Meet India’s youngest woman village leader
Soda Village: As the sun begins to set on the village of Soda in western India, 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 Rajawat’s feet, women in colourful saris and elderly moustached men with turbans seek her help on everything from family feuds to neighbourhood littering.
The scene is an unusual one for India’s desert state of Rajasthan — a conservative patriarchal region known more for its high numbers of child brides than for empowering women — but Rajawat is accustomed to busting the traditional narrative.
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, or village leader, in 2010.
“I know I don’t fit the typical mould of sarpanch which is a man, and usually an elderly one,” said Rajawat, dressed in leggings, a loose top and hiking boots in Soda village, 80km from Jaipur, Rajasthan’s main city.
Getting the job done “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 Rajawat’s story is more than just about shattering stereotypes.
As demands mount in the world’s largest democracy 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, Rajawat’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.”
Born in Jaipur — a tourist city known for its pink architecture and resplendent forts — and educated at private boarding schools and colleges across India, Rajawat’s ancestral roots lie in Soda village.
Her grandfather, a retired decorated army officer, was Soda’s sarpanch for 15 years until 1990, and Rajawat 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 the telecoms company 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, Rajawat moved to Soda — a collection of mud-and-brick hamlets built around two large reservoirs — to work as sarpanch, earning a monthly income of Rs3,500 ($55), 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.
Rajawat 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.
Re-elected in 2015 and now almost halfway through her second term as sarpanch, Rajawat admits being a women in grassroots governance in India has not been easy.