LIFE TOOK an unexpected turn for Rekha when she was elected as the sarpanch of Chapla Mori village in Fatehabad. At 21 years and two months, she was the youngest sarpanch to be elected in Haryana. And she was the first one from her family to be elected as one. Not just that, she was also the first sarpanch of her village, which, till then, had a common panchayat with two other villages, Salem Khera and Dhani Miyan Khan.
A little more than a year later, Rekha, who was then employed with a burger chain, is still trying to adjust to her new life. It is her father Bansi Lal who is handling most of her work in the village. She says she is “learning the ropes.”
Chapla Mori is a small village with a population of around 2,000 and is dominated by the Bishnoi caste. The village has a primary school, but no health centre.
Rekha says she was never an outgoing person, and her becoming sarpanch has not changed that.
“Election se pehle mujhe poochte the ladki kiski hai. Jaante hi nahi the mujhe. Ab jaan ne lage hai. Paas mein tauji ka ghar hai, main unke ghar bhi nahi jaati. Meri aadat hi nahi kisi ke ghar jaane ki,” (Before the election people did not know me and used to ask whose daughter is this. Now they have started recognising me. I don’t even go to my uncle’s house, which is next door. It is not my habit.)
After completing Class XII, Rekha undertook vocational training under Deen Dyal Upadhyay Grameen Kaushalya Yojana. As part of the training she went to Chandigarh and joined a fast food chain. For around two years, life for her revolved around taking orders and tossing burgers. Visits home were once every fortnight.
That was until she got a call from her father that she needs to come to the village and sign her nomination papers. Her father Bansi Lal says that when the village had a common panchayat, he worked for the villagers at Chapla Mori and when a decision was announced that their village will have a separate panchayat, the villagers wanted him to be sarpanch. However, the seat was reserved for a Scheduled Caste woman. It was then decided that his wife Krishna Devi would be nominated. When the Haryana government announced the elections, Rekha was a few months short of her 21st birthday.
The elections were deferred after the Haryana government’s changes introducing the condition of minimum educational qualification for sarpanches was challenged in the courts. By the time, the court order came upholding the changes, Rekha had turned 21. Since Krishna Devi was uneducated, it was decided that Rekha would be fielded.
When the results were announced, Rekha had polled 610 votes against 390 of her rival Nirmal Rani. One change did come immediately after the election: Rekha stopped working in the fields during the wheat harvest in her family’s fields.
After the election, Rekha was reluctant to leave her job in Chandigarh and went back to the food chain. However, the villagers started objecting to her absence. There was talk among the villagers that she had got married in Chandigarh. Her family then asked Rekha to quit her job, which she did in October last year. In March, she joined a four-month course for becoming a beautician.
“I miss my work and being in Chandigarh. However, people in the village objected to it. I am now hoping to enroll in a college and pursue BA. Maybe I can pick up a job somewhere near,” she says.
Rekha adds, “Gaon ki panchayat ke mamlon ka mujhe itna pata nahi hota….toh papa ko hi bolti hoon. Waise saath chale jaati hoon, par kehti hoon aap hi decide karo.” (I do not know much about the issues of the village. So I ask my father to handle. Though I go with him, I ask him to take decisions.)
Rekha says it was initially odd for her when she became sarpanch. She says that the way she used to speak changed as she started using less Haryanvi. “I started saying sir and ma’am which the people in the village do not like. They go to my father when they have some work. But they do involve me in events in the village,” she says.
Krishna Devi chips in and says, “Rekha jab zaroori kaam hove toh jaave nahi toh rekha ke papa hi jaavein.” (Rekha goes when there is an important work. Otherwise it is her father who goes.)
As The Indian Express was visiting their home, Haryana government officials who were involved in assessing damage to the wheat crops in the village following heavy rain and hailstorm, come to the sarpanch’s house. It is Bansi Lal who deals with them.
He says that she is still young and does not know about the village. “She will learn eventually,” he says.
Rekha says with pride that their village has become open defecation free. “There were some families who were not agreeing to construction of toilets. Then for around a month, my father used to keep watch during the morning. In the evening, the women in the village used to keep guard. Finally, all families got toilets,” she says, adding that she wants to upgrade the village school and have health facilities, but the lack of land is proving a deterrent.
The others in the village are divided over Rekha’s abilities to be a sarpanch.
“Koi aadmi sarpanch ho toh log uski baat sunte hain. Hum dekhte hain jis gaon mein aadmi sarpanch hain, police aur afsar bhi baat sunte hai. Yeh kya karegi? (If a man is sarpanch, people listen to him. I have seen in villages where men are sarpanch, police and officials listen to them. What will she do?),” says a villager, Urmila.
Another villager, Krishan, says it was the villagers who chose to make her the sarpanch. He says, “She cannot do anything alone. We will take her along and give her respect so that she works for the welfare of the village.”