I was quite happy with the profession I was in in the corporate world and was leaning towards starting my own business - that is how my Equest horse riding Academy came into existence in Jaipur.
The "Sarpanch-job" dropped into my lap from nowhere! Before I could even realize it I had already been announced as the new sarpanch in my village: Soda.
That was due to the fact that three generations of my family before me had workedfor the benefit and development of my village. It's because of that that the villagers were keen to have me contest the elections in 2010 primarily to safeguard the village's unity, which was being threatened because of almost 18 women wanting to contest these elections - this tenure being a reserved seat for women.
I had been visiting the village since my childhood very regularly during my vacations hence I was very aware of the prevailing issues.
I took up this responsibility as a "responsible citizen" because, apart from not wanting to disappoint my villagers, I also thought that if I, hailing from the village, did not come forward to help develop my village then how could I possibly expect an outsider to come forward to do so and; in spite of the many schemes that exist in the name of rural development, development in rural areas not being visible meant there was something amiss and all I really came forward for was to try and bridge the gap between the village and the government; corporations; individuals; NGOs and other agencies.
This is a thankless job wherein there are no perks but only personal expenditures. But I guess that's how any social work is! However, when one sees things materializing and the difference that creates in the larger society then that experience, for me personally, is definitely the most rewarding and overwhelming.
The negativity of the beaureaucrats at the district level and the block level as well as of the local politicians poses as a huge hindrance as they seem threathened by an educated, seemingly capable person. It appears that all their energies are channeled towards hampering the work and objectives of such a person.
Speaking of the panchayat, it is anything but a 'gram swaraj' wherein the post of a sarpanch really is just namesake. There are no powers nor any funds that the panchayat can use at its own discretion - they are at complete mercy of the block/tehsil and District-level government officials.
Such officials and local politicians thrive on casteism and bribes so much that even without legal documents or proof they "stay" panchayat projects.
In my village alone a Central govt. project named after Late Shri Rajiv Gandhi (the Rajiv Gandhi Seva Kendra), which would have been the first to see completion in the district in August of 2010, was stayed by none other than the block level SDO who happens to be a development officer himself!
Instead of assisting panchayats with their work and decisions, the officials only seem to work in favor of their personal interests and will go to any extent to let the panchayat elected representatives down. In spite of the then collector (Ms.Surana) telling the SDO (a Mr.Meena) to vacate the stay since he had no logic behind it plus, the stay not even being on the 'khasra' we were working on, the SDO chose to ignore his senior's order! The current collector and the new SDO (both of the same caste), in spite of plenty of money having already been spent on the construction of Rajiv Gandhi Seva Kendra, now want us to change the location of the same and start afresh - do they not realize that this is some one else's (i.e. the tax payers) hard earned money being wasted? The high court has clearly stated that as long as the khasra in question is not touched, we may continue with our work…we were not working on nor ever had any intention of touching the khasra that the SDO had passed the stay on anyway!
Encroachments are serious and very common issues, which the SDO and his team are duty bound to get rid of and assist panchayats in doing. The Supreme Court's recent verdict clearly mentions that all pasture and reservoir areas are to be freed of encroachments with immediate effect however, these officials, in spite of such orders not only avoid but even stall/stay any panchayat's initiative in doing so.
As far as sanctions of projects for villages/panchayats are concerned:
The only power a panchayat really has is of only listing down a proposal of projects the village wishes to undertake. This then is sent to the block and then the District Headquarter for approval and sanctions.
In spite of prioritizing our list of projects for our panchayat (which wished to see water-related projects sanctioned first) the district HQ sanctioned an Anganbadi (a crche), which, in a drought-hit zone - as declared by the govt., was really not the need of the hour nor our priority!
Govt fundings take too long. There appears to be no one to question the officials for their delays as far as rural development is concerned. From what we have heard, in 2010, funding amounting to a figure of almost Rs.327 crores lapsed for our backward district of Tonk while all panchayats were longing to see their projects sanctioned - it just never happened.
However, in spite of such bottlenecks I still believe there is a strong need for educated and responsible citizens to come forward if we wish to truly see our Nation develop. And, it is also important that individuals, companies, organizations, agencies and NGOs participate actively in providing their support to rural areas as government funding also has its own .
1. As in the case of our water conservation project, which entailed digging afresh and strengthening of our largest reservoir covering an area of 100 acres. The estimated cost of the project is INR 3.5 crores (as calculated by government engineers).
The State govt cannot fund this project as it prohibits usage of machinery for rural development (even in the 21st century!) hence, they couldn't support our project but told us we could do so independently.
- Our water conservation project is on the top of our list of priorities.
- All water in our village having been declared unsafe, even for the purpose of agriculture, owing to high levels of natural contamination from fluoride, chloride, other minerals and salinity. The effect of dental flurosis in particular is starkly visible even in young kids.
- Rainwater is the only source of 'safer' potable water available to the village inhabitants and that is what our project aims to conserve.
- Prior to 2010 monsoon this had been declared as a draught-hit zone and, 2010 saw good rains after a span of almost 14 years.
Under govt's Total Sanitation Campaign there exists funding only for individuals below the poverty line (until 2011 the funding amounted to Rs.2200/- now has increased to Rs.3200/- which may be used only to construct 3 side walls; a soak-pit and installation of the pan).
In villages which have agriculture as their only source of income and, one which is seasonal and totally dependent on rainfall, even those not listed in the BPL list (which by the way, is totally skewed wherein the poorest of the poor of the village is not even part of that BPL list!) cannot really afford to shell out money to construct toilets. We are seeking funds to build toilets in each and every home in the village (ie. 1000 households; cost per toilet being Rs.5,000/-)3. Education:
In our high school, 11th & 12th grade students have no choice of subjects: they only have Hindi Lit, Sanskrit Lit and Geography available for them. The govt's hands seem tied and there's no support coming in to give the aspiring youth of rural areas options to a better future.
Yes it is challenging and often also frustrating; not just how the govt officials function but even when corporates fail to share portion of their CSR funds with us on the pretext that our village is not in close proximity to their plant/office/unit but I believe we need to take a stand and get people to work efficiently, it is difficult but, if one is persistent and confident, I believe it is doable.
There are plenty of good people within the system - from ministers to senior bureaucrats - such people have been my support and motivation and I wish they were everywhere and much written about so, others - within and outside of the system - could be motivated and have more faith. One person alone cannot bring the required change. More people need to plunge in to bring about the change all of us wish to see. Also, instead of blaming the system, we need to realize that we are citizens of this nation and we also have our responsibilities towards it.
The author is the sarpanch of Soda village in Rajasthan
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