Saroj Paraste is the Sarpanch (Village Head) of her own village, and of 69 more. She credits her role as a Community Correspondent in enabling her to reach this significant leadership position. People came to respect and depend on her her for the wide-ranging knowledge she had gained as a journalist. The fact that the villagers and other government officials elected her – a committed video activist – demonstrates how much the people of rural India want accountability. She has become someone who can not be ignored.
She was elected because she knows how to solve problems. In 2015, she led Video Volunteers’ board members through hamlet after hamlet, pointing out the hand pumps that had been installed all over the place thanks to her investigations on the water issue.
Now, as Sarpanch, her life straddles the dual roles of providing information and solving problems. And yet, she has always believed that such serious poverty exists in Madhya Pradesh particularly because of the lack of information people have about government schemes and programs and the use of government funds. As Sarpanch, Saroj has access to significant amounts of development data; as a journalist, she knows how important development data is and how much of it is corrupted in India. She is thus embarking on an innovative project with Video Volunteers and our partner IndiaSpend to start to using data journalism – and analysis of panchayat spendings – to carry out her Sarpanch duties more effectively. If she succeeds, this project could become a model for training Sarpanch across India in data analysis.
But Saroj’s life as a woman leader is not easy and has entailed sacrifices. She has to live apart from her family. She used her first income from Video Volunteers to buy a scooter, without which she never could have had the mobility to roam through the villages helping people. Her first video for Video Volunteers was this powerful video about the water situation in the government boarding school for Tribal children that her young daughter attended. The water was so polluted that many of the children – her daughter included – had welts and scabs all over their bodies from it. And apparently it had been like that for years. After two years of persistent follow up, Saroj finally managed to get the school’s water storage devices replaced. In mid-2016, however, tragedy struck. Saroj’s daughter drowned in the village well, while Saroj – a working woman – was away from home on assignment. It seemed a cruel irony to the staff at Video Volunteers who have loved and admired Saroj for many years, that it was water – the issue she had fought so seriously for – which killed her daughter. Saroj’s personal story and her career thus stands as a reminder for all of us at Video Volunteers of the importance of supporting heroes like Saroj, and also of the incredible cruelty of life in rural India. Video Volunteers is helping to raise funds to build a safer well in that village, and perhaps others.