RAJSAMAND: When Pratibha Choudhary assumed office as the sarpanch of Pachhmata gram panchayat in Rajsamand district, Rajasthan, her first order of business as the village head was to ensure that every family in the area was able to perform the last rights of their loved ones in a proper manner.

To many this may seem like an unusual issue to tackle right at the onset of the five-year tenure but Choudhary had observed the financial difficulty and emotional trauma that a family had to endure in the face of this problem.

She shares, “It was one of the promises I had made during my campaign – to provide firewood for the funeral pyre free of cost. Earlier, I had seen poor families and also those from the lower caste struggle to collect enough funds to buy wood to cremate their deceased. Being able to perform the funeral rites for a beloved family member as per the rituals is the most basic requirement. So when I took over as the sarpanch, my team and I scouted around for standing dead or dying trees and converted them to firewood for this purpose. Now anyone who needs to use them can approach the Gram Panchayat office where we always have a ready stack available.”

Indeed, Choudhary is a sarpanch with a singular vision, who, unlike her predecessors, is determined to provide good governance and improve people’s lives. Although this 23-year-old student of clinical psychology comes from a family that is well entrenched in the grassroots political system, for the longest time she did not have any political ambitions. Books were her real passion and pursuing an education took up most of her time. However, even as she went about her everyday routine, she did observe how her various relatives got elected to the panchayat as well as the state assembly and yet they never really did much to bring about sustainable development to Pachhmata.

Then, over a year back, as she enrolled for a PhD in Philosophy at Mohanlal Sukhadia University in Udaipur after completing her Master’s in Psychology from Meera Government Girls College in Udaipur, the panchayat elections were announced and her family pushed her to file her nomination because Pachhmata was declared as a reserved seat. Her uncle, Pyar Chand, who had served as sarpanch twice, wanted her to contest for the post. “During his two terms he had not undertaken any development work in the village so I thought that if I could get elected I would work hard to make a real difference. The people deserved no less. After I filed my papers, my cousin’s wife also joined in the race. However, I managed to win the confidence of the people,” she recalls.

Of course, even though the community had previously given their vote to her family, according to Choudhary, they had been shortchanged. Her grandfather, Badri Lal, had been the pradhan (block panchayat head) of Railmagra for more than three decades, her father’s elder brother, Dr Ratan Lal Jat, had been elected to the state assembly from Sahada constituency in Bhilwara in 1998 and 1990, and an uncle, Dr B.R. Chaudhary, is the sitting BJP MLA from Sahada. Yet, none of them were able to bring about any significant change to their panchayat. She elaborates, “They were so well connected politically and could have done so much for their native place but they didn’t. Would you believe it, when I joined office, I found five-year-old pension application forms that had been signed by my uncle but they were never submitted. Everyone eligible under this scheme was under the impression that they weren’t entitled to the benefit.”

She’s completed a year as the head of five revenue villages and there is a visible improvement in not just the local infrastructure but also in terms of the availability of social services. The once unpaved roads have been properly laid out, the local school finally has a boundary wall and its own water tank, street lights are up and functioning and Pachhmata has a new pipeline from the nearby Banas River for drinking water. And that’s not all – the panchayat has gone online with its records related to the government welfare schemes so that no one is denied of their rightful entitlement.

“We approached Kiran Maheshwari, who is our Member of Parliament and the Minister of Public Health Engineering, Ground Water, to give permission for a water pipeline for our area. She sanctioned Rs 66 lakhs for the project and today each village in the panchayat, with the exception of Soniyana, has water connections in every household. We would soon give connections to homes in Soniyana, too. Moreover, Hindustan Zinc Limited, which mines zinc from near our villages, has promised to install RO plants for water purification.”

Another achievement that Chaudhary is particularly proud of is the setting up of e-Mitra kiosks in the panchayat where villagers can look up information on government schemes and know the status of their entitlements without actually visiting the panchayat office.

“Our panchayat bhavan is a little out of the way for the villagers and I did not want people to leave their work commitments and make several trips to my office to enquire about their pensions or Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards. We put out all information online that they can see at the e-Mitra kiosks,” she reveals. For the effortless online transfer of cash benefits, the State Bank of India (SBI) has a dedicated person stationed at the panchayat building everyday to facilitate the opening of accounts and handling other bank related queries.

Naturally, all this work has not gone unnoticed by the community. “She’s far better than the sarpanches we have had in the past,” remarks Kamlesh Choudhary, who runs a general store in the village, adding, “Earlier, it was very difficult for me to go to my fields in the rainy season because the small dirt path leading to them would simply disappear. She has got most of the kachcha roads in the panchayat paved properly, which is a big boon,” he adds.

Vijay Kaur, the English teacher at the Government Girls Upper Primary School in Pachhmata, is all praises for Choudhary’s involvement in the betterment of the school. She says, “It’s better to have a young woman as our leader because she understands the needs as per the changing times. When she visited us after election, we asked her to get a boundary wall erected to prevent miscreants from defacing the school grounds, a common occurrence at the time. Additionally, we have a new, dedicated water tank on our premises.”

So far the enthusiastic leader is pretty happy with the progress her team and she have made. But she feels that there should be more training opportunities for first-timers like her. “I recently met the Panchayati Raj Minister in Jaipur and requested him to provide newcomers like me with additional training so that we are able to provide better governance at the grassroots. It will help us set a progressive agenda for village development,” she says.

(Women's Feature Service)