An officer who dares, and cares

Tale of a gutsy woman IAS officer who dares to make a difference to people’s lives when she could as well be in deep slumber like rest of her government

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | December 6, 2012


Aparajita Sarangi, commissioner-cum-secretary, Panchayati Raj, department of Odisha, in her office
Aparajita Sarangi, commissioner-cum-secretary, Panchayati Raj, department of Odisha, in her office

If what you are going to read sounds too starry-eyed, it is deliberate and for good reasons. In my 20-plus years of reporting on governance and watching bureaucrats function from close quarters, I haven’t come across an officer who would be a patch on Aparajita Sarangi anywhere, let alone in the sleepy state of Odisha.

An IAS officer of the 1994 batch, Sarangi is imaginative, innovative and bold. She is driven by a passion to make things happen and is, in fact, making things happen. What makes her even more special is that she would do wonderfully well in her career by just pushing files, as most of her colleagues do. That would save her from ill-will and innuendos too. But then that would be very unlike her. Ask anyone with some sense of what’s happening in the state to name one public servant who is inclined to making a difference to people’s lives, hers will be the only name taken. Ask who can discipline the lousy and lazybones that constitute much of the state machinery, she will again be the one to be named. And ask whose transfers have provoked tears and public protests in recent memory, you will hear no other name.

Such is her public adulation that one of the leading Odia channels which runs a popular political satire show and dares to be irreverent even to chief minister Naveen Patnaik, ran an episode recently in which a BDO shares his plight with a school headmaster and seeks his advice on how to get around Sarangi, without a hint of malice towards her.

The provocation? She, as commissioner-cum-secretary in the panchayati raj department (since August 1, 2012), has directed all BDOs (who are under the administrative control of her department) to stay put in their stations, make regular field visits, listen to and address public grievances.

The instructions (issued on October 4) are unambiguous and stern. “Under no circumstances, any BDO should be found not staying at block headquarters”; “No PD, DRDA/BDO will come to Bhubaneswar unless called by the panchayati raj department for a meeting here” and “any deviation from this instruction will be seriously viewed and action as deemed proper will be initiated”.

The BDOs can now leave their stations only with “special permission” of the collector and “under intimation” to the department. The information will also be displaced on board outside the BDO’s office for public knowledge (as also other tour programmes). Absenteeism is rampant. Most BDOs prefer to live in nearby towns. There is little time or inclination to attend to public grievances. Now they have to compulsorily set aside Saturday for it.

As for the teachers, in 2010-11 as secretary in the department of school and mass education, she had put them back in the school. Until then, the teachers were more often found outside school – markets and tea stalls. She did two things – prescribed a dress code and set up a helpline for people to call and report teachers straying from the campus. The dress code made it easy for identification. The drive was a huge success. I found people gushing forth in her admiration during my trips to rural areas then. “It was an experiment for me and I came out highly satisfied. It brought discipline. Classes were held regularly. Kids were happy, parents were happy. Teachers’ grievances too were met and promotions were cleared…,” she recalls while sharing her experience.

To her, the biggest achievement was a breach in the gulf between the administration and people that the helpline brought about. “For me, helpline creates a strong information network, connects people and lets me know what’s happening,” she says. It generated so much confidence that, she says, people called up to even report incidents of molestation in schools.

Now she is planning to set up a similar helpline in the panchayati raj department to bring transparency in the way the government schemes are being implemented and development works carried out.

In this department, she will, however, be better remembered for doing something extraordinary – making palli sabha (village meeting) and gram sabha (meeting of all adult villagers in a panchayat consisting of one or many villages) vibrant, participatory and meaningful.

Until now, palli and gram sabha meetings were largely a farce. A handful of influential villagers and government officials would meet and decide everything. She changed all that. She made palli sabha meetings as the forum to explain all the welfare schemes meant for them and demand, plan projects and entitlements. Gram sabhas were similarly made to meet over two days to spread awareness and prepare their five-year perspective plan and annual plan of action, besides listing demands for entitlements like MNREGS work, pension, ration card, toilets etc. The exercise, conducted between October 2 and 18, was a huge success. Villagers, government officials and panchayat members conceded, without exception, that something like this had never happened.

Sarangi became a household name between 2003 and 2006 when she gave a big boost to the chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s “Mission Shakti”, which aimed at holistic empowerment of women through the formation of self-help groups (SHGs) – giving women confidence, economic support and training to carryout trade-related activities. As director of the mission, she spread SHGs to all districts, formed SHG federations and provided credit-linking to them with banks for financing various activities. One SHG group is actually buying paddy directly from farmers with its own resources on behalf of the FCI in parts of Ganjam district. When she was moved out of Mission Shakti to the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) in 2006, people still recall how women cried out loud and refused to let her go.

At BMC, she made Bhubaneswar more presentable and a model for many cities to follow – largely clear of vendors from the streets, most of public walls clean and painted and roadsides landscaped. Removing vendors from the streets brought cheers all around. They were given aesthetically pleasing stalls, all painted green, far away from the streets, with no cost to the government. The vendors were given identity cards too. Spaces were marked out for the pavement as well as shoppers, freeing the roads to carry vehicles.

And, again, when she was transferred out in 2009, the vendors cried and asked the government to let her continue because the process had not been complete in some areas of the city. Her successors have not added a single stall, or given one extra identity card to the vendors after that.

Sarangi has done much more. She has brought in many small and big changes in the departments she has worked for – which have changed the way things are run and would need much more space to list. The sum and substance remains the same: to make a difference wherever she can. In her own words, she explains what drives her: “Basically, an intense desire to help people. I can’t say anything more. I have chosen this profession because it connects me to people directly and gives me an opportunity to directly deliver the services to them”.

By the way, she is not an Odia as her surname would suggest. She comes from Bhagalpur in Bihar, where she was an inspiration to the youngsters in her student days for her academic accomplishments, and is still fondly remembered. She claims to have “now” become an Odia, after living in and serving the state for so long (she is married an Odia officer too). Sadly, she is yet to become an inspiration for the Odisha bureaucrats.

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