Sowing seeds of change

From an obscure village in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh to Garo Hills in the not-so-familiar northeastern zone, the road traversed has not been easy for Ram Singh. But the young and zealous IAS officer has taken everything in his stride with an aim to serve people here and bridge the cultural and social gap with them.
Singh, who succeeded Pravin Bakshi as deputy commissioner of West Garo Hills last year, is bringing about palpable change in a district that has recently come out of the grip of militancy. His numerous initiatives and out-of-the-box thinking are making headlines. The 42-year-old DC is not only introducing ideas but is also working towards making them sustainable.
Be it environment, cleanliness or rural education, Singh is trying to better services and improve governance at the grassroots level.
“Environment and sustainable development are two critical issues in a fragile ecology like Meghalaya,” points out Singh.
He says though there have been numerous efforts by the government, civil society groups and communities towards preserving it, population growth and commercial demand are putting “undue pressure on ecology and our forests, which were managed by the community, are shrinking and reserve forests are being encroached upon” leading to acute water scarcity, especially during summer months.
Though the impact of ruthless destruction of the ecological balance is irreversible, it can definitely be mitigated to a great extent by timely intervention. And Singh is exactly trying to do that.
The district administration has held a series of blockwise meetings of Nokmas and village elders to discuss sustainable development.
“We requested them to have village-level meetings and come up with a resolution to protect reserve forests, have more areas under indigenous plantation and create community nursery. For this we are taking help of MGNREGS and other schemes,” explains Singh, who was born and brought up in a tribal area called Jahalma in Lahaul Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh and is acclimated to harsh nature.
The tough officer, who had served in merchant navy before joining the Assam Meghalaya Cadre in 2008, and his coterie of officials have already visited 20 remote clusters of villages since March where connectivity is poor but deforestation is considerably high. The team apprised the villagers of natural resources management, watershed management and deforestation and was successful in convincing them to address the issues at the village level. “We will cover more villages in the days to come,” he says.
Singh is also aware of the role of youths and students in society and is taking them along in achieving the goal. The district administration has run campaigns on social media and in schools and introduced programmes like ‘One Citizen One Tree’, ‘An’chingni School An’chingni Bol (Our School Our tree)’ and ‘Adopt a Village’ and “the response has been very good so far”.
No plastic, please
Beat Plastic Pollution is another mission of the district administration for which it is working in tandem with villages and schools.
In a recent directive, Sigh has banned use of plastic bottles in government offices and at public events reducing use of the non-biodegradable product by 70 per cent. The citizens are being motivated to do the same during private functions.
“We will ban use of plastic less than 50 microns, thermocol, plastic cups and plates from August 15. We are preparing for use of alternate bio-degradable and recyclable materials. We are also motivating youths and children to not use plastic. We have visited almost 100 schools to spread this message,” informs the DC.
The district administration also carries out regular cleaning drives at market places and picnic sites, like Tura Peak and Pelga Falls area, in collaboration with schools and colleges. A notification issued this week mandates all liquor sellers to buy empty bottles from consumers at a price of Rs 2 for beer bottles and Re 1 for others so that there is less littering on roads.
Following the example of former West Khasi Hills deputy commissioner Arunkumar Kembhavi, Singh too wants to use plastic for construction of roads and plastic bottles in building public toilets.
“We have stopped using plastic bottles in government offices and so far we are strictly adhering to this. But our main strategy is to motivate, sensitise and demonstrate, besides enforcement, because that is sustainable in the long run,” Singh asserts.
However, finding an alternative to plastic is a challenge and the district administration is trying to address this.
“We have installed RO/water filters in offices. Even 20-litre recyclable bottles are initially being used. We are planning to use cloth and paper bags instead of plastic for groceries. We are also contemplating using areca nut plates and paper cups as these leaves are found in abundance in Garo Hills. We have a few small scale industries and our self help groups can be engaged in manufacturing these. We had a meeting with bankers recently where we asked them to assist and promote rural entrepreneurs for this initiative,” Singh lays down the road map.
Rural schools in focus
Singh was also spotted standing in queue with students of a rural school for midday meal (MDM). At a time when most village schools in the state are irregular in providing meals to students, Singh is ensuring that the scheme is implemented in letter and spirit.
“Sustainability of MDM is an issue. We are ensuring that all villagers know about the importance of schools and midday meal. We have written a letter to all the village elders regarding nutrition in children and how it affects physical and mental growth. Everyone has realised that I am always on a visit to rural areas and I can drop in at any school and have midday meal,” he says.
Singh had earlier worked in education, Integrated Child Development Services and Career Guidance at Resubelpara and Ampati and in West Garo Hills too, he is continuing the initiatives as Project STAR or School Transformation by Augmentation of Resources.

Under Project STAR, damaged school buildings are being repaired with partial government support, community help and other philanthropic efforts. Repair and modernising of more than 100 school buildings in the district have already started.
Jemimah Marak, a Tura-based teacher, says as an educator she is happy that the DC is concerned about the state of school education. “Many of his initiatives are meaningful and have a lot of potential. I only hope he is consistent and has a good team to help him implement these initiatives. About sustainability, his ambitious attempts at change can only be attained with the cooperation of the community and other stakeholders,” she adds.

Remote visits

The DC and his team have been regularly visiting villages and most often to the remotest areas on foot. “We spend the night in a village and have meeting with villagers when they are more informal and freely talk about various issues. We come to know about the history of the village and the pressing issues faced by villagers. In the morning, we all walk around the village and review various government services, schools, anganwadi centre, health sub-centre etc,” says Singh while describing their routine visits to remote areas.
Poor road connectivity and water crisis are always a problem even as several central and state projects remain incomplete. However, “we are taking steps to complete these projects during the coming season”.
Singh believes regular visits to villages bring administration closer to people. During such visits, the DC makes it a point to hold awareness talks on girl child education and other issues and health camps.

Living up to promises

Singh realises that while he and his team are raising the expectations of the simple, hard-working villagers, they have to also fulfil them.
“Our mission is not to pass only orders and advisories but demonstrate and take part in all the initiatives. We have stopped using plastic bottles. We are using stream water during our village visits. We are carrying out cleaning drive. We are making all out efforts to reach out to all remote villages on foot, stay with them, identify and discuss all issues with them. Such initiatives to bring about change will continue. Our initiative of carrying along the school children will be the biggest vantage point,” says Singh.
Singh’s experience in Garo Hills has helped him tackle the various challenges with aplomb. He had witnessed as well as successfully handled the Garo Rabha Conflict of 2011 in Resubelpara- Goalpara area and “we were successful in settling down both sides of villages and communities”.
There are other facets of the tough task master. He loves trekking, swimming, cycling and playing badminton. “I also love nature, villages and the people there. If we can preserve these as human being it will always be good for future generations,” says Singh, who is married to a dentist and has a four-year-old daughter.
The district administration is closely working with the Forest Department and NGOs like Huro Programme for preservation of wildlife in Garo Hills, Living Root Foundation of Pynursla for identifying and developing root bridges in Garo Hills. “Also, I am in touch with the Wildlife Institute of India so that Garo Hills Conservation Area gets UNESCO World Heritage Status,” says Singh.
Recently, Singh along with the members of the Huro Programme released a Slow Loris, named Rambo, into the Rangwalkamgre Community Reserve Forest near Babadam in the district.
Dr R Marak of Tura Civil Hospital says though she has not met the deputy commissioner personally but she gets to know about his initiatives from Facebook pots and reports. “He seems to be a down to earth person who mingles with locals and tries to learn the local language. He works with the intention to give back to the society,” she adds.
Singh believes everyone has his or her way of serving the people and one should do in the best of their capacities to bring about the best results. “I always try to motivate youth to aim high and try to achieve their target. Dignity and respect for any kind of labour is very important and we need to appreciate that. In the end everyone should be happy and stay healthy and fit,” he concludes.

~ NM

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