Bursting the bubble of traditional leadership

CHHAVI RAJAWAT

THE pandemic has been perceived as a global disruptor that no one saw coming and, the beginning of it a time that we all would want to rewind to and wish away. It has changed our world, our perspective and the life of so many. An unwanted disruption forcing citizens globally to revisit, reconsider, reorient their professional and personal spaces, structures and systems. The virus that I personally would have liked to christen Thanos (inspiration: the fictional supervillain warlord of Marvel Cinematic Universe) however, that is not what I am here to write about but, of a welcome disruption of another sort.

I give credit to my home state of Rajasthan for sowing the initial seed of that disruption despite the fact that it continues to be better known as one amongst others to carry the flack of prominent patriarchy. The lesser known fact about Rajasthan is that it has the distinction of being a pioneer in envisaging a decentralized three-tier system of governance with Bikaner having its own Panchayat Act way back in 1928. In 1953 the Rajasthan Panchayat Act was enacted that led the government to incorporate the scheme across the country on 2 October 1959. It is what is now known as Panchayati Raj.

Panchayati Raj to the government’s dismay fell short of what it was meant to achieve. It was observed to have consistent shortcomings arising out of insufficient representation of the so-called weaker sections of the society, inadequate devolution of powers and lack of financial resources. Therefore, an affirmative action was taken by our nation with the governing structure forcing a change within its own system via the 73rd and 74th Amendment of the Constitution.

A change I would best describe as an attitude adjustment with the aim of ensuring that the neglected, often unheard and seemingly invisible (gender/communities) got a foot in the door to speak up and claim their space to become relevant not just for themselves but for many others in the rural, the semi-urban and the urban space as well. I am a by-product of that welcome change our nation needed to see. An opportunity that came my way not because of my competence nor because I held a business management degree, but because I was born inheriting a pair of x chromosomes. A prerequisite to contest a seat reserved for women.

Courtesy the natural bent of the Indian mind for frugal innovation, there is a jugaad for everything including circumventing the requirement of this representation in grassroots polity. As a result, the proxy leadership is visible in both rural and urban spaces but, a shift in attitude has become visible. My being brought into the rural scape as sarpanch being a case in point. The shift gaining greater momentum in 2015 with minimum education requirement made mandatory which, I am told, also got families to seek educated bride for the lesser/uneducated eligible bachelors. It is a different matter that the said law was opposed on the pretext of exclusion but, it does highlight the fact that it is such laws that hold the promise of bringing about effective impact and transformation.

In my case, it were the village elders – all men – who were struck with the ingenious idea of nominating my name as the village leader. That is how I came to be elected into office as sarpanch in 2010. A position I held for a decade, i.e. two terms of five years each, in gram panchayat/village council of Soda in the district of Tonk, Rajasthan. The village elders had not quite anticipated what the possibility of the 73rd and 74th Amendment would have in store for them with me, their first woman leader, stepping in.

Something right with the world today

and everybody knows it’s wrong

but we can tell ‘em no or we could let it go but I would rather be hanging on.’

I had walked into a village where I could not resist wondering why the residents had not fled. Driving in one could not miss carcasses of animals dead courtesy no water, no fodder. The region had suffered a severe drought in 2009. To make matters worse, all ground water in the village was declared unsafe for the purpose of irrigation owing to natural contamination and high levels of salinity. In a rain-fed agrarian economy it was a big deal. The situation severely grave thus, my inability to turn a blind eye.

Within the first week of holding office, I realized just how many remained excluded by the system. There were so many who remained uninformed and clueless of the benefits that existed for them, in particular the elderly and the women. Then there were the other lot, the opportunists waiting to take advantage of the ignorant leaving the already disadvantaged to a greater disadvantage, making the poor poorer.

 

In the name of rural development the government has funds in plenty, but the reality on the ground would have one wonder otherwise. Reservoirs/ponds across the village had already run dry by October, leaving the over 10,000 residents wait nearly 8 to 9 months before they saw any respite. There was no water management, poor infrastructure leading to water-logging when monsoons did arrive posing hinderance to pre-nursery and primary school kids who, on their own, couldn’t wade through the pockets of water they needed to cross to reach their schools.

Of the eight anganbadis (pre-nursery cum prenatal centres) three were practically non-existent and the fourth inoperative. The primary health centre’s important seat of the doctor lay vacant. The girls middle school had no classrooms leaving the children sitting on the floor with no roof over their heads come rain, winter or the scorching heat of the desert summer. The high school students access to education was restricted to studying Sanskrit, geography and Hindi literature. What human assets are we creating for our nation? With four hours intermittent supply of electricity, with three hamlets completely off the grid, come exams, children and youth had their own share of struggles.

The pasture and forest lands were barren, the trees that remained were being cut for fuel. Health issues were at their peak owing to intake of contaminated/saline water, down’s syndrome percentage higher than should be and, no sanitation leading to 70% health issues. The physically challenged, ailing elders suffered and the women affected more than anyone else as they had no choice but to wait long hours seeking shelter of the dark to relieve themselves. Providing safe(r) drinking water and sanitation was the need of the hour.

I began by understanding what the priorities were for the village residents so as not to let my personal beliefs override their needs. In my visit to every household some women pulled me aside mentioning their need for toilets, but it was not on the radar of any man across the village. The focus had to be in providing basic amenities – water, electricity, fair supply of ration to the needy, roads, toilets and opening a bank to help residents think beyond their immediate needs and including in our planning mid-term and long-term goals as well. With that began the journey of development of Soda under my leadership, one that was participatory and inclusive with the intent to provide our village residents a life of dignity.

There was a road block though. The panchayat account had no funds. The panchayat secretary, a retired operator of the chungi-naka whose job was no more than to manually pull and release the rustic toll barrier, sat in the panchayat office letting it collect dust, swatting flies, listening to the time ticking by, with the only motivation of fulfilling his term that would grant him his old age pension. Least interested in supporting my elected team, using his grey matter in how to best misguide me. If it weren’t for his disrespect towards the position he held, made obvious by him physically throwing an elderly resident out of the panchayat office, I would have suffered him. But, his action towards the people he was to serve was unacceptable.

 

 

I was capable of managing the office without such an individual. I did not know who to reach out to. I surfed the internet and ended up dialling the number of the then Panchayati Raj Minister Mr. Bharat Singh, who was kind enough to share with me some very important tips to ensure I did not fall prey to the traps set by others.

My reputation, of being transparent and accountable, preceded me. As a result, it took the block develop-ment officer nearly six months before finding a secretary willing to work with me and my team. Of an elected team of 12 members my team of 2010 comprised of eight women, four men. Two of us were graduates, a school dropout  who had studied till 7th grade, the other nine were uneducated
but able to sign their names. The honorarium, at the time for the sarpanch was Rs 3500 per month and
Rs 150 p.m. for the other elected representatives that they were eligible to receive only if they attended the two panchayat meetings in a month. The salary of the panchayat secretary, a government employee, was over 16 times that of a sarpanch. Economic disparity, caste, gender, literacy may all contribute to the equation within a panchayat alone to be skewed. A reality unknown to many often leading to need based corruption at this level.

The responsibility of an elected team is considerable and that of the sarpanch – everything under the sun – from raising funds, addressing constituents’ challenges, following up with government officials to sanction projects, executing them, monitoring them, meeting senior bureaucracy
and polity when needed, overseeing proper functioning of the various institutions within the village, helping maintain law and order, safety, eradicating social evils, equity, guiding the youth, assisting in economic upliftment, conflict resolution including resolving marital disputes and, navigating the system and nudging it to deliver.

With no support, guidance, training, nor inputs on the budgets available, I leave it to your discretion as a reader to comprehend what it must mean to be a grassroots leader. Many who make it this far are often left disillusioned and resign to the magnitude of the challenges and apathy sometimes arising out of poor training of the grassroots officials. Then there are the officials who may be unprofessional and allow for their egos to be pricked by being questioned, especially by a young woman, channelizing their energies in posing hinderances instead of the support that they are recruited for.

 

 

I, however, took it in my stride and chose to deliver despite my panchayats very first government led project being stalled by a block level government official. Having worked in the corporate sector, I was unperturbed, believing I could tap into the funds of corporate social responsibility, benefit from their expertise and turn the village around by connecting the dots (i.e. information and people) within a span of three years. Had I received the support, I am confident as a collective force that was a possibility. However, I was quick to recognize my own naivety. The district had no industry. The corporate sector appeared apprehensive in helping a village not in its unit’s close proximity.  

 

Having been voted in February, I only had about three months left before the monsoons set in. I had to deliver. I shared with my constituents the road blocks and was able to get them to come together to voluntarily de-silt our reservoir to increase its capacity to harvest rainwater. Given the expanse of the reservoir of 100 acres, the depth required to be de-silted and hardness of the soil, government engineers told us we needed earthmovers without which we would not be able to attain our target even in a span of ten years. We live in the 21st century yet machinery for rural development was prohibited. The only option left was to raise funds from outside of the government or succumb to fate/destiny. By end of May when no one from the government, private nor not-for-profit sector came to our aid, I then turned towards my own family. In four days I raised Rs 20,00,000 with which we de-silted about 12 acres of the reservoir that filled up soon enough continuing to hold water for the entire year.

Having constructively delivered within three months of coming into office, I remember being asked by the very men ‘kya aap paanch saal ka kaam che mahiney mein karna chaahatey ho?’ (do you intend to finish five years of work in six months?). For some reason the pace of change had them perplexed despite my warning them that if I get elected it would not be business as usual and, that they may come to regret their decision because I will not be anyone’s puppet. They did not take me seriously then, seeing me but as a young girl. However, it is that pace and efficiency of my work and transparency that won me immense faith and respect from men, women and youngsters alike. I continued to tease the village elders stating that if it were not for that affirmative action of the government they, of their own accord, probably would never have bothered to reach out to me to become their leader. Not behind the convenience of patriarchy. Their silence proving it to be an accepted reality.

 

 

I would like to believe that I too am perceived a disruptor in breaking the norm through my decision, action and contribution in leaving the cushy and well paying corporate life to serve my village and, indirectly my country. Like my home state, I hope to be thought of as a pioneer in helping change perspectives amongst many like me, men and women alike, across the country and inspire them to come forth to participate in the process of building our nation – not top down alone but ground up as well. I am pleased to learn that has started happening courtesy media persons publishing my story. It is because of support of the media that I was able to eventually receive support from many individuals and private companies. Few ministers and government officials who appreciated my seriousness helped speed up the process of sanctioning our projects. As a result, during the
first term itself I was able to meet my constituents’ demands.

When I think of the growth story of a nation I believe it is intertwined in the growth story of each one of its citizens living in the rural and the urban. When I look at ours, I feel not enough is being said, not enough is being heard, not enough is being understood thus, not enough appears to be done. Without that holistic and collective growth there cannot possibly be the growth of this beautiful nation.

Why it took more than three decades for the modernization of Panchayati Raj in granting women and unrepresented communities the opportunity to become visible within the framework of the constitutional amendments? I don’t know but, what I do know is that it happened and, thank God it happened. On papers it is exhilaratingly brilliant. However, from my practical experience in the field, it appears that the quota system and devolution of powers to the lowest levels of governance alone are not enough. Consider it my humility in saying I wish there were more like me supporting/collaborating/working in/with our panchayats.

I cannot give the credit of being inclusive in entirety to my being a woman, there are many men who would work in a similar manner, in not promoting or practising any kind of discrimination. However, the understanding of development, as per research, can be skewed with men focusing primarily on infrastructure while women look into other aspects as well. The research resonating the words of an elderly lady in the village who was thrilled to see me win: ‘A man sees through one eye but a woman sees through both her eyes’, she said. That is what she believed I as the first woman leader holding office would do for our village.

Her words made so much sense when one is able to observe that it is the woman performing that balancing act of taking care of the household chores as well as the ones outside – from being the labour (paid/unpaid) in the agricultural sector, responsible for fetching water from distances for the family, taking care of the children and the elderly, working on MGNREGA and construction sites, etc. She is the one who has a holistic perspective of the real challenges inside and outside her house, but when there is a male elected leader, it is rare that she is consulted and rare that she finds the confidence and comfort in sharing with the man, especially a stranger, her personal challenges.

In my experience, to a great extent, the outcome of that research holds true, as I noticed the menfolk could not comprehend why I would insist on spending large sums of money on protecting the common pasture lands, biodiversity, improving health services, harvesting water, constructing toilets, introducing a waste management system, creating awareness about family planning, agricultural workshops and field visits, promoting the concept of savings, focusing on monitoring aanganbaadi’s prenatal care and nutrition of young children or, on the administration and infrastructure of schools, promoting the local artisans and folklore. It was not on their agenda till I explained and educated them on the benefits of it that may not be visible immediately but definitely visible in the long run.

Finding me nudging both men and women to come to office, having them participate in the gram sabhas (the village meetings) and development initiatives, the youth and children also began to notice and appreciate this woman as someone who was approachable, who would listen, who could empathise and understand their challenges – both personal and otherwise and work with them to find the appropriate solutions. I not only became the sounding board for my village residents but for many across other districts within Rajasthan and outside.

With a woman taking on a leadership role, participation of women, youth and children (along with men) in development initiatives increases. The educated youth step up freely, becoming champions in providing assistance to the needy by helping them fill forms and applying for benefits provided under various government schemes. Violence against women, social evils such as child marriage, etc. reduces and the local police also joins hands in ensuring fair hearing when otherwise biases can take over. I do believe the constituency becomes safer for everyone.

I believe an educated woman contributes towards an effective and efficient leadership by bringing in different perspectives, more humane, allowing her to take bold decisions because she becomes the voice for all – women and the so called weaker sections of the society included. When that leader is one who does not use aggression and is not perceived as a threat, she is respected by her constituents, irrespective of their age, as a parent figure. Gender discrimination towards the woman leader fades away and interestingly, that leadership also impacts the voting patterns.

If I were to compare the two elections I witnessed, the first was influenced considerably by the male members of the household but, with time, transformation becoming visible and increased interactions with the women and youth, I noticed they were beginning to make decisions of their own. Their voting patterns no longer being influenced by the fathers of the youth nor the husbands of the women. They were certain of who they wanted to see as their leader. The only situation that would otherwise affect the women voter’s mind some said would be when, and if at all, her husband was the one contesting then of course, she would vote for him.

Having said that, for a woman, especially when she has responsibilities at home, it can become difficult to juggle between her personal responsibilities and the responsibility of being a leader. The expectations in our society from women far outweighs the expectations from a man. The support system a man is easily able to find in society is not easily available to a woman and perhaps it is for that reason that women do not continue to rise higher unless their immediate circle does not step up to support her.

Often, those working within the government – from the panchayat secretary to those higher up in bureaucracy and polity – may not be prepared to be questioned by a woman. Sadly, the challenge in not faced by Indian women alone, globally women representation in politics continues to be low. Egos may come in the way, the men’s club may not offer entry to the women leader. Navigating in the patriarchal systems and finding footing in an unfamiliar political territory may pose a hinderance, but that does not mean women should not step up.

I believe along with the required support system, training to navigate and work around these restricted and protected structures, finding the ease to collaborate, learning to build one’s own network and finding mentors can change how women perform in politics.

For those who feel threatened or undermine the other, I think we only have to understand that men and women are not opposites, we complement each other, we bring different perspectives to the table. Once we step up to grasp that reality, as a collective force we will have a larger impact and take a giant leap from where we currently are at and where we can be. To make that shift and tap into that potential, we may need a few more affirmative actions but also education – not necessarily a change in the institution alone, but within our homes – in how we raise our men and women.