Having arrived back in Udaipur on New Year’s Day fairly late, we set off the next morning to visit the fruit and vegetable vendors and pop by Seva Mandir to catch up with the team there and wish everyone a Happy and Prosperous New Year. As we were about to leave, we met Narendra Jain, head of the Income Generation Program (for rural communities) and the Secretary of Girwa “block”, one of the seven areas in which Seva Mandir works in southern Rajasthan. We had earlier discussed with Narendra the possibility of accompanying him on a field trip to Kotra, the furthest of the blocks from Udaipur (about 150 km), which we had visited once before. Narendra, who had been the Secretary of Kotra block for a number of years, informed us that he was going down to Kotra the following Monday for a special event and invited us to join him.
In Kotra, Seva Mandir has worked with several village communities to establish and develop a dal (lentil) processing mill as part of its Income Generation Program. The dal mill, which is run and managed by the local community, has been successful in selling to purchasers in Udaipur, like some of the major hotels, and is now even attracting interest from Japan. Last year, the President of the committee managing the mill had died and the special event that Narendra would attend was the election in Medi village of the new President by the local community. It became clear later that this was the third attempt to hold the election meeting.
The trip down to Kotra takes one through some of the most rugged but beautiful countryside to a remote part of Rajasthan.
(More of the journey down in a future blog.)
Kotra borders affluent Gujarat. This is evident when, to reach the dal mill, we take a road which briefly crosses into Gujarat. Immediately over the state border, electricity pylons rise high into the sky: every house is connected to the grid in Gujarat, whereas many villages in Rajasthani Kotra have no electricity supply. Mr Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP party in the forthcoming national elections, is the Chief Minister of Gujarat. His supporters point avidly to the economic success of Gujarat and claim that their candidate is the man to bring much needed change to the national economy. The opinion polls show the BJP with a clear lead but no single party ever obtains a majority of the national vote. The question is which party will lead a coalition supported by a number of strong state-based parties.
The town of Kotra housed a jail in the days before Independence, the British believing that, if a prisoner were to escape, he would surely perish! The jail is still there.
As we left the Seva Mandir block office after a stretch of the legs to head to the dal mill, we passed an accused, handcuffed to one police officer and guarded by a second with rifle slung over the right shoulder, being marched to the courthouse. Without in any way wishing to impugn the right to the presumption of innocence, having glimpsed the accused’s demeanor, we both thought that it would be preferable not to meet this gentleman in broad daylight in the town square let alone on a dark night. We suspected that he was not appearing before the judge on a parking offence. We were told by our hosts that some of the local tribal folk were still expert with bow and arrow and that vehicle hold-ups did take place – a tyre deflated by an expert shot! We were most relieved to be in good and locally respected hands.
On arriving at the dal mill, we were informed that we had a little time before the meeting started and would be accompanied by one of the young Seva Mandir field workers, Himanshu Shekhar, whom we had met twice before, and a local farmer to visit a small cluster of farms which had very recently started to benefit from improved irrigation made possible by a new lift well – of which more in a later blog. It transpired that the lift well project had been started almost two years ago when Narendra was still the Secretary of Kotra block; however, it had taken a very long time for an electricity cable to be brought into the area and connected to the lift’s pump. Even then, electricity was not supplied to the farmers’ houses. More envious glances towards Gujarat!
We returned from that visit to find that the meeting had just commenced with Narendra ‘in the chair’, albeit seated on the ground (in fact on the dal drying platform) in the bright early afternoon sun. We were invited to join the meeting and sit by Narendra. The local villagers speak Mewari, a Rajasthani language, and the proceedings were in a mix of Mewari and Hindi. Himanshu kindly interpreted for us.
It became apparent that there were far fewer villagers present than anticipated and that there were not as many dal mill committee members as had been hoped, although the ranks of the meeting increased as matters proceeded. A first issue, therefore, was whether the election should go ahead. Would an election be regarded as legitimate — a serious issue?
One of the special features of Seva Mandir’s work in the rural areas of southern Rajasthan has been the establishment of community governing bodies which are inclusive of women and which bring together all members of the community, regardless of religion or caste. This is an example of ‘democratic and participatory development’. Whilst we are not enamoured of the terminology, the concept is extremely important and we were about to witness an exemplary exercise in democracy.
Narendra and the Coordinator of Kotra block, Sh Umed Singh, set out the issues and handed the debate over to those present. The meeting was attended by women as well as men,
including senior members of the Panchayat, the local council.
A number of attendees spoke, including the head of the Panchayat. It was reported that this was the third attempt to stage the meeting and that each house in the seven villages involved with the dal mill had been visited; accordingly, due notice had been given. Furthermore, all of the relevant villages except Ghodamari were represented at the meeting.
The production manager of the dal mill, who had kindly shown us the mill working on our previous visit, Sh Sanjay Vakode, was clearly concerned.
However, wise counsel prevailed and the consensus was that the meeting had the authority and indeed the duty to proceed to the election of the President of the dal mill. This was obviously a matter of some relief to Narendra and his colleagues.
The most senior of the villagers present, Sh Dola s/o Kanaji, was consulted and added his support before being asked to pose for a photograph.
The participants also debated how best to proceed. It was agreed that the meeting would elect a new committee of eleven members. The number of committee members from each village would be based on their respective level of participation in the dal mill project. At this point, the representatives of each village caucused separately to select their candidates for the new committee. This process took about fifteen minutes during which there was serious deliberation.
Once each village had selected its committee member or members, the plenary session resumed and the 11 new committee members were introduced to the meeting: 8 men and 3 women.
The new committee then retired to the edge of the dal drying platform to elect not only a new President but also a new Secretary and Treasurer. This process took a further fifteen minutes during which the various responsibilities were explained to the committee.
President, Sh. Kodar lal/Gala ji of Medi village; Secretary, Sh. Basanti lal/Dola ji of Hansreta village; and Treasurer, Smt. Phuli bai w/o Sh Ram lal of Medi village.
The Seva Mandir team emphasised the importance of the responsibilities that were being assumed and the new officers looked solemn.
The new President addressed the meeting.
But the attendees were clearly pleased that the democratic process had resulted in a new team and smiles started to break out, not least from the women. A joke, doubtless in Mewari, brought laughter and even the new Treasurer, who had appeared somewhat daunted by the prospect of taking over responsibility for the financial management of the mill for the next three years, joined in.
We wish everyone concerned good fortune and success! A wonderful example of democracy in action!