New Delhi: With the Covid-19 pandemic enforcing unprecedented restrictions and a nationwide lockdown, local governments and officials at the grassroots level have never been more important.
The burden of the migrant workers crisis, setting up and managing quarantine centres, supplying ration and providing employment to returning labourers has fallen on the shoulders of the gram pradhans or mukhiyas (village heads), both at the panchayat as well as village level.
In Bihar’s Singhwahini panchayat, that task has fallen on Ritu Jaiswal.
When you think of gram pradhans, the image conjured for most is usually of a moustachioed, kurta-clad man, typically in his late 50s, sometimes sporting a turban.
However, 43-year-old Jaiswal is the exception.
As the mukhiya in charge of the seven villages that make up Singhwahini panchayat, she has been essential to how these villages have responded to the crisis.
Living in Singhwahini
When ThePrint visited Singhwahini, we saw painted signs on walls reminding people to follow the lockdown guidelines and spreading awareness about the Covid-19 disease.
‘Gaon mein gutka thukne par Rs 500 ka jurmana (You will be fines Rs 500 for spitting gutka in the village), ‘Jab tak rahegi lockdown, aap unka palan kare (Do follow the rules of the lockdown until it’s in force) and even a full form of corona in Hindi: ‘KOi bhi ROad par NA nikle (Nobody should come out on the roads).
This is just one of the initiatives of Jaiswal. Another is the cottage industry of masks and phenyl production she had the village women set up.
“Both masks and phenyl are in immediate demand and will ensure fast, easy cash in the hands of women, which they can utilise to run the household as the men in the family are out of work,” Jaiswal told ThePrint.
The idea came when Jaiswal realised women were falling into massive debt traps with local sahukars (lenders) since their husbands were either stuck in or returning from cities without jobs.
The masks are sold at Rs 20 per piece while the phenyl is sold for Rs 300 per litre.
“With reverse migration, cases of domestic violence might increase. Therefore, I think it is of utmost importance now to increase employment and income for both men and women,” Jaiswal said.
“Apart from employment under MGNREGA and making masks, hand-wash and phenyl, we will soon be launching a panchayat website where pictures of products prepared here … will be put up … this is for branding the products to Singhwahini and to its people. From ghee to kapur (camphor), oil and besan (gram flour), everything will be produced here and sold,” she added.
From South Delhi to Bihar’s villages
A Hajipur native, Jaiswal was living in South Delhi’s Siri Fort locality with her husband when she first visited Singhwahini in 2013.
She remembers being taken aback at the condition of the flood-hit hamlet. All seven villages lacked basic amenities such as electricity, clean drinking water and toilets.
“When I had to walk down the river to reach the village with chappals in my hand, human excreta clogging my feet, I could only remember Prem Chand’s stories. My heart sank when I saw people of these villages living in extreme poverty, children and pregnant women malnourished. There was no youth in these villages, it only had old men and women, pregnant women, children and widows,” she recalled.
Viewed from the lens of her relatively very comfortable life, Jaiswal found it hard to shake off the experience.
She kept returning every five to six months to help improve the village conditions. Finally in 2016, she gave up her city life for the backward, neglected, flood-hit region when she became mukhiya.
In the time before she was elected, Jaiswal had already begun working for the electrification of the villages. By the start of 2017, the region had 100 per cent electrification.
In October 2016, Singhwahini was declared open defecation-free, just three months after Jaiswal took charge. As many as 2,500 toilets were built across the panchayat between July and September that year.
She was conferred with the ‘Ucch Sikshit Adarsh Yuva Sarpanch’ award for her exemplary work that same year, making her the only mukhiya in Bihar to have received it.
“Ritu Jaiswal has changed the way Singhwahini looked in her tenure. She is known for her determination, and her hard work has very well transformed into reality, the condition of the villages has improved,” said a senior Sitamarhi district official, who didn’t wish to be named said.
Counting on family
An economics graduate from Vaishali Mahila College in Hajipur, Jaiswal married Arun Kumar, a former commissioner at the Central Vigilance Commission, in 1995. Through his job, the family lived in several cities, including Jabalpur, Nagpur, Mumbai and Delhi.
The couple has two children, Ritwik and Avani, who were their primary concern when Jaiswal decided to run for the panchayat election. They eventually decided to send them to boarding schools, said Kumar.
Currently based in Bengaluru, 19-year-old Ritwik is enrolled with IGNOU for his undergraduation while he prepares for the civil services exam. Sixteen-year-old Avani is in class 12.
“I am a feminist … so when Ritu made her decision, we, as a family, supported her. Ritu has always been admired for her sincerity and determination and that’s how she transformed all the seven villages of Singhwahini,” said Kumar, who took voluntary retirement and set up a coaching institute, Magnus IAS, in Patna. The institute provides free coaching to children from backward communities.
“Even if she plans to further her political career in the future, one thing is for sure — her ideology, no matter which party she joins, will always remain social work and community welfare,” he added.
Journey through the village
Until 2016, all of the seven villages — Narkatia, Khutha, Kaharwa, Badi Singhwahini, Choti Singhwahini, Bhagwanpur and Jankinagar — had no roads. One of the main reasons was the yearly flooding of the Adhwara group of rivers which constantly washed away whatever roads were there.
“Each year we make them, the floods finish them off. We have to again start from the scratch after the flood season is over,” said Jaiswal.
In her four years as mukhiya, Jaiwal built roads as well as toilets and brought electricity to every household. But she knew that transforming Singhwahini would take more than that. For these facilities to really matter, the villagers needed to change as well.
“Bringing a behavioural change in them was a challenge, especially when it comes to using toilets built at home. We had to make the men of the families understand why defecating in the open is bad for them and for their women. Cobra attacks were so common back then and most people got bitten during excretion in the fields,” Jaiswal said.
Jaiswal also took upon the task of getting villagers to not believe heavily in superstitions and be more aware of gender-based violence. She said she relied on movies like Oh my God and Bhool Bhulaiya.
“We arranged a set up with projectors and ran the movies — this was a way of making them aware against superstitions and stopping domestic violence,” she said.
“I have always believed that in order to develop a village, the women need to be financially empowered first and that’s why we started the transformation process by first training young girls in tailoring, beauty parlours, and nursing,” she added.
Jaiswal collaborated with NGOs in Patna to educate and train the youth of the village, and hired a tutor to help them clear their 10 and 12 board exams.
“My father fell sick while he was working in the city. So, when Ritu ma’am asked me to join tailoring classes, I was overjoyed. Right now, I am stitching masks, and also know how to stitch basic garments,” said Bindu Devi of Narkatiya.
To further empower women, Jaiswal has also facilitated loans for women to buy goats and cows through the Jeevika programme.
“Ritu ji has not only transformed the village’s infrastructure wise, but also brought a change in the voting pattern. Earlier, people here only voted on the basis of caste, but now they want to see leaders who want to bring a change — on ground,” said Ramchabeela Rai, a government school teacher from a nearby panchayat.
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