The term ‘village head’ generally brings to minds images of stout kurta-clad men with impressive moustaches and turbans. The mukhia of Singhwahini village in Bihar is a notable exception.
Petite and pertinacious, Ritu Jaiswal has been leading the development of this nondescript, flood-affected village for the past few years. Married to IAS officer Arun Kumar, the 40-year-old mother of two kids shunned an easygoing life with her bureaucrat spouse in Delhi’s posh Khelgaon to work towards the betterment of Singhwahini and its residents.
Born and brought up in Vaishali in Bihar, Ritu was passionate about social work from a young age. As a school student, she would frequently participate in local campaigns that aimed to help underprivileged people, especially destitute women. The civic-minded girl continued doing so even while pursuing her graduation (and later, post graduation) in Economics.
In 1996, Ritu married Arun Kumar, a 1995 batch civil servant. A few years after marriage, when Ritu visited her in-laws’ ancestral home in Sitamarhi’s Sonbarsha block, she was deeply distressed to see the multiple problems plaguing the village. There was no electricity, no proper roads, no sanitation and no source of safe drinking water. Open defecation was rampant while the village school languished sans teachers.
Resolving to change this situation, Ritu became a frequent visitor to Singhwahini. Her first step was to tackle the pathetic state of education in the village.
One of the village girls had completed her BEd and was working as a school teacher in Bokaro. Ritu offered the girl a higher monthly salary from her own pocket if she would return to the village and teach the students who had dropped out from school. The girl acquiesced and started teaching the 25 girls who had dropped out from the village school.
Ritu’s efforts paid off when, for the first time in the history of the village, 12 of these girls passed their matriculation exams with flying colours in 2015!
Next, Ritu started conducting village meetings on pertinent issues such as open defecation, domestic violence, female infanticide and organic farming. She even brought a projector to show relevant videos and infotainment seminars to the villagers.
When enquiries revealed that an electrification scheme had been sanctioned for Singhwahini but not implemented, Ritu mobilised a campaign involving the villagers to get the scheme executed. Thanks to the well-planned initiative, for the first time, bulbs were lit and fans came to life in the village’s 80-odd households
Tackling one issue after another, Ritu was soon spending more time in the village than at her home in Delhi. That’s when she realized that if she was to fulfil her dream of transforming the village, she would have to move full-time to the village.
It was an extremely tough decision for her — choosing between her family and her mission — but Ritu’s husband and children gave her their full support. They told her that, whenever possible, they would travel to the village to spend time with her. Her daughter even told her that she would willing study in a residential school so that their mother could teach the village kids.
These were the words that finally gave Ritu the courage and conviction to take the big step of living and working full-time in the remote hamlet.
In 2016, the villagers of Singhwahini requested Ritu to contest elections for the post of the village mukhia (head of the panchayat). Though politics had never been a part of her plan, the villagers’ faith in her leadership convinced to her contest the election.
Winning by a huge margin (she bagged 72% of the votes!), the young mukhia immediately got to work. Her first challenge was the widespread practice of open defecation. To tackle this, Ritu created an ‘army’ of women who would swing into action every morning around 4 am to reason with men and women on their way to defecate in the fields.
She also collaborated with the District Magistrate of the region, Rajeev Roshan, to build around 2000 toilets (one in every home) in the villages under her panchayat. The hard work paid off when Singhwahini was declared ODF (open defecation free) in October 2016. The next thing she targeted were the village’s crumbling mud roads.
Realising that the government funds were bogged in interminable delays and that the villagers were reluctant to part with their own savings, Ritu began using her money to upgrade the village roads. Moved by her efforts, the villagers gradually began contributing to the project, helping the work complete faster. Today, all the kuchha roads in Singhwahini have been converted to paved pucca roads
Ritu’s next project was plugging the loopholes in the village’s PDS (Public Distribution System). With the BDO (Block Development officer) looking the other way and dealers refusing to reply to her queries, she and her small team embarked on a mammoth effort to collect the ration cards of the 14000 villagers covered by the panchayat.
Once this was done, Ritu’s team compared and tabulated the details to calculate the exact requirement per family and cross-check if there had been any mismatch/hoarding in the allotment. She then submitted these details to the DM, thanks to which, corrupt officials and dealers were weeded out. As a plus, the allocation of ration supplies also became more efficient.
Asked if being a woman was a disadvantage at any point of her journey, Ritu told Times of India,
“Officials often took me for granted at times, but my education helped me overcome that. For instance, our BDO’s facial expression was to be seen to be believed when I confronted him with an excel sheet containing the PDS ration data. I also got a few threatening calls from landlords when I tried to educate farm workers about their rights.”
But Ritu stuck to the path she had chosen for herself, undeterred by the taunts and threats that came her way. Soon after the election, she had appointed teachers in all the nine schools under the panchayat. However, while these teachers had cut down on their frequent leave-taking (thanks to Ritu’s regular inspections), they would often come very late to school.
To tackle this issue, Ritu encouraged the villagers to resort to ‘Gandhigiri’. Whenever the teachers came late, one of the students would go inform the villagers who would all collect around the school gate. Greeted with folded hands and the wry words “Kya sir, hum aapka do ghante se intezaar kar rahein hain“, the flustered and frightened teachers soon began mending their ways.
Next, Ritu established vocational training centres (such as tailoring centres for women and phone repair workshops for men) to provide livelihood opportunities for the villages. She also invited various NGOs to partner with the Panchayat in spreading awareness and addressing the issues concerning the village, especially skill development and sustainable farming.
Thanks to her efforts, self-employment has increased among the villagers, with several shops being opened in the village and neighbouring area. A team from ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) has also started working with local cultivators. All the 12 wards under the panchayat have their own hand pumps and construction is underway for the creation of small reservoirs (for the benefit of farmers and local fishermen).
In August 2017, when massive floods hit the Sitamarhi district, Ritu had the choice of returning to Delhi, but she didn’t do that. Instead, she worked night and day, participating in the rescue missions, helping the injured and living alongside the flood victims in the relief camps (re-purposed school buildings). Little wonder that this gutsy sarpanch holds a very special place in the heart of all her villagers.
In 2016, Ritu was awarded the Ucch Sikshit Adarsh Yuva Sarpanch award for her exemplary work as a village head. The only mukhia in Bihar to win this coveted award, Ritu has shown how women can elbow past patriarchal structures to powerful effect. And last but not the least, her inspiring story reveals how good grassroots leadership can make a huge difference in a country plagued by corruption and inefficiency.