Mahilae agar ghar chala sakti hai, toh panchayat kyun nahi?” (If women can run a house, then why not a Panchayat?),” Rajasthan’s Lambi Ahir village sarpanch Neeru Yadav said, as she sat on the hot seat of Kaun Banega Crorepati before Amitabh Bachchan, in a deep blue lehenga choli and a traditional maangtika on her forehead.
Fondly nicknamed ‘Hockey Wali Sarpanch’ for her contribution towards the sport in her village, Yadav, made headlines after she became the first female sarpanch to be invited on KBC 15 as a chief guest--for her exemplary contribution to society. The head of a village in Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu district, Yadav’s leadership skills made news when she dedicated the prize money she won (`6.70 lakhs) to promote girls’ sports, advance environmental conservation and women empowerment.
Yadav was only in middle school when KBC was launched in 2000. “As a child, I would wait for the show to air and listen to the questions and answers. It was surreal for me to be actually sitting on the KBC hot seat. This is perhaps the most memorable moment of my life,” she says. When she was first approached by the show’s team, she says she thought it was a prank. “Then before the shoot in Mumbai, they came over to shoot a video in the village and spoke to the villagers.”
Yadav’s journey as a woman and a leader in a patriarchal society has been nothing short of tumultuous. The role of a Sarpanch, she says, is to connect with people on the ground. “It is field work; one needs to be around at all times. People often question if an issue arises at 10.30pm, will a woman sarpanch be present or will she be at home looking after her family! I’ve had to face various difficulties especially in my early days as sarpanch in 2020,” she adds.
Yadav decided to prove her worth through her work. In a male-dominated society, especially in rural areas, a woman’s potential and competence are often questioned. “The issue with us women is that whenever we get a chance, it is only through reservation. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I have accomplished today,” the sarpanch points out.
At a time when the Women’s Bill has been passed in Parliament for reserving one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies, Yadav is an example of how a woman can turn around her village with affirmative backing. Yadav is also thankful to her husband and her family for supporting her throughout. When villagers would approach male members of her family or her husband with their problems, they always directed them to her. “They would say ‘She is the sarpanch, she will help you out. You must meet her’,” she smiles.
As a Sarpanch, her most-talked of work has, however, been her role in encouraging girls from her village to pursue hockey. A dreamer as a child, Yadav had always wanted to play the game but circumstances didn’t allow it. “I got to know that some girls in our village play hockey and they enjoy the sport. I met them, and got to know that they did not have the equipment or resources to do so, so I donated my salary to get the equipment. There was also no open ground in the village for them to play so I would take them to practise 8km away for a couple of hours in the morning and evening,” Yadav recounts.
In a village where girls were expected to do household work, parents were reluctant to let them play. “They were daughters of farmers. The parents were worried what others would think if their daughters stepped out to play a sport. It was difficult but I managed to convince them saying they could hold me accountable if anything went wrong. They put their faith in me and let them go. Now when other children from the village see the girls play, they are inspired and wish to play with them as well,” Yadav says. The team has since gone on to play at the district and state level competitions. The girls are currently practising for the next tournament where they may be selected for the nationals.
Yadav’s care extends to the environment as well. Once, a cow in the village fell ill; upon examination, the doctor said it had plastic bags in its stomach. To fix the issue, she established a ‘bartan bank’. Instead of paper plates used for festivities, especially during weddings, the panchayat directed villagers to use steel utensils. In case of weddings too, saplings are gifted to families. “I urge every panchayat to establish a ‘bartan bank’, you will be surprised how much of a difference it can make,” she adds. Never pay attention to what people have to say about you, she says. “Logon ka toh kaam hai kehena (It is people’s job to talk). I believe we must do things for ourselves and not for people and their opinions,”