Jagdish Rawat, 54, recalls how his elder brother had started showing leadership qualities even as a child. “I remember related incidents,” he said, recollecting the early years of chief minister Harish Rawat who hails from this scenic mountain village.
He said villages did not have toilets during their childhood years. “Our village was no exception…its streets used to remain littered with trash,” Jagdish said as he sat chatting with HT in the spacious courtyard of Rawat’s recently renovated ancestral home. “Hardly anyone would then bother about the unhygienic atmosphere, let alone children.”
That did not go down well with his brother though he was a school-going boy then, Jagdish said. “He (Rawat) gathered a group of village children, formed teams and the boys under his leadership cleared all the streets of trash,” he said. “Not only that,” recalled a village elder, “he and other children joined hands to set up latrines in the village to tackle the problem of open defection rampant during those days.”
Rawat showed “a similar initiative” after he enrolled himself at a state-run intermediate college in Ramnagar, a town far from his village. “My brother was still a teenager but when he came to know that some shady elements in that town were illegally brewing hooch, he decided to take on them,” Jagdish said. “Soon, he with his fellow students demolished crude boilers used to brew liquor.”
Rawat also “displayed grit” in tackling the family situation after their father died when they were young. He pursued his education overcoming impediments, said his family members.
“He used to trek about 10 km daily to attend his school and the jig-jag trail passed through a densely forested steep hill,” said septuagenarian Mangla Devi reminiscing the childhood days of his cousin-in-law.
Rawat’s life took a political turn after he returned to his village after completing his graduation and law degree from Lucknow University. Fellow villagers asked him to contest the election for the post of village pradhan, and soon he rose to become a block pramukh. “Secular minded as he (Rawat) was, he had a leaning towards the Congress, a party he joined in early seventies,” Jagdish said.
Rawat’s political career took off after he defeated BJP veteran Murli Manohar Joshi from the Almora-Pithoragarh Lok Sabha constituency in 1980. “All of us villagers celebrated the momentous occasion because defeating a seasoned politician was an achievement for a young man who was starting his career in national politics,” said Mangla Devi.
“All of us in our village celebrated the victory by performing a grand puja in our village temple,” recalled Jagdish, saying Rawat always remained concerned about Mohnari and its people as he climbed the ladder of success in politics. “Thanks to his efforts, our remote village got road connectivity for the first time after he became a member of parliament,” said Rawat’s brother. “He also got a school set up in the village so that children are not forced to traverse 16 miles daily to pursue studies.”
The joy of his villagers “knew no bounds” when Rawat became the chief minister in 2014 after his stint as a Union minister in the UPA government. “He also sanctioned a pumping scheme and a power substation for our village to ensure uninterrupted water and electricity supply to our homes,” said Balam Singh, a local farmer.
Yet, Mohnari continues to grapple with problems, such as lack of medical and educational facilities. Agriculture has become unremunerative as wild animals frequently raid crops. “Most villagers are now forced to eke out a living as daily-wage labourers,” Ganga Devi, 44, told HT.