ON January 22 this year, when Ashok Lavasa, Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, visited Mahendragarh, an arid town in South Haryana where he served as Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) from 1982 to 1985, he could barely recognise the place. It hardly matched the ‘frozen-in-time image’ he had had in his mind all these years.
For one, government employees who worked in the SDM office then, had retired. The building which served as his office in Maratha Fort had been abandoned. A water-harvesting structure in Madhogarh Fort, built by a Rajput ruler in the 18th century, about 12 km from the town, had dried up and undergrowth had left no trace of the 30-feet rainwater pool it once held. To top it all, the town, which only had 14,000 people in the 1980s, had bulged to over double.
Moreover, despite the road connectivity and motor vehicles having improved by leaps and bounds, it took him three-and-a-half hours to cover the 120-km distance between Delhi and Mahendragarh, an hour more than what it took 30 years back.
The 1980-batch Haryana cadre IAS officer was shocked that no effort had been made to preserve the 250-year-old Maratha Fort. But he was also pleasantly surprised to find people in a village close to Mahendragarh treating their wastewater for cultivation of fish through a multi-stage process.
Lavasa has advised the Haryana government to preserve the picturesque forts in the Aravali range and give impetus to tourism. He has also asked the villagers near Mahendragarh to buy their own testing kits for water treatment and devise methods of disposing of the solid waste generated from the treatment process.
Lavasa has submitted his recommendations to the Secretary (Tourism), the Secretary (Culture), the Cabinet Secretary and the Secretary, Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the coordinating point for all administrative matters in the government. He has also submitted a copy of the report to the Haryana Chief Secretary and Mahendragarh Deputy Commissioner Atul Kumar.
Kumar has received an even a bigger set of recommendations from Ajit Mohan Sharan, a 1979-batch Haryana cadre IAS officer, who currently serves as Secretary in the Ministry of Sports. Sharan visited Narnaul sub-division, where he had cut his teeth as a civil servant back in 1981.
To his dismay, Sharan found that villages were dumping their sewerage into ponds which once stored freshwater. The population of the sub-division has grown close to two lakhs, four times more than what it used to be when he left the place. He called the urban sprawl ‘haphazard’.
During his stay in Narnaul, Sharan noticed that no new institutions had come up to cater to the increase in population. Only 10 per cent of the students were enrolled in government schools where the teachers were well-paid and infrastructure was better. The rest went to private schools which had mushroomed in and around Narnaul. When Sharan asked a villager why he put his children in a private school, his answer was, “Even the government school teacher educates his wards in a private school.”
Sharan visited three villages during his trip. He noticed that Primary Health Centres (PHCs) were devoid of doctors. People went to private clinics in Narnaul for every ailment. Five dozen such clinics had come up in the town. He observed that the youth had become cynical about government jobs and was not interested in education. “They say government jobs can only be got either through sifarish (recommendation) or payment of bribes,” he recollected. Sharan was also told that incidents of domestic violence had increased in the sub-division and that one of the major contributors to this was an increased intake of liquor.
In his report, sent to the Secretary DoPT, and the Haryana Chief Secretary, Sharan has emphasised resolution of the sewage problem in villages, opening skill development institutes and restoration of the youth’s faith in government jobs by making the recruitment process transparent.
LAVASA, Sharan and around 75 other secretaries of the Government of India visited the places of their first postings on the advice of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi made the suggestion at a meeting he held with the secretaries sometime after Diwali last year. It was an ‘open-ended’ suggestion and was expected to evolve with the passage of time.
In January this year, DoPT Secretary Sanjay Kothari wrote to all secretaries, asking them to visit the places and send their feedback. The secretaries were also expected to file copies of their reports with the state chief secretaries and deputy commissioners of the districts.
In the case of scientists in the Atomic Energy Department and the Chairman, Railway Board, the government asked them to visit the places (laboratories in case of scientists) they served at in the beginning of their careers.
Even those civil servants who joined as secretaries in January and February (Union Home Secretary LC Goyal, who joined in the first week of February, is an example) and were not present at the meeting with Modi, have been asked to visit the places of their first postings and report back.
Till the time of writing this story, almost 50 secretaries had completed their visits and submitted reports to the Secretary, DoPT. They included Madhav Lal, a 1977-batch Jammu and Kashmir cadre civil servant, who is currently designated Secretary in the Ministry of Small Scale and Medium Enterprises (MSME). Lal paid a visit to Bhadarwah, a sub-division in Doda district. He discovered that the place now had much better connectivity and tourism infrastructure, compared to 1982 when he left the place. Terrorism, which had been an issue in the state in the 1990s, had been ‘effectively controlled’. Yet, what was missing was ‘stakeholdership of local population’. “People are not ready for tourism. Atmosphere of hospitality is not there,” Lal told gfiles in an interaction. Despite terrorism having ebbed, a sense of insecurity pervades the region.
Agood part was that terrorism had failed to break the composite culture of the place and Hindu Dogras, Muslims, Kashmiris and tribals lived in harmony. Lal has advised in his report to the Secretary, DoPT, to ensure involvement of the local population in tourism, development of soft skills and appointment of doctors in government hospitals.
Shyam Vinod Meena, Deputy Commissioner (Doda), who accompanied Lal during his two-day visit, informed gfiles that the state government had introduced incentives to people for conversion of parts of their residences into homestays. Meena said the government would construct a tunnel on the Jammu-Doda-Bhadarwah road to make sure that the region is not cut off due to landslides and flash floods during rains.
Sunil Soni, a Maharashtra cadre 1981-batch IAS officer, Secretary in the Ministry of Overseas Affairs, visited Chanderpur, a Naxalism-affected area, in February. He has told the current Deputy Commissioner, Dipak Mhaisekar, to improve on over a dozen points, like initiation of skill development programmes and growth centres in the district.
gfiles’ interaction with half-a-dozen secretaries and access to the experiences of over a dozen others shows that an overwhelming majority of them have appreciated the PM’s initiative and want it to be made a periodic feature. “It is a very good experience. Let us go back to basics by visiting villages,” asserts Ajit Mohan Sharan. Lal, a former state Chief Secretary in J&K, is sure it will give time to the senior bureaucracy to reflect on and re-establish a connection with people on the ground. Lavasa is of the view that the ‘emotional and educative’ experience will help the top civil servants in the Central government to appreciate changes.
An interesting outcome is that some bureaucrats have filmed the changes they have come across. Lavasa, an avid photographer, even gifted a collage of pictures to the Mahendragarh SDM. He also submitted a list of statistics of the sub-division along with his recommendations. He says the number of high, middle and primary schools has grown over the years. The number of girl students and female teachers too has seen an upward trend. But the female ratio has dipped by about 35 points against 1,000 males. Moreover, the water table has gone down to 300 feet in the area.
SINCE the 80-odd secretaries of the Government of India represent almost every state, right from Jammu and Kashmir in the North to Kerala in the South and Gujarat in the West to Manipur in the East, the exercise has led to a serious audit of development and growth in the country. It has thrown up lacunae which need to be addressed with utmost urgency. It would help the governments to either devise new welfare schemes, or tweak the present ones to suit the needs of a particular region or a particular set of people.
These could become reference points for the Centre as well as the states when they sit down to draft new schemes on issues like cleanliness, housing, employment, governance, tourism and women’s empowerment. The Centre hopes civil servants posted in the states will replicate the exercise. A Punjab cadre secretary, during his trip, in fact, advised his counterparts in the Punjab government to embark on a similar plan. Another secretary has sought introduction of town planning in villages.