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Ironing the Panchayati Raj with Ritu Jaiswal

Ritu Jaiswal is a Mukhia of Singhvahi village, Dist – Sitamarhi ,Bihar. She is also a leader of Local self help Group, She awarded with Uchh Shikshit Adarsh Yuva sarpanch Puraskaar in 2016, she is a Champions of Change Awardee by Government of India in 2018.

Way back in 2014, Ritu Jaiswal visited Narkatia village in Bihar’s Sitamarhi district for the first time ever. It is her husband’s ancestral village and, even though she had been married for 15 years, she had been unable to convince the family to take a trip down memory lane before that.

Four years later, at 41, she not only lives in the village but she is also the elected Mukhiya of the Singhwahini Gram Panchayat that administers Narkatia. Against all odds, she stood for and won the Panchayat elections on the insistence of the villagers.

She got married in 1996 to Arun Kumar, an IAS officer, and moved to Delhi. “My husband has always stood by my side,” says Ritu, whose decision to shift to a village was not an easy one. Her son Aryan is in Class 12 and daughter Avani in Class nine. Both study in a boarding school in Bengaluru.

She set out on a mission: To change the face of the village and to improve the lives of its people. At first, between 2014 and 2016, she used to make frequent trips to the village before she shifted entirely in 2016. 

Here is the essence of the interview with Ritu Jaiswal

Infeed: It is an inspiring story for India who lives in Tier 1 or Tier 2 cities and aims of  a better city of the country or of the world, so what inspired you to be in Panchayati Raj, was an inner instinct or something inspired you for that?

Ritu Jaiswal : No, I was a simple woman since starting, I too was like all other girls of Tier 1 or Tier 2 cities, thinking of family, home, kitty party. I never thought of anything more than that. I was having a small business but I never thought of coming to politics.

Infeed: What inspired you to move from a family of bureaucrats to going to a village and being a part of a Village Panchayat, the smallest unit of Indian democracy system?

Ritu: I had never seen a village in real; I had only the perception as shown to us by Bollywood as having greenery everywhere, happy lifestyle, less pollution. Even after my marriage, I had never been to my in-laws’ ancestral village even after 15 years of my marriage. But when my children grew up, I decided to go to the village. 

Infeed: How different was real village than what you have thought of it to be?

Ritu: When I reached there, I realised that there is a huge gap in the lifestyle of a village and what people are living in Mumbai or Delhi. I observed that Indian villages are still the same, as what I have studied in the stories of Munshi Premchand during my early school days. There were no connecting roads to the village, the vehicles used to stop at a point, then one has to board a bullock cart to reach further and finally has to cross a river with water upto the waist to reach to the interior of the village, which used to be my in-laws’ ancestral village. They have left the village when my husband was only in tenth standard. Even in 2014, there was no electricity, no road connectivity, the entire village was surrounded by water, no potable water was available, as the entire water was contaminated due to open defecation. There was not a single young individual in the village as agriculture was the only source of livelihood in the village, that too was not a full time affair as the farms used to remain submerged in water for 3-4 months of the year.Dehydration was a common problem among the residents of the village. 

Infeed: How much away is your panchayat from District HQ?

Ritu: Sitamari is my district. The panchayat is 65 km from district headquarters. But it is an isolated village on the border of Nepal. People have not seen black roads, not even an electricity bulb! 

Infeed: What was the situation of girls in your panchayat and how you worked on improvising it?

Ritu: I had a talk with girls, then I came to know that they were married at the age of 13 years, were given only primary education in the village’s school. HIV infection was very common among the children and women of the village. The entire scene was very disturbing and I left the village, but  the situation of the village kept haunting my heart and my mind. 

After 6 months, I came back to the village, alone without my family, the situation was the same. I spent some time, talking to the villagers and identified their problems. The girls told me that they want to study. I hired a lady teacher from Bokaro who used to teach the girls, and now after their hard work, the girls have passed metric, post-matric examinations. Some of them have done nursing and hotel management courses. I feel proud to see the girls, who were not even knowing how to dress and even speak proper Hindi, are now working as front desk executives in 5 and 7 star hotels of the country and communicating with the guests in English. These were small steps, I took initially for the upliftment of girls in this Village panchayat. 

Infeed: What are few social changes that you took at your level for the upliftment of the village panchayat?

Ritu: My first step was towards girl education. After this, I tried to solve problems one by one, like electricity, defecation. 

Infeed: What thought inspired you to contest the election of Gram Panchayat Sarpanch and how was your election campaign as you were nowhere related to a political background and much away from the caste based politics prevalent in Gram Panchayats?

Ritu: I used to visit the village regularly since 2014, and spend about 3-4 days every month, in the village. But, the things were not going on as I thought. When I came in 2016, the time of Panchayat election was going on. I realised that 35-40 people contest for the election of Panchayat Mukhiya and they spend about 35-40 lacs just for the post of panchayat pramukh. The people told me that, in Bihar, people vote only as per their caste and not on issues. But such statement couldn’t deter me and I filed my nomination for Panchayat Pramukh. I met people, tried to identify their problems and explained them the importance of development. I was not knowing what election campaign is, but I wanted to uplift the people from the lifestyle they were living. I realised that when someone files a nomination, it is not that a candidate must know the problems of the constituency, the economic condition of each and every family, the hospitals, the schools. One should chalk out each and every problem of his or her constituency.

Infeed: Was the election result as per your expectation?

Ritu: I never hoped that I will garner so much support that where people win by a margin of 30-40 votes, I won by a margin of 1800 votes. I realised that people don’t vote for caste. They vote for caste only when all the candidates are the same. If a better option is available, they wait for it, and the voters of my constituency proved it. 

Infeed: What were the main works you took under your consideration as priority after winning an election?

Ritu: The next phase started, when I started the structural development. I built 3000 toilets in a span of 2 months only and the entire panchayat became ODF in just a span of 2 months. The women of the panchayat started cleanliness drive. 

The third problem was the road connectivity. People couldn’t come to village after 6 PM. I tried hard and made it possible that road connectivity reached the panchayat. Now the panchayat has roads, bridges and better infrastructure.

Next,  was the condition of woman. There is a large number of widows in the panchayat, but they were ill treated by the families of in laws.

Infeed: Your story resembles the story of Late Smt. Sheila Dixit, whose husband was also a bureaucrat. How does your husband inspire you to be a politician?

Ritu:  My husband was far away in Delhi, but I was in a remote place in Bihar. He used to take care of children, and that was a big help for me.

Infeed: Was it a regular dining table discussion at your home way back in Delhi along with your husband, which helped you to live a social life?

Ritu:  No, I completely lived a simple life in Delhi, totally away from all these social life. I used to participate in social activities like a normal human usually does in Delhi, like visiting orphanage and distribution blankets etc. 

Infeed: What do you think about the policies framed at the centre for the villages and how they impact the villages. Do they actually help the villages?

Ritu: Yes, there are many such instances. One example is Mid-day Meal scheme. People sitting in Tier-1 and Tier -2 cities feel that Mid-day Meal has stopped the studies in the schools, but in real sense, Mid-day Meal program has helped to fight the caste system in remote villages where children of all castes sit together and have lunch. Secondly is Anganwadi program, where the children of working women are kept safe, provided food and taken care of, so that working woman, mostly a labour can work with a free mind. Yes, I agree that they have not worked in most of the cases as they were planned to be, but it is not the wrong policies, but wrong implementation.

Infeed: You reside in the area, heavily affected by the recent  flood. do you have the freedom to take the calls during such natural disasters, or the bureaucrats like BDO  interfere a lot in the relief work?

 Ritu: I will narrate an example. During 2017 flood, it was announced by the central government that an amount of Rs, 12000 will be paid to each flood affected family. But, all of a sudden the amount was reduced to Rs. 6000 to be deposited in a bank account and food packets to be given worth Rs. 6000, but the food packets were not of cost more than Rs. 700/-.  

Infeed: What was the impact of the prize you received from Vice President on the development of your village?

Ritu:  The residents of the village were very much happy when I received the prize. They were satisfied that a person from among themselves has got the prize for the good work and that their panchayat is being recognised on national arena all from nowhere in a span of just 2-3 years. 

Infeed : Whom do you see as your future role model in current political scenario?

Ritu: There is no leader who is so inspirational in the current political scenario, but post independence, Indira Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj inspires me a lot. Indira Gandhi led the country well and she is ideal for women empowerment. Same is the case of Sushma Swaraj who was a good orator. Currently, Moina Mitra is a good orator and she has the capability to put thoughts in front of people.

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