As the battle with the coronavirus pandemic continues, a few weeks ago, I decided to get away from all the virtual meetings and video-conferences in Delhi. I wanted to go to the field to witness the implementation of development programmes — in this case, the construction of community sanitary complexes under the new phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and water supply systems under the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM). Having travelled over 250 times during the past four years to states, districts and villages and being engaged with chief ministers, district collectors, sarpanches and village sanitation workers to monitor the progress of the SBM, it was important to visit the field again in the post-lockdown world. As the travel restrictions started getting lifted in June, I felt that it was time to tour again.
My first trip was to Bihar. The travel advice I got from “experts” in Delhi was, if I had to go at all, to drive to Patna and not go by air, as flying was “unsafe”. While I usually like road trips, the idea of spending a couple of days to drive to Patna, as opposed to taking a 90-minute flight, was not very appealing. So, I decided to fly, and a little reluctantly, agreed to wear an N-95 face mask at the airport and during the flight, in contrast to the soft and comfortable khadi cloth mask I wore to work.
At both Delhi and Patna airports, I was impressed by the rigorous safety standards being enforced. It seemed a little surreal, though, to observe the cabin crew kitted out in what seemed to be full-blown PPE outfits. The face shield which each passenger had to put on, also made us look pretty weird but, oddly enough, it was all quite reassuring, and the fact that the plane was only a third full, ensured reasonable social distancing.
On the ground at Patna, I noticed that the coronavirus had miraculously engendered good hygienic behaviour, with everybody I met trying to maintain “do gaz ki doori” and frequently scrubbing their hands with liquid sanitiser. I also did not see anyone spitting. Halting overnight at the state guest house in Patna, I hit the road early next morning with Bala, the SBM Mission Director, to drive to Muzaffarpur and Vaishali districts. Stuck in bad traffic on the Ganga bridge, I realised that it was almost back to business as usual in rural Bihar. We finally made it to Muzaffarpur and went directly to the site where a community sanitary complex was under construction. It took a little bit of “organising”, but we soon settled into a safe, social distancing pattern. Like us, the workers were also masked.
We then drove to the Vaishali district on the way back to Patna. At Vaishali, we were taken by Udita, the young collector, to a nicely-constructed community sanitary complex near a school, which had running water and handwashing basins with soap also available. Later, as we had a cup of tea at the circuit house with Udita and team, I was energised, as always by the conversation with these young, dedicated and fearless IAS officers. Udita told me that, in addition to managing the coronavirus situation in her district, she had to deal with an influx of about 30,000 returning migrant workers. Interestingly, about 8,000 to 10,000 of them had come back from Tirupur — the hosiery manufacturing centre of Tamil Nadu. They were now looking for local work and Udita and her team had done a rapid skill-matching exercise to see if any local industry in Vaishali could hire their services. The problem was that some of the returning skilled migrant workers, such as tailors, were used to earning Rs 900 per day in Tirupur while the local rate was, at best, only Rs 500. Udita felt that most of them, after staying at home for a few months, would return to Tirupur.
My second trip was to Uttar Pradesh, where, accompanied by Kinjal, the young SBM Director, we travelled to Hardoi, Gonda, Bahraich, Lakhimpur Kheri and Sitapur. The roads were good, a huge improvement since my days in Gorakhpur in 1982, although, driving from Lucknow to Gonda, it was a little worrying to note that the Ghagra river was rapidly rising. In Gonda, the collector Nitin Bansal took us to a worksite where we chatted with a skilled construction worker who had returned from Mumbai. He was now thankful to be gainfully employed under the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan and was building a community sanitary complex.
My third trip was to Karnataka, where I travelled to Ramnagar district, south of Bangalore, with L K Atheeq, the principal secretary in charge of rural development, sanitation and drinking water. We were met by Ikram, the young chief executive officer of the Zila Panchayat, Ramanagar district, who took us to the construction site of a large water treatment plant (WTP), part of the large multi-village Kodihalli water supply scheme. It was fascinating to note that in Karnataka, most of the WTPs are built by skilled Bengali migrant workers. This batch of workers had just recently returned to Karnataka from Bengal after the lockdown was lifted.
I returned to Delhi, energised by my field visits and the interaction with the young “generalist” IAS officers, who are really specialists in development work. Activities are now in full swing under their leadership. They have faced truly challenging times during COVID-19 and have come up trumps, as usual.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 22, 2020 under the title ‘Notes from the field, after Covid’. The writer is secretary, Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Views are personal
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