Neetaben experienced deep degrading poverty as a child. Borrowing clothes from the neighbours and working barefoot on farms as a laborer marked her young years. Yet, she strived to study and graduated in a programme on Rural Studies with the help of her supportive parents. Her own experience has been her driving force to dedicate her career to helping rural communities find their way out of poverty. As a professional working with a reputed development organisation in the dangs area of Gujarat; Neetaben's work on water conservation and women empowerment has reached out to over 30,000 people - a mark of her life's commitment to the cause of restoring the dignity to the poor.
I was born in Mograwadi Village in 1978, in the Navsari district of Gujarat. My parents owned an acre of land where we grew crops for our own food. It was barely enough so they worked as farm labourers to cover household expenses. My two brothers and I also worked as labourers - cutting grass, sugarcane and picking mangoes for twelve rupees a day.
Most of my childhood memories are marked by how little we had. Many a times, our family would borrow clothes to wear from our neighbours didn't have footwear and would work bare feet in the fields. My only solace was school. I got good grades and was often rewarded with notebooks and stationary items. After 7th standard, I travelled to the nearby village of Ambhetta to pursue further education. Times were hard for my parents but they supported my education.
In 1999, I finished school and was at a loss for what to pursue further. While I was working my way through this confusion, my grandfather informed me about a programe in Rural Studies. It was a residential program where food, uniform and books would be provided for free. I petitioned my parents to help me apply for this course. With great difficulty they put together Rs. 2000 to enroll and pay my first-year fee. I didn't want to burden them further so, I studied hard and won scholarships. My dominant thought was to work with a good organisations where I could earn to help my parents and the poor people of my area.
Post my graduation, I worked with a small organisation in Navsari. A good break came in 2002, when I interviewed with AKRSP and joined them. With my income, I could finally help my parents. At work, I got the opportunity to work in Villages, helping them address their issues in ways I wished someone had for my village and family while I was growing up.
In 2008, in the villageof Kambodia, there was acute water crisis. There was no water to drink or for simple household chores. I helped the villagers draw out a plan to install water supply channels. They put up the proposal with the panchayat but it was shot down. The panchayat did not like the idea of peple proposing solutions. They were used to petitions and pleas. When our original plan fell through, I led a group of village women to approach the panchayat.
For the first time ever, women from the entire village came together to talk to the Panchayat, forcing them to sanction the plan. Ths helped more than 200 households to get regular water supply. Till then, the water committee of the panchayat didnt include women. After this protest, the panchayat passed a resolution and handed the water committee to the women to run.
In another village, a biased Sarpanch wouldn't allow women to install a handpump. He did it to assert his authority and didn't care about families that were suffering. The funds were not even from the Panchayat Budget as the Mahila Vikas Mandal had providioned the handpump installation. I tried reasoning with him, but he threatened me with dire consequences. Other villagers also asked me to step away. I got all the women from the Village together and confronted the Panchayat. Our persistent protest ensured that the handpumpwas finally installed and the entire village benefitted from it.
In 2013, I was a Cluster Manager. Around that time, I came across three villages in Subeer block, where people were facing acute water problems because their check dams were broken. These were odd structures built by the government. They would fill up only during the monsoon. With resources from the organisation and contributions from the village members for shramdaan, we repaired the dam. It now helps in irrigation, recharging ground water, meeting drinking needs of cattle and household chores. More than 2500 people benefit directly from the dam.
I have a deep connect with the communities I work with - my roots belong to this land. Having lived in similiar circumstances as a young child, my biggest reward is when the problems of a village get solved.
Testimonial- “ I knew that marriage will pose a problem with the kind of work I wanted to do. I am independent and had I been a man, I wouldn't be questioned for working late or expected to take permission for looking after my parents financially. I wanted to establish that a woman can lead a life of her choice too, so, I never married. I want to continue helping people solve their issues and be a role model for young girls."