SODA, RAJASTHAN, India (WOMENSENEWS)–It’s the first gram sabha, or village council meeting, of this out-of-the way rural district.
The "sarpanch bai-sa," or village council headwoman, brings a junior engineer to explain federal laws applying to some rural workers on the 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. shift.
Unaccustomed to such efforts, the villagers later express happy surprise at the presentation.
"She is making us aware of our rights and she is so transparent in her dealings," says Radha Krishna Gujjar, a villager.
The headwoman is 28-year-old Chhavi Rajawat. She wears jeans, drives an S.U.V. and rides horses, all of which make her stand out in this conservative village.
With an MBA in marketing, she was not long ago helping her mother run a boutique hotel. But then she heard about the elections for the traditional leadership position of Soda, her parent’s village where she spent many happy childhood days.
The villagers were tired with corruption and decided a woman should have a chance at the position. They reserved it for a female candidate.
Villagers began pressing her to run. A busload arrived at her house in Jaipur.
"They told me more people were waiting in the village to come to Jaipur to put more pressure on me if I refused," she says, adding that they told her up to 19 other women wanted to enter the contest. Her visitors explained they were concerned that the village was on the verge of getting divided along caste lines.
"It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I didn’t want to disappoint them," says Rajawat.
Little Village Development
The villagers told her that there had not been any development in the village since her grandfather had retired from the role.
"Before I took the decision, I consulted him about what was involved," says Rajawat. "I wanted to understand for myself the local self-government system and how it functions."
Once she decided to contest, only two other women were left in the fray. "That, obviously, was a happy sign but also a sign of the kind of expectations people have of me."
After her election in February 2010, her grandfather–who rarely leaves the family’s farmhouse in Jaipur–accompanied her to the village for the ceremony.
"People call her the daughter of the village and they thanked me for convincing her to return to her roots," says Rajawat’s proud grandfather Narendra Singh.
Rajawat’s great grandfather, Ranjit Singh, a colonel in the Jaipur State Army, was the first "sarpanch" in post-independence India.
"Even though she’s our only child, we left it entirely to her," says Rajawat’s father. "Ours has been a family of army officers. I was the only civilian in my generation. But all our children in Chhavi’s generation are doing their own thing. Her uncle’s son is a golf trainer and my sister’s son is an international fitness trainer in Jordan, while her daughter is an educationist managing 16 schools in Karachi. So it wasn’t difficult for us to accept things when Chhavi announced her decision."
Rajawat’s father credits her "fearless education" at the Rishi Valley School outside Bangalore.
"A friend suggested I send Chhavi to this school. She told me it’s a no-uniform, no-exam school. I didn’t want Chhavi to study in the old-fashioned traditional manner, so we sent her there. She has strong spiritual energy thanks to the years she’s spent there," he says.
After earning her MBA and holding a few jobs for various companies, she quit the corporate sector to assist her mother.
Rajawat also runs a riding academy on her farmhouse in Jaipur, along with her business partner, who has been part of the Indian Equestrian Team for nine years, and two trainers.
"It’s not difficult," Rajawat says of all she has going on. "The hotel is managed on phone and Internet. For the riding academy, there are trainers and my business partner, so I am focusing all my energy on the village."
Rajawat is working on providing water, electricity and roads to Soda. She also wants to battle wage discrepancies in the federally administered rural jobs program.
"There are fake names on the rolls. The site supervisors, sarpanch and the junior engineers collude to pocket funds. I want to change this," she says.
She’s studying up on the rules and regulations and says her grandfather is also available to give her tips.
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Renu Rakesh is a freelance journalist from the western Indian state of Rajasthan. She specializes in women-related issues.
This article is adapted from one that was released by the Women’s Feature Service. For more articles on women’s issues log on to: http://www.wfsnews.org