Less than 60km from the shimmering prettiness of Udaipur, parched and cracking is Madla village in the rugged interiors of southern Rajasthan. It’s an unusual sight for a Sunday afternoon. A group of daily wage labourers, having taken the day off, are assembled in a quiet hut next to a swaying maize field. The womenfolk of the village, with ghunghats (veils) in kaleidoscopic colours covering their faces, are equal participants in the discussion that’s unfolding.

Community building: A samuh meeting in progress at Madla village in southern Rajasthan. Divya Babu/Mint

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The Gram Samuh and Gram Vikas Committee, the elected body that runs a notch above the samuh, are concepts introduced—and reiterated over a period of 30 years—to the village by Seva Mandir, the non-governmental organization (NGO) that has activated similar processes in 654 villages in the region. Seva Mandir’s approach to development isn’t about doling out 10 blankets to the “poor" every winter, but empowering people to participate in their governance; simply put, enabling people to produce their own blankets.

And that’s exactly how this meeting progresses. The villagers organize themselves into groups, and map out the sources of water, be it their neighbour’s well, or more contaminated sources like a pond. The women are talking more, the older ones, louder and with greater authority. The participation of women in matters of governance, like many other things in the area, has also been a contribution of Seva Mandir’s work. No one knows the household better than the women.

Once the community decides what they want built or changed in their village, Seva Mandir steps in. This also means that the villagers have to come to a consensus themselves; in case of conflict or indecision, Seva Mandir pulls out of the project. The water and sanitation issues of Madla, for instance, adds Singh, require construction work that won’t take more than 20 days. “It takes a few days to construct a few toilets and chlorinate tanks/wells. But that’s not what this is about, these are also processes around which we build solidarity. Only by meeting, deliberating and discussing among each other can people actively participate in their governance," she says.

Giving up on a day’s wages is a big deal for farm labourers subsisting on daily wages, and Seva Mandir offers no compensation for their losses. At least in an individual sense. But every time they attend a meeting and participate, they come closer to making collective gains. This time, it’s probably a few dry toilets and chlorinated tanks. Next year, it might be another school. As a village resident Kamal Lal Bhagora says, “Bigde to bigde kaam, lekin meeting karna anivarya hai(If the day’s work is spoilt, so be it, but having the meeting is crucial)."

Seva Mandir:www.sevamandir.org

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