Elections are scheduled for January 16, and Norati Bai is not required to be at Harmara Rajiv Gandhi Seva Kendra, the gram panchayat office, any more. However, the 65-year-old scoffs at the suggestion. “See the model code of conduct is in place but can work stop because of that? There are a few pending projects and I have to finish looking at the accounts,” she says, searching for some documents on her desktop.
“Look, everything is here,” she adds, pointing to the shiny LCD screen of her computer. “In the past five years, I must have spent Rs 5 crore and not a penny is unaccounted. We have built 15 kuchcha and pucca roads each, rural latrines, 25 houses under the Indira Awas Yojana, a school boundary, a pond, two rooms for the girls’ school, a restroom for the cemetery, and installed at least 50 handpumps and 40 solar streetlights.”
Today is an exception as Norati has a cold and had to first visit the doctor. As she walks slowly into office, she looks at the time, 2.30 pm, and shakes her head. On most days, she is on her seat at 8 am and stays there till 8 pm. “No exception.” The only break she takes is for a quick lunch and nap in the afternoon. “In my early years, I used to work for hours on end but now I tend to get tired and breathless,” she gives a wan smile.
As Norati walks in, others make way for her to get to her cushioned metal chair and switch on her desktop. A copy of the ruling BJP’s monthly newsletter Sujas lies on her table along with sundry applications and letters. A steel almirah has neatly arranged documents of projects, while another metal drawer set has a pink paper file, a ready reckoner prepared by Norati.
Come January 16, all this may end for her. An ordinance passed by the Vasundhara Raje government makes it compulsory for anyone contesting the sarpanch’s post in the state to be Class VIII pass and for those contesting zila parishad or panchayat samiti polls to have cleared Class X.
Norati, who never went to school, who is the mother of four, who is the first sarpanch from her family belonging to the Scheduled Caste Raigar community, and who in 2008 was called to address the UN General Assembly in recognition of her role as an activist, may be nudged out of a second run.
Last week, along with four other sitting sarpanch and panchayat samiti members, Norati filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging the ordinance.
The moment she has settled down in her office, a youth walks in seeking help in getting a job card. She reminds him that he is yet to submit all the documents. Looking at him leave, Norati notes that while she would have had to vacate Harmara anyway as the seat has been reserved for OBCs, it matters for her to “stay in the system”.
A 12-km-long winding road ridden with potholes, that turns off the Jaipur-Ajmer highway at Kishangarh, leads to Harmara. In 1981, Norati was among the construction workers employed to lay the road as part of famine relief work. She realised then the ways of officialdom, she says. She and the other women working on the road were paid Rs 2-Rs 3 per day as wage. When she realised the state government had fixed a minimum wage of Rs 7 per day for all government jobs except famine relief work, she mobilised over 700 workers and led a protest.
It led to the historic Sanjit Roy vs Government of Rajasthan and Government of India case of 1983, directing that minimum wages be also applied to famine relief work.
In the 1980s, Norati joined adult literacy classes to learn to read and write and to understand basic issues. She proved remarkably adept at learning the computer. Despite having no formal education, she now teaches computers to local girls.
In the years that followed, Norati participated in women’s rights movements, as well as sat on protests over RTI and NREGA among other issues. Norati was invited to attend conferences in Beijing and Germany and, in 2008, to address the UN General Assembly where she released the women’s development report of the year.
In 2010, when the Harmara panchayat seat was reserved for an SC woman, Norati decided to contest. Given her popularity, including in the neighbouring Naya Gaon village that is part of the panchayat, she won by 723 votes. Few contest that she has turned around the village since, bringing it concrete roads, handpumps and jobs.
Scrolling up and down her computer screen, she shows documents and pictures of the projects she has sanctioned, and points out that she has digital records of all BPL cardholders and job cardholders of her panchayat. A pre-drafted letter on her computer makes it easy for villagers to get residential proof approvals for opening new bank accounts or for other work.
At 7.30 pm, she takes a break for a walk around the panchayat, pointing out the solar streetlights and concrete lanes that have come up in her time. She studiously avoids the lane barely 200 metres away, down which is located her house, perhaps one of the most modest in the village.
Incidentally, one of the Raje government’s arguments for bringing the ordinance specifying educational qualification is that unlettered panchayat officials may fail to stem fund embezzlements right under their nose.
Lack of formal education has never come in the way of her duties, Norati avers. “We might not be literate but we are concerned about our praja (subjects). In fact the educated ones are more corrupt. They know hundreds of ways to circumvent the law,” she says.
Besides, she adds, “There are government-appointed secretaries who do all the paperwork. So this argument that an uneducated sarpanch can be taken for a ride is all humbug. Of course if the secretary does take us for a ride, then the government should fix that. But isn’t it worth pondering over that if MLAs and MPs do not need such educational qualifications, why do we?”
Now it is 8.30 pm, long past working hours, but visitors keep walking into her office, sure of finding Norati there.
Headed home finally, Norati lets her guard down to admit that she is acutely aware of the personal disadvantages of not going to school — especially these days. So even as she and her husband, a daily wage labourer, could not afford an education for their children, she has made sure that her granddaughter complete a Bachelors of Education degree and pursue a career.
Waiting for her at home are her husband, a son and his wife. The daughter-in-law, she chuckles, takes care of most of the household chores.
Norati remains sure of winning the latest fight she has begun too. Chirping up nearer home, she says: “People like us who did not manage to get an education, we cannot be left out in the cold. I will fight in courts. Ladenge toh jeetenge (If we fight, we will win).”