astounding rate. Almost nearing the end of her second term, Rajawat has one hell of a story to tell about the completely unknown devil that is rural politics.

A swarm of flies settling on the carcass of a cow on a dirt road is what previously welcomed you into Soda village in Rajasthan. This sight has now been replaced by a gorgeous, paved street flanked by a reservoir and colourful concrete houses. The spot where the village’s jeans-clad, English-speaking sarpanch Chhavi Rajawat was assaulted by the patriarch of a family opposed to one of her projects, now affords one a view of the  expansive 100-acre reservoir being desilted to harvest rainwater.

Most notably though, where the village men harboured deep-seated gender and caste-based biases no more than a decade ago, they now carry admiration for their baisa, who made her way into their hearts with her hard-to-miss people skills, the occasional game of gilli danda where the girls have to pitch in, and her determination to pull Soda out of the “most backward area” bracket.

Rajawat has been the ‘daughter of the village’ and her values and affinities cradled by it, ever since her childhood. She studied at the Rishi Valley School near Bengaluru, and would spend her summer vacations in Soda. This is the village her family hails from, and her grandfather Brig Raghubir Singh had held three terms as the sarpanch until 1990. “My grandparents spent 11 months in a year here. I grew up believing the entire village was my family,” she says.

After graduating from Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi, Rajawat went on to finish her MBA at the Balaji Institute of Modern Management Pune in 2003. For the next 10 years, she worked with several companies such as The Times of India, Carlson Group of Hotels and Airtel. She was on the verge of assuming the reigns of Hotel Kailrugji, which was run by her mother, when the villagers approached her for help.

They had not experienced a good monsoon in 13 to 14 years, and Soda’s is a rainfed agrarian economy. In 2009, the drought had turned severe. Their groundwater was declared unsafe from contamination and dangerous levels of salinity — a small cup of tea made with that water would taste briny, like it had six to seven spoonfuls of salt in it. Drinking this water was causing birth defects, and there were cases of skeletal fluorosis too.

In the year 2010, Soda’s sarpanch was to be a woman, under the Women’s Reservation Bill.

“The village elders requested me to stand for elections. This was never part of the plan — I had no prior experience in governance, let alone grass root governance. Another challenge was balancing my two lives. They told me, I simply had to attend two meetings a month at the panchayat, and one at the district level. To that I said, if you want me there just as a puppet, which probably was their plan, I will not take this up. If I’m the sarpanch, I will assume full responsibility of the role,” she says. An almost unanimous majority catapulted her into power.

BEST BUDS: Rajawat relaxes with pets Potli (below) and Butterball

Rajawat feels there is a mismatch in what villages need for development, and what they are granted.

“Someone may be constructing a school, when the need of the hour might be clean water. So, a voice on the ground is needed to communicate the priorities to people providing the funds. My strategy was to connect the government, private sector, and rural India,” says the corporate veteran. She relocated to their village home — roughly 70 km away from Rajawat Farms, their sprawling abode in the city.

Upon taking charge, Rajawat had to tackle the drought with an urgency. Her research had confirmed that rainwater harvesting was their only hope but, because of the high salinity in their soil, the reservoirs first needed to be desilted. The mighty crater spread across 100 acres, and desilting all of it was a Rs.20 million affair.

“I ran pillar to post for months trying to gather funds from the Centre, the State and even the private sector, but to no avail. Government schemes prohibit the use of machinery but we needed to use earthmovers. Sensing that I was disheartened, my friends and family stepped in, organised a fundraiser and raised Rs.2 million. JCB lent an earthmover to us with a driver for a whole month too. We managed to fix a tenth of the reservoir. In 2010, we saw a good monsoon — and the area we had desilted filled up,” she says.

The next thing to go was closed-door panchayat meetings — or even a deep sense of hierarchy, really. In her council meetings, she would rib village elders while she sought updates on projects and locals were encouraged to approach her freely for any guidance. “Those within the system weren’t too sure how to deal with ‘this’ (panning her finger from her head to her toes). My new rule stated that the village had full access to the records in the office even in my absence, so they know how the funds are being allocated. That ruffled a few feathers, and those in leadership positions pushed back and caused trouble directly and indirectly,” she says.

And still, she plowed ahead. She chalked out a four-pronged agenda — water, sanitation, electricity and roads. They began constructing toilets in houses immediately, for which, she roped in TIL as a partner, and 800 out of the roughly 950 homes in her panchayat had concrete toilets within two years. The panchayat’s four-hour electricity supply went up to 18 hours, and eventually the full 24. Two out of the three villages that weren’t on the grid were brought on it and, by 2015, the third was brought on to the grid too.

Another issue on her radar — both professionally and personally — was moving the girls to a formal school building. “The girls were studying in the open, come hail or storm. We identified a defunct building and renovated it, complete with a playground. Bosch Power Tools donated 200 tables and benches. The seepage hasn’t stopped yet, and we are looking to fund the next phase of construction,” she informs us.

All these strides and more — such as undertaking the construction of roads, laying a drainage system, opening a State Bank of India branch and conducting rigorous financial literacy seminars such that every adult and child came to hold a bank account — were made within the first year.

Her next phase put the spotlight on the women of the village. She implored those who had skills such as stitching and painting to form SHGs, and roped in professionals to explain costing and selling products to them. Painted diyas and candles, ground pulses and spices were their most commonly made products — which Rajawat would later exhibit at various events. “The men of the household, who were at first reluctant to give permission to these women, came around because work was done at my home,” she says.

REAPING HAPPINESS: The 100-acre reservoir Rajawat planned, to solve Soda’s water crisis

The fact that they were still primarily an agrarian economy never escaped her notice, and hence, neither did the farmers. She convinced Mahindra & Mahindra to adopt one more village — theirs — under their Samriddhi programme. Together, they organised workshops for farmers on government schemes, and even arranged visits to neighbouring villages to learn about new farming methods.

While a second term wasn’t part of the plan, she wanted to see all the initiatives she had set in motion through. So she contested the elections once again and, this time from an unreserved seat, and won. She moved back to Jaipur but makes that one-and-a-half hour commute up and down every day. “The honorarium for the sarpanch is Rs.4,000 a month — which doesn’t even meet my mobile or fuel bill,” she quips.

In the beginning of her second term, the girls’ college — which housed 300-odd students mostly studying B.Ed — was going to shut down because the owners were facing a financial crunch. So, the Rajawats decided to buy it from them and revive it. Himalaya has offered to make it entirely solar powered.

“By the end of my second term, a dream was to provide the village piped water,” she says. But, only one out of the three villages in her panchayat — roughly 600 houses — received sanction from the government for this. “Water still remains a challenge,” she adds.

Meanwhile, seven more acres of the reservoir were adopted by Coke for desilting, in 2015. But finding collaborators has been increasingly difficult. “We are now seeking partners to improve foundational primary-to-middle school education, for skill development and for proper waste management,” she states.

Despite having the best intentions of the village and the villagers at heart, she has not been spared gendered violence. “Some think I am vulnerable because I am a woman. I have been assaulted not once but twice over a project, when we were trying to construct an IT centre on panchayat land. We had even sought police protection, which was denied. But luckily, my support system back home, rather than saying, ‘are you trying to get yourself killed?’ said ‘Keep going, you’re on the right track,’” she says.

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