Thursday, June 21, 2012

Young, optimistic and motivated IAS officers are changing the way bureaucracy works

Mayur maheshwari, The soft-spoken district collector of Badaun in Uttar Pradesh is trying to eradicate manual scavenging. Photo by Arvind jain


The establishment sometimes is used as dirty word.

—Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to IAS probationers in 2008

It is 10 a.m. in Bundi in Rajasthan, a few kilometres from Kota, India's sports training capital where temperatures soar above 47 degrees Celsius routinely. At Bundi, too, the heat is unbearable. The landscape is barren brown, giving no sign that Bundi had a bumper wheat harvest this year. The roads are narrow. Famed for the fort that Rudyard Kipling described as "men built for themselves in uneasy dreams", Bundi is far away from the touristy Jaipur area.
Behind the court of the district magistrate is the collectorate, a colonial building with numerous white columns. Arti Dogra, the district collector, is in office. Sitting behind a mammoth desk with two phones, a computer and a big-screen television showing the news on mute, she neatly fits the image of the IAS officer. The only thing missing is the towel on the chair. At age 33, Dogra is at the start of her career.
She is listening intently to an agitated man who witnessed the gruesome murder of a chicken. "There are feathers outside my house,'' he says. "My wife and I are traumatised." Dogra assures him that she will take action. She immediately calls up an officer to ensure that the lane on which the man lives is cleaned. She then castigates the official in charge of ensuring that meat shops operate with a licence.
It is a typical day in the life of Dogra. "We get woken up at 6 a.m. if a hand-pump isn't working," she says laughing. The night before, it was a cow that kept her awake. Like in most parts of India, a dead cow is a serious issue here. From her incessantly ringing cellphone, it is apparent that Dogra is accessible, a word rarely associated with IAS officers. 

Welcome to 21st century India, where collectors are important people, but not gods you worship from a distance. They may still have the best house in the district, all the trappings of the office, and a big car with a chauffeur and many minions. But there has been a perceptible change in the way they conduct business. "We realise we are not rulers," says Mayur Maheshwari, the soft-spoken district collector of Badaun in Uttar Pradesh. "We are facilitators. We're there only because the system needs us. If a tap runs dry, I can't say it isn't my job to fix it."
Maheshwari and Dogra represent the new face of the Indian bureaucracy. Young, both of them chose their careers casting aside more profitable options. They are what the Prime Minister described as "agents of change". Dogra knew she could not go down the IIM path. "All my friends were doing that, but I knew I just couldn't," she says.
Maheshwari left his job at Reliance in Mumbai to study for the IAS. "There was no job satisfaction after some time," he says. Ashutosh A.T. Pednekar of Goa, however, always wanted to join the IAS. Posted in Alwar, the 34-year-old is literally reinventing the wheel by improving the public transport system. 

Things have changed a lot in the bureaucratic space. The average age of IAS aspirants has gone up. "The country is different," says G.K. Pillai, a former home secretary who was never considered a typical babu. "[IAS officers] used to distribute kerosene and cement. There was a quota for two-wheelers. In a way, the challenges are much more now. We didn't, for example, have 24x7 scrutiny with television channels. If a collector went missing, it would take weeks sometimes to find out."

For years, khadi-clad politicians and babus in safari suits have been the stuff of Hindi movie villains. But the changing work ethic of IAS officers has changed the way they are portrayed on screen. In Shanghai, the latest from acclaimed director Dibakar Banerjee, an activist is killed. It is Krishnan, a suited-up IAS officer played by Abhay Deol, who finally gets 'justice' for the killing. For once, the babu is portrayed as a good guy. It helps that the recent kidnapping of Alex Paul Menon, the collector of Sukma district in Chhattisgarh, has brought to light the best of babudom.
The Indian bureaucrat is often associated with red tape, inefficiency and corruption in a way that the Indian Premier League finds itself embroiled in controversy. Babu bashing is so routine that even the PM, on Civil Services Day on April 21, talked about introspection. "There is a growing perception, right or wrong, that the moral fibre of our civil servants and public servants in general, is not as strong as it used to be some decades ago, and that our civil servants are now more likely to succumb to extraneous pressures in their work. These perceptions might be exaggerated but I do think that there is a grain of truth in them," he said.

However, idealistic and enthusiastic IAS officers are certainly making a difference. Take the case of Ajit Joshi, deputy commissioner of Jhajjar, a conservative town near Gurgaon trapped between urban and rural India. Jhajjar's sex ratio is one of the lowest in the country, and he is working hard to bring about a change.
Joshi might seem like a textbook IAS officer: he has a towel on his chair and will keep you waiting for hours. But, like many of his peers, he is trying to ensure change through technology. To battle the skewed sex ratio (774 girls per 1,000 boys up to age 6) he has installed what Aamir Khan has now made famous with his television show Satyamev Jayate—'the silent observer', a device installed on sonography machines to keep track of patient records and curb illegal sex determination tests. Joshi, however, has gone a step ahead and installed an 'active tracker', an advanced version of the silent observer. "We get to know how many times the machine has been used," says an official. "We also get an idea of where the probe was done, and whether it was used for sex determination."
For officers like Joshi, technology helps in creating better systems. In Badaun, Maheshwari and his wife, Ritu, started Arogyam, a model health project that has been recognised by the UN. It uses SMSes to inform people when their child is due for inoculation.
In Bundi, a few kilometres from the collector's office is a government dispensary. The building is small and cramped, and there is no electricity. But, for the village, which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country, the dispensary is a lifeline.
Close to it is the home of Mamta, a slim 20-year-old with a baby bump that is barely visible. On one of the walls is a circle with a dot with 'HRP' written across it. "The mark identifies that this woman is in the high risk category," says Dogra. "The villagers then know that when she goes into labour, they have to look out. Also, it makes the family a little more aware about her needs."
It also helps the auxiliary nurse midwife, Mamta's first link to the district health scheme, identify women who need special attention. "The doctor also knows that he has to keep a watch on them," says Dogra.
Every day, the ANM sends an SMS with details like the number of people she visited and the number of children she vaccinated. The data is fed into a centralised server. "If there is a maternal death, it sends an alert to the chief medical officer and me," says Dogra. "We then rush in a team to do a verbal autopsy to understand why this has happened. The ANM has to report this within four days. Otherwise, she could face action."
Mamta's sister-in-law—she is one of the three bahus and there are more children than adults—was also an HRP. Close to her home are three other houses marked HRP. One woman has high blood pressure, because of which she had lost her first child. Her neighbour, who is 35, is expecting for the third time. She is hoping for a boy this time. "I would love to get an operation to get my tubes tied, but my husband wants a boy," she smiles shyly.
Sterilisation of men is still unheard of in these parts. The ANM, however, has managed to convince about 100 men to go through the procedure. "Sterilising one man is equivalent to 10 women," she says.
In Rajasthan, women are still considered expendable. Says Dogra: "I was asleep at home when this woman in labour came to my house at 7.30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. She wanted me to tell the doctors to help her." The doctors had refused to treat the severely anaemic women, who needed blood. "Her mother-in-law had forbidden her sons to donate blood, because it would make them weak," says Dogra. "Even though we have a system to provide free blood, the blood given has to be replaced. The woman had no one to help her. The implication was clear: if she died, another would replace her."
The incident spurred her into action. It also made Dogra, who had studied in an all-girls boarding school and the Delhi's elite Lady Shriram College for Women, aware of how deep gender discrimination was in rural areas. "I had never been to a village before I entered the service,'' she says.
With her privileged roots, Dogra constitutes a minority among today's IAS entrants, most of whom come from small towns. Maheshwari of Meerut is one of the faces of this change. He was ranked sixth in the IAS exams. He is a legend in UP, where boys aspiring to be IAS officers speak of him with awe.
In the same league as Maheshwari is Shruti Singh, the first collector of the newly-created Bemetara district in Chhattisgarh. She had worked as a lecturer in Lucknow and had got into the state civil service before she finally cracked the IAS exam. Married with an 18-month-old child—her husband tries to come over every weekend from Lucknow—she is the face of government in an area that is incredibly poor. "Most migrations to cities happen from here,'' she says.
Her first job was to send officers to remote villages to solve problems. "It was tough to get them to go out in this heat to remote areas,'' she says. "But you have to motivate people."
Many young officers are trying to take governance to doorsteps. Dogra, organises ratri chaupal (evening meetings) every Monday and Friday. Maheshwari and Singh travel to survey villages. Vineel Krishna, who was kidnapped by the Maoists last year when he was district collector of Malkangiri in Orissa, is now secretary to Rural Affairs Minister Jairam Ramesh. He believes that it is not right to expect your subordinates to go out without you doing it yourself.
Remote areas are not the only ones with their problems. Big cities like Bangalore have their own share of obstacles. Salma Fahim, the first Muslim woman IAS officer from Karnataka, has to battle more than just perception in her job as project director at Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society. She is also joint commissioner (welfare) at the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike.

"Challenges vary not only with the geographical region where you are working, but with every post you occupy," she says. "In BBMP, dealing with the local elected representatives is a huge challenge. Putting systems in place is a challenge. Wading your way through red tape is a challenge. Team building is a challenge. Getting demotivated staff to work is a challenge! If one can get past these struggles, at least we can hope to deliver on what is mandated from us."

It is their attitude that separates many young IAS officers from their senior colleagues. The system, they acknowledge, is flawed. Yet, it is about making a difference. "Getting into the IAS is just the first step," says Pratyaya Amrit, an officer who received the Prime Minister's award for public administration last year. He is credited with rescuing the Bihar Rajya Pul Nirman Nigam (BRPNN), the public construction corporation that was in the red. "The first day I walked in, I was taken aback," says Amrit. "My room didn't even have curtains. But you can't expect creature comforts when people don't even get salaries." During his seven-year tenure, the corporation built a record 700 bridges. 

That these IAS officers were able to make a difference even when corruption and bureaucratic delays hindered their progress is what makes their achievement big. "I could easily not do anything," says Maheshwari, who is trying to eradicate manual scavenging in Badaun. In the three months he has been in office, he has managed to demolish 20,000 dry toilets in the district. "Had I not done it, no one would have questioned me. But the point is that I couldn't bear it. It has no place in civilised society," he says.
He also conducted a survey of what people wanted. "The problem is that you may want a horse, but the government is only giving you a cow. What, then, is the point? We've always been target-driven. But to find a solution, we have to go beyond."
But it is not easy to go beyond. And success is difficult to measure. Maheshwari has a tiny barometer to measure his success. Every day he wants to help 10 people. "It is a small number; but when we were trainees, we were told that if we could ensure that five people had their work completed in 24 hours, it was good. For example, if a man came in saying he didn't get his pension, could I ensure that it would be delivered to him the next day so he need not come back? It seems easy, but it isn't. I have doubled that number," he says.
For Dogra, it is a little less obvious. "I remember going to a village where an old man complained to me about his sons not treating him well. Without thinking, I spoke to the sons, and told them to look after their father," she says.
A few months later, she was in another village when an old man came up to her, handed her flowers and then walked away. "I kept yelling at him, asking him to tell me his problem. Then I sent someone after him, to ask what the matter was, since we're so used to getting complaints. It was the same man. His sons look after him now."

The canvas of the collector is vast. As Pillai says, it may be watered down since his days, but you could still do a lot. "I may not always be able to provide a solution to their problems or answers to the uncomfortable questions they raise," says Salma about reaching out to AIDS patients. "But the fact that they consider me worthy of sharing their joys and sorrows is what I feel is my success."

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1 comment:

  1. proud being her subordinate. she is an icon for youth...may god provide all of us the sensitivity, she observe.ameen.