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MBA-turned-village chief takes on India's bureaucracy

Chhavi Rajawat (left, in baseball cap) meets with some of her constituents in the village of Soda, near Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.

Simon de Trey-White

In the village of Soda, as in tens of thousands of villages across India, there is a problem: Only a third of households have toilets or access to a latrine. People walk out to surrounding fields to relieve themselves, which is a particular problem for women, who according to rules of modesty can go only under cover of darkness.

Soda, however, has something all those other toilet-less villages do not. It has an iPhone-wielding sarpanch, its elected village head, who bounds around the dusty lanes in sleek Nike running shoes and has aggregated all the data on the toilet crisis into a PowerPoint presentation she is using to try to bring sanitation to Soda.

What's happened here in the past few years – and what hasn't happened – offers a rare window into the way in which the vast scale and survival instincts of India's bureaucracy can obstruct the very development it was created to deliver.

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Chhavi Rajawat, a poised 34-year-old with an MBA, had a promising career in corporate sales for Indian and international companies before becoming the sarpanch of Soda. Today she has an encyclopedic knowledge of the water level in the village reservoir; which children turned up for school today; and how many of the promised central government rupees have arrived to pay for a public-works program. Since she was elected, Soda has new roads, a rehabilitated reservoir, a smart, new bank branch and a burgeoning national reputation as a showpiece for the progress that is possible in a place the government officially categorizes as "backward."

Yet many of the village's streets are still a swampy mess. The reservoir, in this chronically drought-stricken area, holds only a tenth what it is meant to. Village schools have half the teachers they are meant to. And an exasperated Ms. Rajawat finds herself stymied by district and state bureaucrats who, she says, have no interest in seeing her one-woman revolution succeed and ruffle the status quo.

Her transformation from urban professional to village chief began three years ago when a delegation of 50 men from Soda, Ms. Rajawat's ancestral village, went to the state capital of Jaipur, where she was working. They came to see her father and grandfather first with a startling request: elections were coming for the sarpanch, and that year the seat was reserved for a woman. They wanted Ms. Rajawat to hang up her power suit and come back to the village.

To run it.

"I think it was a crafty move on their part," she recalled with a laugh. "This is a culture where you are still supposed to listen to your elders, and I think they thought that if they persuaded my dad first, then I'd have to do it."

Her dad, in fact, said no – "He knew how dirty it was."

But Ms. Rajawat, when the question was put to her, said yes. "I had a very emotional connection to the village. And I thought: If I don't come forward for my own home, with my background – it may seem boastful, but government could reach such high benefit by taking advantage of me."

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Forty years ago, her grandfather, a decorated military officer from one of Soda's more prosperous families, was pressed into being sarpanch when he retired. Villagers surmised, correctly, that with his war-hero reputation he would have connections that could be good for Soda. He brought the village a high school, a water tank, electricity and a health centre.

But Soda had seen little progress in the 20 years since he left office and, in Ms. Rajawat, people saw a chance to reignite development efforts. So she ran, and, in February, 2010, was swept into office in a landslide.

Ms. Rajawat keeps her long black hair, tinged with grey at her temples, tied in a loose knot; when she goes out into the streets of Soda, she stuffs it under a Philadelphia Phillies ballcap and puts on a pair of aviator sunglasses. She prompted some lifted eyebrows when she wore skinny jeans to her first meetings of the panchayat, or village council. These days she pairs her Nikes with bright print salwar-kameez.

As soon as Ms. Rajawat took up her post, she went to the district office seeking access to some of the millions of rupees set aside by the central government for toilet construction. Nonsense, officials said, your people want water. No, Ms. Rajawat said, they want toilets. "Who was going into villages to ask? It was strangers, and it was men. Women were not going to come and tell them they wanted toilets. But they told me." She managed to get the government to build some outdoor toilets, but construction was so poor people wouldn't use them, she said. She began to raise money privately to build proper cement latrines with doors.

Water was an issue. The region is entirely dependent on agriculture, but the rains had failed year after year. Ms. Rajawat was determined to revive the traditional reservoir that, if rain came, would help farmers and provide an alternative to contaminated groundwater. The whole community – some 900 households of about seven people each – came out to volunteer to try to excavate it. But no one at any level of government would provide funds or assistance to get the equipment they needed, she said.

"I was so frustrated – there were dead cattle carcasses all around. I said to my mom, 'It's gonna rain and I haven't been able to do anything!' " As a vote of confidence, her parents and family friends donated funds to hire equipment and dig out four hectares of the silted-over 40-hectare reservoir. It did rain – and the village had water for the first time most people could remember.

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But bailouts from her extended family aren't a solution for Soda. The village is supposed to get about $20,000 a year in public-works funds, but the money arrives in dribs and drabs and always late, she said. It's the same with other grants. Hemraj Jatolia, the panchayat secretary, said the village has repeatedly submitted a development plan, but district officials simply overturn it and make their own orders. "They don't give a damn what policy makers have put on paper," Ms. Rajawat said with a sigh, sitting in the stuffy room in her parents' Soda house that she uses as an office. "You run from pillar to post, begging for funds that rightfully belong to you. … The government officials are safeguarding their careers – and the best way to do that is to do nothing at all."

District officials denied these allegations. The district manager, Muktanand Agrawal, and C.S. Rajan, the state civil servant who oversees panchayats, said that no plan that meets government requirements has been rejected and that all funds are delivered to the panchayat bank account. "There is no question of blocking any plan," Mr. Rajan said.

Ms. Rajawat's constituents, in any case, seem to feel she's waging the good fight. "We really like her because she's done so much for our village. She's built roads inside and outside – she's improved a bit of the reservoir. She's good," said Ragini Sharma, a Grade 7 student from the poorest patch of Soda, who says she plans to be a doctor. "But when the time comes, I can also be sarpanch."

Ms. Rajawat's term runs for two more years. In the next election, the post will be open only to candidates from the lowest rungs of the Hindu caste system.

When Ms. Rajawat walks through Soda, even older people stoop to touch her feet, and people stop to ask her help with everything from hospital bills to new drains. She occupies a position much like that of a feudal landlord 100 years ago, arbiter and provider of all. The comparison makes Ms. Rajawat wistful. "Except 100 years ago," she said, "the lord just had to snap his fingers and it was done. Now you have to fight. I'm basically at war with everyone."

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