by Isabel Guerrero

The IMAGO team worked this week on a strategic evaluation of a very impressive NGO in Udaipur, called Seva Mandir. During one of the field visits we had the pleasure of meeting Savita Devi, who comes from a poor tribal family in Udaipur.  We were inspired by her strength and fire as well as by her commitment to the development of her community, which showed through the many fights she has endured to protect the forest, a very important resource for tribal communities. A colleague from Seva Mandir gave us a copy of her story (in the book, The Waste Land), which helped us understand her history and provides the basis for much of this blog post.[1]

Since she was very young, Savita Devi wanted to go to school, even though none of her nine brothers and sisters felt the same need.  She studied up to 5th standard before marrying, then enrolled in a Seva Mandir program of non-formal education. With her husband’s support, her confidence increased, and she eventually became one of the strongest community leaders in Naya Khola.  Heeralal, Savita’s husband, always encouraged and supported her, including doing more of the housework when Savita was more involved in working with the poor.

She first brought the community together to acquire electricity for their village. She then organized the women to form a Self Help Group to support each other, as well as discuss village issues. One of these issues was how to defend from the theft of forest wood.  In order to do this, around 40 women kept watch on the forest for an entire year, until they were able to keep the women of neighboring villages from stealing the wood. More recently, she organized the village to defend from NREGA contractors that were stealing stones from the walls they had constructed to protect the forest.

Savita Devi was elected ward panch in 1995, which helped her become an even more experienced leader, and she used this platform on behalf of her community.  “Initially I was very uncomfortable sitting in the panchayat because I knew nothing. But during that period I learnt a lot about forests and about panchayati raj in general. My courage in taking on the issue of protecting the jungle also made the women in the village believe in me,” she says.

Savita was able to lead the movement against liquor in the village, forced a man to apologize for beating his wife when drunk, and fined men from neighboring villages who stole wood from their forest.

After several years of not standing for election, Savita told us last week that she has just been elected in the local panch. As Nandita Roy describes in her book:

“The women, although reluctant to talk much, articulate Savita’s leadership. ‘She is educated and we are not…but we are happy to support her from behind. We go to outside meetings with her. She gives us confidence,’ says the president of the SHG.”

We were very lucky to have met Savita, and through her, to see the work that Seva Mandir is doing in Udaipur. They are helping build democracy from the bottom up, by creating the conditions under which the poorest of the poor in Udaipur can come together and organize, with the help of leaders like Savita Devi.

[1] The Waste Land: Making of grass-roots leaders by Nandita Roy, 2004