During the winter of 1971, a group of IAS probationers had a customary meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. During the question-answer session, a lady recruit asked, “How does it feel to be the most powerful woman of the nation?” All Gandhi said in response was: “There are only three powerful posts in our country—PM [prime minister], CM [chief minister] and DM [district magistrate], which you will become soon.”
And, it is through the third seat of power that three young women IAS officers of the 2008 batch are redefining the system in Madhya Pradesh. Posted in extreme border districts, the trio, in their early thirties, have become legends of sorts among the masses for their strict administration and hard work. Chhavi Bharadwaj, Shilpa Gupta and Irene Cynthia Joseph have been successfully holding the fort as district magistrates, locally known as collectors, of Dindori, Morena and Burhanpur, respectively, for more than a year now. While Dindori in the far east corner of the state has a Naxal presence, Chambal dacoits had once made Morena in the north their home and southern Burhanpur has a history of communal violence.
These districts are not considered ‘plum’ or ‘cushy’ postings among bureaucrats. They are more of a punishment posting, thanks to their remote location and absence of social life. But, the lady officers do not view it that way and are trying to discipline their subordinates and make the system more efficient. Amid their administrative duties, they have to take care of their tots—each one has a son—even as their husbands, also IAS officers, are posted in distant areas.
Each of these districts has its share of challenges. Take, for instance, Dindori. Its backwardness and Naxal tag have been its bane—it has seen 15 collectors in the last 17 years. When Chhavi Bharadwaj was posted as here in October 2013, she did not know that she would be its longest serving district magistrate. One reason could be that she took her first posting as a challenge. “There has been a certain notion about the district that it is difficult to stay here owing to lack of social life, but that has proved to be a blessing in disguise for me,” says Bharadwaj, a trained electronic engineer. Her husband, Nand Kumaram, is collector of the western Neemuch district.
In the very first month of her posting, Bharadwaj experienced corruption first hand. The chief municipal officer of Dindori handed her a file with Rs.50,000 tucked inside. She was shocked, and called the superintendent of police to her office and filed an FIR.
A disciplinarian and an early riser, Bharadwaj plans her day in advance and reaches her office before time. “It is unusual to see a collector’s car parked in the porch at 10am for any district,’’ says Naresh Biswas, a social activist working among the Baiga tribe in the region.
Thursdays and Saturdays are reserved for village visits. “During my field visits, I found that some children were extraordinarily brilliant and they needed to be groomed in a different environment,” she says. “Since the district is categorised as a left-wing extremism affected district, it was important to pay urgent attention to the young and jobless. It is these men who are recruited by Maoists, who have a serious presence in the neighbouring Chhattisgarh.”
And thus was born Akansha (aspirations), wherein 100 meritorious students were chosen for IIT training in collaboration with Resonance, a Kota-based coaching institute. “I used the funds from the integrated action plan, meant for tackling Naxalism,” says Bharadwaj. Then there is Swawalamban (self-reliance), where young men get vocational training in six trades like electrician and masonry and assistance in finding employment.
Bharadwaj says the infant and maternal mortality rate were the worst when she joined as collector. “I focused on these two health parameters through a special project called Samman (respect). After two years, I can proudly say that we have improved a lot and the indicators are not alarming now.”
When not drowning in work, Bharadwaj finds escape in words. “I started writing fiction a few months after I came here,” says Bharadwaj, a left-hander. “The work is ready and I am looking for a suitable publisher.”
On the banks of the river Chambal lies Morena, once ruled by bandits and later by an unruly political administration. The district has the highest number of privately owned guns with licences.
From urban Delhi, Shilpa Gupta, came to a rural Morena to become its first woman collector. On the eve of Independence Day last year, she arrived by an early morning train at Morena, and was surprised to see thousands of people at the railway station, waiting to welcome her. “While officials and some organisations came to greet me, several common people just wanted a glimpse of the 'lady collector',” she says. “They were curious as it was a unique incident in a place that essentially is a male-dominated society.”
The biggest challenge for any administrative officer in Morena is the unruly behaviour and interference of politicians, which is why no officer stays here for more than a year. In the last one year itself, three police superintendents have been transferred. Gupta's firm and fair stance, though, seems to be working in her favour. “At the outset, I made it very clear that all the just and genuine work will not be delayed even for an hour and illegal requests or pressure will never be entertained,” says Gupta.
Election time in Morena is a nightmare for officials; violence is a given. Gupta had to conduct elections to the local bodies and also the first mayoral polls as Morena was declared a municipal corporation last year. “We ensured that all polling booths were decided in an impartial manner and no politician got his way,” she says.
Gupta is feared in the administrative circles, as she has suspended more than 200 employees who were found guilty of dereliction of duty, including the additional district magistrate. She spends half her day in office and the rest on field, visiting villages. “At the village level, my focus is schools and departments that are responsible for service delivery,” she says. “The place had become a haven for cheating mafia. Though I don’t suspend teachers as that can lead to classes being crippled and students suffering, I have stopped increments of erring teachers who don’t come to schools and bring political interference in the system.”
With more than 500 villages in the district, Gupta has set up a grievance redress system—DM choupal—which is held every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Officers of all departments have to be present at these village meetings. A medical camp is also held at the same venue, where basic investigations are done and serious cases are referred to the district hospital. With Morena having the highest number of milk producing cattle in the state, a veterinary camp, too, is organised by the animal husbandry department.
Born into a middle class trading family, Gupta was educated in a government school. A political science graduate, she did her postgraduation in education from Jamia Millia Islamia. She had enrolled for MPhil at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, when she was selected for civil services.
Gupta's husband, Ajay, is the Gwalior municipal commissioner. Loved by the masses, the IAS couple are not the favourites of politicians. But Gupta says: “I don’t feel any insecurity or unhappiness here. Rather, I would have felt unsatisfied had I not been able to perform here despite being the collector.”
Hailing from Chennai, Irene Cynthia Joseph's biggest challenge was Hindi, the official language of Madhya Pradesh. Unlike her batch mates—Bharadwaj and Gupta, for Joseph, the transition from Chennai to the Hindi heartland was not an easy one. But she is now fluent in Hindi, giving extempore speeches and making quick decisions on files written in Hindi.
Once the seat of the Mughal empire, Burhanpur is the only district in the state with Muslims forming almost half of its population, making it communally sensitive. But Joseph soon realised that communal problems flared up only during certain months in a year, and that there were more serious problems to be tackled—the primary one being that of the power loom workers.
Burhanpur was once famous for its 35,000 power looms, and the owners and weavers are now having a hard time owing to the economic downturn. To revive the industry, Joseph has started holding regular meetings with weavers, buyers and suppliers. Her meetings with power loom owners, mostly Muslims, yielded another revelation: lack of quality education. To ensure presence of teachers in government schools, e-attendance of teachers was implemented at the behest of the divisional commissioner. All school teachers are provided with a special attendance application on their smartphone that tracks their geographical location and time. Burhanpur became the first district in the state to do so.
Joseph then turned her attention to children aged three to six. The anganwadis had a poor attendance record, and after consultations with parents and anganwadi workers, she decided to convert the 740 anganwadis into playschools. But turning an anganwadi into a fun and funky playschool with furniture and toys required money. Joseph turned to people for help, and local panchayat representatives and business people came forward with funds. Today, 20,000 children attend playschools for free. “The functioning of a system depends on its leader,” she says. “If the leader is honest and hardworking, the subordinates are forced to behave in similar manner.”
A commerce graduate, Joseph did her MBA in finance from Stella Maris College, Chennai. Her husband is an IAS officer of the Assam cadre. With the district being home to the state BJP and Congress presidents—Nandkumar Singh Chauhan and Arun Yadav—politics is at play here, too. But Jospeh has never had problems with politicians. “When things cannot be done, I tell them very courteously that rules don’t permit,” she says. “I have had good working relations with politicians.”
CHHAVI BHARADWAJ, 30
District magistrate, Dindori
Challenges: Providing education and job opportunities to the youth to prevent them from being recruited by Naxals and bringing down the infant mortality rate
SHILPA GUPTA, 31
District magistrate, Morena
Challenges: Morena was home to Chambal dacoits. The district has the highest number of privately owned guns and, therefore, violence is a given
IRENE CYNTHIA JOSEPH, 33
District magistrate, Burhanpur
Challenges: Maintaining peace in the communally sensitive district, reviving the power loom sector and providing quality education to children | Manish Vyas