Growing up in a village in Haryana’s Bhiwani district, Ravinder Kumar had often witnessed the lackadaisical attitude of government officials. An ambitious teenager, he believed that there were better and efficient ways of doing things. With this simple thought in mind, and of course by dint of hard work, Kumar qualified for the Indian Administrative Services in 2012 and was posted in Jammu and Kashmir. After serving smaller stints as sub-divisional magistrate Nubra and director, floriculture, Kumar was made the district development commissioner of Reasi, the hilly district beyond the Vaishno Devi shrine, a year ago. Recently, he shot Reasi into national headlines.
In his latest monthly radio programme, ‘Mann ki Baat’, prime minister Narendra Modi lauded the work done in Reasi block – comprising 13 panchayats and over 20,000 people – for becoming the first open defecation free (ODF) block in Jammu and Kashmir – a state that figures in media more for terrorism and public unrest than for developmental successes.
Reasi is a historic yet backward region known for the pilgrimage of the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Katra. Soon after being posted as administrative head of this new district (formed in 2006), Kumar observed that hygiene was not part of people’s daily routine. “[Lack of] sanitation was always on my mind and I decided to start an initiative to end open defecation,” he says. The first challenge for him was to convince the office staff. They were reluctant and told him that managing MGNREGS was their top priority and it took up most of their time and mind space. “I told them that MGNREGS had been going on for 10 years and would continue, but the results of a sanitation drive would be instantaneous,” he said.
Kumar and his team started with two panchayats, Mari A and Mari B, located about five and eight kilometres respectively from the district headquarters. He wanted to test the waters and also his organisational capacity.
“After interacting with villagers, I found that sanitation was not a priority for them. Even those who could afford to build toilets didn’t understand its importance,” Kumar says. Additionally, there were genuine cases mostly of BPL (below poverty line) families, who could not afford to build a toilet. A few families were also living in mud houses without a running-water facility.
His staff held four to five rounds of interactions with the villagers about the benefits of clean surroundings. They told them about the ills of open defecation, indignity it brings to the womenfolk and the problems faced by pregnant women. However, people were reluctant to change their behaviour. “Motivating them was quite a task,” he says. Kumar adds that the impact of open defecation is not visible to the common man, hence, it was difficult for the villagers to understand the link between their habit and the frequent bouts of diarrhoea among their children.
Kumar is amazed at the level of rampant lack of awareness among people even though our religious scriptures and fables teach us the importance of hygiene and a clean environment. “This is a contradiction in the lives of most Indians,” he says.
Kumar motivated villagers to help the BPL families construct toilets. “We requested the villagers to take care of these families and help poured in. Someone donated a commode, the other gave cement and bricks. The recipient families constructed toilets with their bare hands,” says Kumar. He ensured water supply to all those who didn’t have it and in three months, they were ODF.
Buoyed by this success, Kumar and his staff embarked on a bigger mission. Kumar cobbled teams of officials, village leaders, anganwadi workers, volunteers, etc., to motivate people to construct toilets. NHPC, the public sector giant which runs the Salal hydroelectric project, constructed nearly 250 toilets with its corporate social responsibility funds. In all, 4,000 toilets were built in six months.
For Kumar, the challenging task was accessing the population living in smaller hamlets scattered over the hills due to poor road connectivity. Up in the hills beyond Mohour village, the officials found a shocking reality about open defecation. At least 15 children had been attacked by leopards in over one year. Most of them were defecating in the open when this happened. Educating such families thus became priority.
Kumar shares some of his experiences of the awareness campaign. He says that the numbardar of Kundra village, close to Katra town, was interacting with officials when the latter wished to visit his home. The numbardar suddenly developed cold feet. Asked the reason, he sheepishly said that he too did not have a toilet at his house. The officials advised him to make one and lead by example. Gradually villagers competitively built toilets in their homes.
As Kumar led the awareness campaign, women and children joined in and played a key role in changing the mindset of people. Women workers of local NGOs, panchayats and ordinary citizens took out torch rallies to spread awareness.
In Sukhter village, about 10 km from Reasi, officials met an old couple who lived alone and didn’t have a toilet in their house. “They told us that since they were old they never felt the need for it,” Kumar says. The officials counselled them that being old, they needed a toilet all the more. Besides giving them dignity, it would also ensure that they don’t trip while going out for answering nature’s call in the dark or on a rainy day. The officials called their son, who was a lecturer serving in Jammu, and told him to supervise the construction of the toilet at his parents’ home. He took leave from his college and built the toilet in three days.
Kumar is happy that the PM referred to his project in the national address. “All I did was my duty and now the PM mentioning it has encouraged me and my staff to do more,” he says.
Reasi has become the focus of developmental projects like the world’s highest railway bridge over the Chenab river and its remoteness is about to end with the proposed Katra-Kashmir railway line passing through it. Kumar and his team’s next task is to make the entire district – with a population of over three lakh – free of open air toilets and get it ready for the tourists that the train could bring in.
(The article appears in June 30, 2017 edition)