Saturday, October 23, 2021

A bureaucrat like few whose ‘Model Gaon’ mission could transform India





This man needs attention as does his work. Not many bureaucrats do what Dr Heera Lal does, certainly not where they view villages at the heart of India whose well-being is the core of well-being of all of us. 

We don’t need to dwell upon that he is presently Additional Mission Director, National Health Mission, Uttar Pradesh but rather pay close attention to what he did in Banda as a district magistrate for three years (2018-2020) which had prime minister Narendra Modi showering him with multiple awards as well as come calling and hail him in front of the very people of his district. 

Interestingly, Banda is only a backdrop to what concerns us here and it is Dr Heera Lal’s role as an advisor of NGO “Model Gaon”, conceived by Munish Gangawar, retired chief general manager of NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) which, truth to tell, was inspired by action of no other than our own man in Banda himself. 

“Model Gaon” Is Empowering Villages

“Model Gaon” looks to empower India’s villages. So that they are self-sustaining enough for its inhabitants not to leave their surroundings and dash for Urban habitats. Indeed, it intends to make our villages attractive enough for the reverse to happen: “Chalo Gaon Ki Aur (Let’s Go To Villages)”, as Dr Lal mentions. 

This empowerment looks for villages to set their own manifesto—if its water, sanitation, seeds, equipments, crop-selling—as per their priority. It then identifies the “changemakers” between them who act as facilitators between villagers and various schemes of Central government and bring that manifesto to fruition. 

The simplicity of this vision is staggering. It lets villagers have the ownership of their habitat. There is no pay-off as such, just a recognition, as the fruits of their effort are ample rewards in itself. 

The domino-effect has been remarkable. “Model Gaon” has been in existence for less than six months yet 1,200 villages have already declared their manifesto. Some 2500 registrations have happened. Those “changemakers”—15 of them—recently won in the UP panchayat elections. Webinars are being held to bring the best of technology and minds at the doorstep of villages. Farmers are uniting in groups, the term being Farmer Producer Companies (FPC), and are improving their bargaining position through the scale of their collective produce. They number 800 now. 

The response from honourable quarters has been swift. No less than Niti Aayog vice chairperson Rajiv Kumar has gone public to compliment Dr Lal for his work to turn backward rural areas into model villages through public participation. SKOCH Group, India’s leading think-tank dealing with socio-economic issues with a focus on inclusive growth, is also in raptures. 

Banda: A Parched Land Of Vanishing Hopes

All this still not quite explain the disarming charm which the man conveys as he relives this journey which began in Banda. This is Bundelkhand, a parched land of barren produce, of lurking mafia who feast on unemployed youth with which this region abounds. 

He first made himself available to everyone, his doors open to people of all odds and shapes, at all times, which was the first step towards trust-building and empowerment. They brought the woes of water to him: He replied in turn: “Paani Kahan Rahta hai? (Where does water live?). Everyone knew the answer: Kuon, Talab, Nadi (Well, Pond and River). It brought in water-harvesting; dead wells were cleaned up and resurrected; ponds were made aplenty which seeped below the earth to distances far and wide, improving the water table of the region. “I myself had the land around my home dug up at three places, the zones where water tended to slide down. Those were makeshift ponds and served as an example,” recalls Dr Lal. 

Trees were important too. “There is too much stress on tree-plantation. But what use is it if nobody returns after they are planted. They die a natural death,” says Dr Lal. Hence, he made the phrase “Tree-Survival” flip on everyone’s lips. Homes with ample greenery were acknowledged with his presence and a photo in next day’s daily to boot. Dr Lal spread the norm of Paidh-Prasad (Tree-Offering) which people began exchanging in gatherings such as marriages. 

Dr Lal proved to be more than just a trick or two pony as District Magistrate of Banda. 

Staggering Impact of Initiatives

Indeed, it’s not easy to encompass in an article the impact Dr Lal left in Banda in his role as District Magistrate. It’s staggering and worth everyone’s time to click this link and soak in the magnitude of what he managed. 

Consider this: Very few saw any purpose in voting when elections beckoned. They didn’t value their votes, overwhelmed as they were by the depressing surroundings. In the 2014 General Elections, only 53 per cent had turned out at polling booths. 

Dr Lal hit upon some simple ideas which now look so achievable but escapes must of our bureaucrats and planners. There were tents for the voters to escape the blazing heat, as there was arrangement for drinking-water while they waited for their turn to vote. 

Information was gathered on migrant workers, DMs of other districts were approached to nudge those migrant workers to come home and vote. Disabled had tricycles and wheelchairs to haul them to polling booths in hundreds. Women voters were told how their vote could change their own destiny. One had “Booth Ambassadors” which had a good mix of students intern; and government employees were encouraged to adopt a polling booth. Banners, posters, helpline were aplenty.  Selfie stations were put at polling booths. 

Typical of Dr Lal, the idea was to make everyone be connected with the initiative. The outcome: No less than nearly 63% percent cast their vote, a jump of over 10%. Suitably, it was lauded and awarded by no less than the prime minister. 

Similar with prison reforms. Banda Jail was conceived as a Happiness Village of many “mohallas.” Each mohalla had his own representatives. Again, the idea was to make everyone be involved in the initiative. 

Parts of landscape was “allotted” and whosoever did better than others, was declared a winner. Bird-feeding was made a joyful exercise. Yoga, sports, cultural activity, arts and handicrafts, festival celebration all were conducted with gusto. Female prisoners were encouraged to develop skills. Three jail officers were to visit 5 prisoners daily and solve their issues. Swachh Banda Jail was made a priority for most. 

The most interesting bit was rearing cows which were received as donation inside the jail compound. The resultant manure was used to grow organic vegetable. Banda Jai became arguably the only “Dairy Jail” in the country!

All of this received acknowledgement in terms of recognition under the prime minister’s name. As it was in the case of malnutrition and governance in the district. As said, this link tells all, and more. 

India have often yearned for such bureaucrats—those who could shun their air conditioned office and get their hands dirty in the soil outside. The people-connect which is so often found missing in the tribe we call bureaucrats. 

Dr Lal is an exception and clearly he is not sitting on his Banda laurels. His association with “Model Gaon” is a journey which deserves our close attention. 


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