Sharad Mathur

O. P. Chowdhary: Man who Transformed Dantewada

Sharad Mathur


Dantewada is the southern-most district of the Indian state of Chattisgarh which shares its boundaries with three other states – Odisha, Telangana, and Maharashta. Sixty-seven percent of the district is covered in teak and sal forest, which, coupled with the Bailadila mountain range and Indravati River, makes Dantewada rich in scenic landscape. Named after the goddess Danteshwari, it is also home to temple ruins from the 10th and 11th centuries. In addition, there are numerous lakes and waterfalls in the region. All this should add up to Dantewada being the most sought-after tourist destinations in the country.
It should, but it doesn’t!
Most of us have heard of or read about Dantewada in the context of the Naxalite-Maoist violence. Most pictures of Dantewada from an online search would feature guns, landmines or dead bodies. Naturally so, as it falls in the stretch of India’s infamous Red Corridor! In 2010, the news of ambush and brutal killing of 76 CRPF men near Dantewada jolted the nation. But it is not only the security agencies that have borne the brunt. According to an RTI reply given by home ministry of India in 2014, 12,000 people have died in Naxalite violence across India over the years, out of which over 77% were civilians. In Dantewada alone, with a population of just over 410,000, over 50,000 civilians have been displaced.
In such a situation where most government officers would see a posting in Dantewada as punishment, Om Prakash Chowdhary, a young IAS officer, requested the chief minister for a posting there. And in just two years, he unleashed a fundamental change that can be a harbinger to end of violence in the region.

A New Vision for Dantewada

OP Chowdhary took charge as collector of Dantewada in April 2012. “I asked for this posting because of very practical reasons. It provided me with ‘real’ exposure to Naxal affected areas, which I would help me professionally,” recalls Chowdhary. Although he was not ignorant of the situation in Dantewada as his preceding IAS officer was his friend and had visited the district in 2010, he learnt about the situation a lot better after touring the district and talking to people. “I did not go there with a specific agenda to pursue. I just wanted to make Dantewada a better place to live by solving one problem at a time,” Chowdhary tells me.
There were a lot of problems in areas as diverse as health, education, road network, communication, electricity and agriculture. Almost 70% of Dantewada’s population consisted of tribals, and almost 86% of its population lived below the poverty line. The district’s literacy rate was a meagre 29%, lowest in India. The dense forest cover and a low population density of 61 persons per sqkm (compare it with India’s average population density of 385 persons per sqkm) made it difficult for the administration to reach far flung districts. So, most parts of Dantewada had not tasted the fruits of modern development. To worsen the situation there was the Naxalite violence.
Understanding fully well the magnitude of the challenge posed to him, Chowdhary started with an attempt at understanding and experiencing these problems. And in due course of time, he realised that the root of all these problems lay in the lack of exposure and education. “They were not aware of government’s welfare schemes that could help them. They did not know what the responsibilities of the administration are. They did not even have any idea what government or administration was. The Naxalite thought had also spread in the region with the wings of ignorance. That is when I thought I need address education, exposure, employment to transform the region,” says Chowdhary with compassion in his voice.
The problem of education, exposure, and employment were inter-connected and it was wise to first start with education. But the infrastructure for education at Dantewada was in shambles.
The Wheels of Change
As many as 50% of the total 43,361 children in the district in the age group of six to 14 years were not enrolled formally in any school! This happened because many government schools were blown up by the Naxalites as they did not want any concrete structures in which the security forces could take cover and launch an offensive against them. Also, many villages across the Indravati River were virtually inaccessible to the administration and no teacher would go to schools in those villages. Moreover, 73% posts of the primary teachers were vacant. Now, Chowdhary realised that he could not wait till the Naxalite violence ceases to exist. He had to work within the constraints he had inherited in Dantewada.
Education Clusters
He adopted a cluster approach to education which involved selecting clusters of important junctions in the district building residential schools, which provided quality residential and educational facilities to local tribal children. In areas where Naxalites had blasted concrete school buildings, residential schools functioned in pota cabins, which were portable cabins built from pre-fabricated bamboo. “In my experience, Naxalites never opposed education. Since these were not concrete structures in which security forces could take cover, they did not attack them,” Chowdhary tells me about the creative solution he came up with.
These residential schools were equipped with audio-visual rooms, educational package CDs and televisions with satellite channel connections. The learning material was made available in the local dialect, Halbi and Gondi. Like any good private school in  urban areas, these residential schools also engaged children in activities like sports, yoga, cultural days, and summer and winter camps. Highly qualified and driven individuals were brought in from urban centres across the country to mentor the children under Bachpan Banao fellowships (translates to ‘build childhoods fellowship’). Many NGOs like Pratham were also brought in to drive new projects and facilitate better implementation of the existing ones. “We built 44 residential schools in two years and today, over 17,000 children study there. The drop-out percentage has now dropped down to less than 10%,” says a jubilant Chowdhary.
Tamanna Express
To expose tribal students to the possibilities and opportunities that await them, Chowdhary launched Tamanna Express (roughly translates to aspiration express). Under this initiative, a group of 150 children from the villages regularly visited the district headquarters in buses deployed by the administration. They saw government offices, met government officials and were told about how administration functioned and how could they benefit from it. And to make the trip entertaining, visits to the science museum, audio-video theatre, and outdoor flood-light cricket stadium were also arranged. Under this initiative, high school students also visited institutions of higher studies in Raipur and Visakhapatnam to explore career options available to them.
Chhoo Lo Aasman
In far flung tribal areas, there were not enough science teachers and it was virtually impossible for children to pursue their education in the science stream. It in turn was leading to unavailability of qualified local professionals for vacancies of engineers and doctors in the district. Since qualified professionals from outside were not forthcoming owing to the Naxalite violence, it was a problem that called for Chowdhary’s attention.
While he could not send competent science teachers to all the schools in the rural areas on an immediate basis, he could get the students to the best science teachers available! And that’s what he did. Students from classes 11 and 12 interested in pursuing science were brought to two campuses situated in the district headquarters. In addition to regular classes, these students were provided coaching to pass entrance exams of professional courses like engineering, medical, polytechnic, nursing etc.
Out of the total 675 students enrolled in this project, 96% passed their 12th board examination while the pass percentage of the district was a meagre 56%. 26% of these students secured first class as against only 7% from rest of the state. Three girls from the Choo Lo Aasmaan secured a rank in state merit list and 12 students were selected in AIEEE (All India Engineering Entrance Examination).
New role models were being created for other children in the villages.
Gujar-Basar College           
Dantewada also had a significant population of young adults who had dropped out of school due to conflict and poverty. With lack of education and skills employment opportunities were very difficult for them to find. Chowdhary created a residential facility under the name of Gujar-Basar College (translates to livelihood college) with a public-private partnership model and provided vocational training in 25 different trades.
In the first year of its functioning, 1875 students were trained in more than 25 different trades. Out of these, 939 students secured jobs with a starting salary ranging from Rs 4,000/- to Rs 8,000/-. In the second year, over 1,000 students got employed from the livelihood college. Today, the state government has replicated this model in all the 27 districts of Chattisgarh. A good way to take away fertile recruitment grounds from Naxalites.
Other initiatives
Under Nanhe Parinde (translates to little fledglings) initiative, 105 students were selected from interior areas and were provided with special coaching for entrance exams along with their regular fifth grade education. As a result, with just 10 months of mentoring, 85 of these students secured admission in top schools of the region. Chowdhary also arranged for the administration to provide free accommodation to 274 orphaned tribal children and helped them get enrolled in private schools under Right to Education (RTE) act. Accommodation facilities were later extended to 1400 more students.
To institutionalise all the change, Chowdhary simultaneously started working on establishing an Education City, which is a hub for institutions ranging from primary school to professional institutions in one single campus.

O P Chowdhary was conferred PM’s award in 2013, for his work in Dantewada.
O P Chowdhary was conferred PM’s award in 2013, for his work in Dantewada.

The Apparatus of Change

Chowdhary brought about this change by putting in place teams and systems, building trust-based relationships, and overcoming resistance to the change.
Giving Change the Wings of Pace – Empowered Project Teams
A distinct feature of the change Chowdhary brought about at Dantewada was its sheer speed. Chowdhary set the wheels of change in motion in just two years that he was posted in Dantewada.
One of the most difficult parts to manage in such short time was the construction of all the residential facilities, pota cabins, Gujar-Basar College, and the entire Education City. “When we work with a hierarchical and silo-driven approach for scheme implementation, I believe we do not end up achieving much,” says Chowdhary. Normally, government’s construction projects are led by one department and the sub-engineer, assistant engineer, and the executive engineer belong to the same department. However, Chowdhary wanted the best possible talent available for the construction work he was leading. “We could construct beautiful and strong buildings in such a short span of time because we could avail best talent from different government departments. I would take the most talented engineers from different government departments on deputation for specific project work,” says Chowdhary.
Once the project team was put in place, they functioned under a pre-defined approach. If a college building was to be constructed, the engineer would prepare and submit his estimates within 24 hours. The executive engineer would visit Chowdhary’s office and in discussion with him and other officers, submit his technical recommendations and estimates. Chowdhary in turn would provide the administrative sanction and before the end of the day, the cheque for the first instalment would be dispatched. The next day tenders would be announced and after a waiting period of 21 days, these tenders were awarded. On the 23rd day, construction would start! Parallel to the construction, other activities like appointing of the teachers and staff members, applying for recognition of the college from concerned regulatory authorities, and procurement of interiors were carried out.
What also worked for them was the encouragement of informal authority. “If there was no executive engineer available for a project, I would not stop the work to look for a one. We would authorise a competent assistant engineer to lead the project. And a qualified senior teacher while leading a Nanhe Parinde project would supervise the construction work related to his project,” explains Chowdhary. That means, if an executive engineer is not doing his job well, the teacher could take it up with Chowdhary. Breaking the hierarchy started with the district collector himself. He made himself accessible to his teams.
Building Important Alliances
Political interference is often cited as gravest of the challenges that bureaucrats face. And yet, Chowdhary could bring about the change he did, despite tinkering with the set norms, because he was able to build important alliances. He listened to the local MLAs and other political leaders and allowed them to take visible lead and always gave others the credit for the work done. Moreover, he had impressed the CM of Chattisgarh, Dr Raman Singh, with his work during his tenure as the municipal commissioner of the capital, Raipur. This worked in his favour too. “The Education City was to be built partly with corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds of Rs 156 crore from National Mining Development Corporation (NDMC). It was unprecedented! I had requested the CM’s support in getting the funds sanctioned. The very next day, he called me for a meeting with the chairman of NMDC and before I left the capital, the funding was sanctioned,” recalls Chowdhary. Although the funding was sanctioned on the merit of the project, the CM’s support to the project cut short the delay. While he sourced funds for smaller recurring expenses like teachers’ salary, water and electricity bills, mid-day meals etc., from the district administration, the CM’s support also helped him get funds from the state budget for one time, but big expenditures.
Creating Local Change Agents
While the residential schools were built by the administration, parents were not very keen on enrolling their children there. They had their own reasons for that, which were rooted in their past experiences of Naxalite violence and administrative apathy. That is where local instructors came in, who were specially hired to enrol tribal and marginalised children in these schools. They would travel to every far flung village in the middle of the forest to meet the villagers, explain to them what these schools could do to help improve their children’s future, and answer their queries satisfactorily.
Their role did not end there and they continued to function as the connectors between the administration and people. Local villagers were taken to these residential schools and shown how their children were also studying local Halbi and Gondi dialects along with other subjects. Local school monitoring committees were also empowered for enhancing community participation.
It was very important, especially because of the Naxalite influence in the region.


Overcoming Resistance to Change
Introduction to a change initiative is almost always followed by a resistance to change. At Dantewada, some expressed it explicitly while some others implicitly. However, Chowdhary’s approach of building bridges helped overcome the resistance and involved one and all in the change.
“To construct the Education City we selected a government owned barren land in Jawanga village. In a few days time, a man called Bomanaram came to meet me and told me that we should stop this project,” Chowdhary recalls an incidence of resistance to change that posed a serious challenge. Since the land was government owned, Chowdhary did not pay much heed to Bomanaram. A month passed by, the construction work for the Education City had begun, and on one fine day Naxalite pamphlets threatening death to Chowdhary emerged at the construction site. Incidentally, Bomanaram was the sarpanch (village headman) of the Jawanga village. He was a very influential and well respected tribal leader. His family members had always been getting elected as the sarpanch (village headman) without any opposition. Even the Naxalites respected him.
“This shook me up and I was really scared for my life. Then I learnt from my staff that the police had picked up about 150-200 villagers in connection to this threat. I quickly talked to the police officers, got them all released, and invited them to my office for a dialogue,” says Chowdhary with a sense of satisfaction. This was the first but most important step to overcome resistance at Jawanga village. In that meeting, Chowdhary explained to the villagers the benefits Education City will accrue to them. More importantly, he asked them to air their concerns and even assured them that he will stop the project if at the end of the discussion, they did not want the Education City. “They asked me with utmost sincerity, ‘How is this government’s land, when our fathers cleared the forest to make way for this land’. It hit an emotional chord in me,” Chowdhary remembers. He could now understand their resistance to change better and that’s why he could address it well. He provided all 37 farmers, who claimed ownership of parts of Education City Land, with compensatory land with proper documentation. The villagers had demanded for four tube wells for these farmers but all 37 of them were given the tube wells. And he continued to nurture the positivity he had developed.
“I wanted to give some of the contracts to tribal contractors, but I could not find any. Bomanaram told me that there are no tribal contractors because they never got an opportunity. So, I asked him if he can take up some construction work at the Education City and he said that he can construct the boundary wall. While he was only expecting it to yield him few lakhs, the sheer magnitude of the project ensured that he got work worth Rs 2-3 crore,” Chowdhary remembers. When Bomanaram’s son died, Chowdhary attended the funeral and announced that his memorial would be constructed at the entrance of the Education City. Villagers in general, and the grieving father in particular, felt honoured. Bomanaram, with whose perceived insult the trouble in paradise began, had now become a very powerful ally.

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