Meet the IAS who eradicated open defecation in rural Chhattisgarh

Breaking Bread with Governance Now: Dr Priyanka Shukla, CEO, Rajnandgaon, Chhattisgarh


Puja Bhattacharjee | May 8, 2015 | New Delhi

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The idea was to talk over lunch, but by the time we finally meet, it is 4.30 pm. Dr Priyanka Shukla had had her lunch earlier. Shukla is not a district collector yet. But she is in Delhi to ‘share her experience’ with district collectors from across India. Shukla has successfully implemented prime minister Narendra Modi’s flagship Swachh Bharat initiative in rural Chhattisgarh. The presentation at Paryavaran Bhawan went well. She has the look of a seasoned speaker – self-assured and knowledgeable, yet playful.

Leading us to a corner booth of four at The American Diner inside the India Habitat Centre, she politely declines my requests to order something to eat and settles for just a Coke. Nevertheless, I tell the waiter to get us a spicy cheese toast and a cheesecake too. 

The restaurant is half occupied and the waiter almost returns on his heels, with her Coke. Dressed in a green silk saree, Shukla looks more of a doctor than a hardened IAS officer working in the worst-hit left-wing extremist areas of Chhattisgarh.

I ask why she went for IAS after MBBS, and if she always wanted to be an IAS, why she became a doctor. It turns out she had been asked the same question in her UPSC interview. “For me and, more importantly, for my parents, it was more about going for a professional degree to secure the future in case I did not get through IAS.” She, however, did not doubt much her capability of cracking the IAS though, she adds as an afterthought. 

Shukla was a student of King George Medical College in Lucknow when she met a woman who would change her life. The woman and her children from a nearby slum would visit her often, complaining of stomach problems. “Besides prescribing medicines, I would advise her to boil water before drinking it,” she says. Once when Shukla was on a round of the slum (as part of the internship schedule), she caught the woman drinking dirty water. “Her frivolity made me furious. I started scolding her for not following my advice,” she recollects.

“‘Why don’t you listen to what I say?’ I asked.”

“Why should I listen to you? Are you a collector?” answered the woman curtly.

It was a moment of epiphany, says Shukla.

This wasn’t, however, the first time she had thought of becoming a bureaucrat. A bright student who liked to study “mathematics, geography and science, especially biology”, Shukla often came across relatives and acquaintances who would suggest that she take the ‘civils’. In Haridwar, where she studied at St Mary’s Senior Secondary School and then at DPS Ranipur, she along with her father, a government official, would often pass by the district magistrate’s bungalow. “My father would often tell me, ‘When I will make a pilgrimage here (Haridwar) in old age, I want to see Priyanka Shukla written on that name plate (of the DM’s bungalow).”

“Those words stayed with me,” she says.

She completed her MBBS in 2006. A year later Shukla appeared for the civil service preliminary exam. Three gruelling years later, she cracked the IAS. Two years of strenuous training followed at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) at Mussoorie and Kawardha, a small district in Chhattisgarh, where she underwent her district training.

In 2011 she was posted to Chhattisgarh, first as the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Saraipali – a sub-division of district Mahasamund and now as CEO of Rajnandgaon, chief minister Raman Singh’s constituency. In only four years of her service, Shukla has won several national awards and letters of appreciation. Also, she has been coming back to LBSNAA every year to deliver lectures.

Isn’t she afraid of working in the Maoist belt? In April 2012, Alex Paul Menon, the district collector of neighbouring Sukma, was kidnapped and his two bodyguards were killed by Maoists. Earlier in 2009, Maoists had killed Rajnandgaon superintendent of police VK Chaubey and 28 other policemen in one of their deadliest attacks.

She draws a short sip at the straw in her Coke while playfully twiddling it. The phone rings. Someone from family is calling, she says and quickly puts it on silent mode before pushing it aside. “The difficulties give me a kick to do more and better,” she says in a matter-of-fact way. “For the past two years not a single person has been drafted by Maoists, as the economic opportunities have increased in Rajnandgaon.”

Shukla believes people need to become self-reliant. “Otherwise, we will keep coming out with poverty eradication schemes and poverty will never be eradicated. I completely support the prime minister on this.” Under MGNREGA – for which her Rajnandgaon district received an award – she emphasises there should be focus on skilling of workers. “I am sure that in times to come every district team would ensure that slowly unskilled workers working under the scheme are skilled enough to stand on their own feet,” she says.

She animatedly talks about how as an IAS officer she broke ice with people. “To make people listen to you, you have to listen to them.” She would listen intently to the chatter and slowly, as she gained trust of the people, start talking to them. “I would randomly land up in villages and casually join conversations,” she says. Though the villagers would be uncomfortable at first in the presence of a government officer, Shukla would soon blend in.

In early 2010, the election commission of India (ECI) came up with the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) campaign to make voting a comprehensive affair. Initially, the collector did not make her the nodal officer for SVEEP, “but I pestered him into giving it to me.” Once in charge of the campaign she got down to the nitty-gritty. “I needed to give it a local twist for people to relate to it.” Many ideas later, she thought of PRATIGYA – People in Rajnandgaon Affirmatively Take Initiative to Generate Youth (electoral) Awareness. The campaign had both, an interesting acronym and a full form to appeal to the ECI. Besides, Pratigya, in Hindi, means a pledge. Planning the campaign was easy for Shukla who has a creative streak. An amateur painter, Shukla even designed the logo and posters for the campaign.

“After Diwali there is a local custom called ‘raut nacha’, where people go from house to house collecting alms while singing. I instructed my staff members who knew the local Chhattisgarhi dialect to write Pratigya raut songs,” she says. She also made some movies on movie maker. One movie talked about Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru who had given their lives for the country. Another talked about all the soldiers who had laid down their lives in the 1962, 1971 and Kargil wars. The message? “If these people could die for their country, couldn’t the villagers defy Maoists and go out to vote?” she continues breathlessly. She made sure that the movies were screened by all theatres in the area and also shown on local cable channels.

The campaign cost '4.5 lakh and Rajnandgaon saw a 42 percent increase in the number of voters. “Such was the impact that people started naming their daughters Pratigya,” she says with a glint of pride in her eye. “I figured even policemen shy away from voting. Some do not even care to collect their voter ID cards. I made a movie depicting the hard work of police, saying sometimes they turned away from their biggest responsibility – to vote.”

As if on cue from her energetic, almost effervescent, recall of events, the music switches from slow jazz to a peppy piano number. Shukla, I notice, is tapping her right foot to the music. Catching my eye, she explains that she loves to dance and had recently danced non-stop during her brother’s wedding. She takes out her phone and shows me pictures from the wedding. Photographs of herself with her team in Rajnandgaon follow. In one she is wearing jeans, top and a red stole with canvas shoes. The transformation is complete. She can switch roles between that of a spritely young woman to the business-like woman officer seated opposite me – all in an instant, and back again.

Shukla has been married for four years now and her husband, an Indian forest service (IFoS) officer, is posted in Uttarakhand. She picks at a cheese toast.
“My husband is very supportive,” she says. “I have fallen in love with Chhattisgarh. My husband knows how much I love my work. So, we decided to stay away from each other for now, but I speak to him over phone daily and we visit each other on a regular basis.” As we start talking about the challenges that married women face, she says on her birthday she had screened Mary Kom for the women of Rajnandgaon. “I thought they would miss the sublime message of the film. But to my surprise they understood. Afterwards they came and told me that there was nothing women couldn’t do,” she says with a broad smile.

How does it feel to live away from the family? “Every day after I come back from work, I call my in-laws, my parents and my husband,” she says. Besides, she also finds time to paint. “I had started taking guitar lessons after my civil services exams, but could not continue.”

Besides the Census silver medal, awarded by the president, for “outstanding zeal and high quality of service rendered during the Census of India, 2011”, Shukla has got a special award by ECI for “using innovation in the field of voter awareness, especially in the LWE areas” during the 2013 assembly elections. She also got a letter of appreciation from ECI for her initiatives to increase voter participation in Lok Sabha elections.

I enquire about the open-defecation free (ODF) campaign. “One of my first tasks was to convince them against open defecation. The government can go on building toilets but unless people take responsibility for their own toilet, they will never use it,” she says. She made a clever reference to flies to make villagers give up open defecation. “I told them the flies that sit on the waste hover on their food. It took some time but soon the campaign spread through word of mouth.”

But isn’t that what actor Vidya Balan says in a radio ad? The advertisement came much later than Shukla’s campaign. In about a year-and-a-half, 95 of 1,648 villages in Rajnandgaon have been declared ODF. She gave children whistles to blow if they caught someone defecating in the open. “Now the children are sad. No one goes outside; they don’t get to blow their whistle anymore,” she chuckles.

During her first posting in Mahasamund district, Shukla kept a huge check on paddy being illegally transported from Odisha to Chhattisgarh because Chhattisgarh was giving a better MSP, the minimum support price at which the government buys farm produce from farmers. She also ensured that more than 80 percent of the households in the sub-division got their smart cards made under the National Rural Health Mission. “That gave me a good name among people,” she says with nary a hint of a boast.

She asserts that as a woman working in a male-dominated field, she has to be conscious in dealing with people. “If you give space to people, they will intrude.” But at the same time she maintains friendly relations with her staff. She has started a morning assembly – Suvichar Vaachan – where each day a staff member has to come up with a quote of the day. “That way I get to know what they are thinking. If somebody says it is wrong to bother anyone then I know the person is feeling victimised at some level. I try talking to them afterwards and help them to the best of my ability.”

The waiter could be unhappy that we ordered so little, but doesn’t show. As Shukla stirs to leave, we have a small argument over who will pay. Governance Now would be happy to foot the bill for the fruitful discussion with her, I say. She relents.

Shukla is due for her next posting. Does she feel apprehensive whether her legacy will remain intact? “That is why I am in the process of developing systems,” she says. Work satisfaction matters to her the most. “I could have practised medicine and earned good money. I became an IAS to do something different. If I am staying away from my home and husband, I want to make the most of it.”

(The article appears in the May 1-15, 2015 issue)




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