A Story from Soda, Rajasthan

In many ways, the story of Soda is the story of India. Soda falls in the Tonk district, an erstwhile princely state in Rajasthan which has been declared one of the most backward districts in the country, by the Indian Government. A few years ago, Soda had no pakka (concrete) roads, very few pakka (permanent) houses, a dirty pond and a barely functioning school system. The supply of drinking water was irregular and there were no toilets.

To put it simply, the villagers of Soda were fed up at the lack of progress. Determined to move themselves out of poverty and build a better life for themselves, they elected a new sarpanch (village head) with radically different ideas.

Chhavi Rajawat is one of India's most driven sarpanchs and the first sarpanch with a business management degree in the country. At the time of her election, she was the youngest sarpanch in the country . Chhavi is no outsider to the people of Soda. This is her ancestral village and tired of the existing political options, the villagers of Soda asked her to fight the election. In trucks, packs of villagers went to her family house in Jaipur and refused to leave until she agreed to fight the election!

Chhavi studied at the Rishi Valley School Bangalore, Lady Shriram College in Delhi and topped her MBA class in the Indian Institute of Modern Management, Pune. At the behest of the villagers, she left her plum corporate job to become the sarpanch of Soda. That was 8 years ago.

“I didn’t have to think about it much because Soda is where I belong and it needs me. In fact, the villagers broke all barriers of caste, gender and religion to ensure my victory . In Soda, not even one per cent of the voters are from my own caste. They [the villagers] wanted to prove that development is the most important factor for which they can overlook all politically created differences.” ~ Chhavi Rajawat on her election

In a span of 8 years since she got elected, Rajawat has worked to ensure regular supply of drinking water in the village households and has led the construction of more than 40 roads. In a small village of a desert state, toilets have been constructed for all the 950 houses. She also got a soft drink company to invest into cleaning a pond, the only source of drinking water in the village. She is currently helping organize massive educational interventions in the village.

Chhavi is one of the most inspiring people I know. I don't necessarily admire her because she gave up a lucrative corporate career. I admire her because of the tenacity of her vision. Being a woman leader in India is hard. Being a woman leader in rural Rajasthan is crazy hard. When I visited Soda, I was blown away by the amount of good work Chhavi and the villagers have accomplished in just 8 years. The villagers adore her and they fondly call her "bai-sa". There's a lot to learn from Chhavi's story but the biggest lesson I learnt from Chhavi is the power of relentless effort. Chhavi Rajawat refuses to give up. For her work, she has been attacked, laughed at, ignored and insulted. And yet, she is still here. Launching more and more ambitious projects. Working together with the villagers of Soda for a better India.

Soda isn't perfect and the work has just begun. Chhavi's vision for Soda is to bring in people with different expertise and build a truly integrated inclusive model village. She hopes that the Soda model would inspire other villages and people across the country to participate in the rural revolution.

Today, Soda is full of young dreamers and doers. They have the right intent and capacity to build better lives for themselves and their communities. All they need is for us to amplify their existing intent and capacity. Soda is currently looking for volunteers for several projects ~ Learn more at villagesoda.org !

~ Manu Chopra