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Cyclothons, Climbing Everest, Writing Books: Why an IAS-IPS Couple Fell in Love With Ahmedabad

“The city makes us feel so rooted; we just can’t imagine leaving this place and settling down anywhere else!”

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He brought the first Cyclothon to Ahmedabad as the Joint Commissioner of Police of the city; she, as the Chief Electoral Officer, mobilised a record number of voters from all sections of society – from newly-wed women to centenarians, transgender electors to tribals – to come out and vote in big numbers.

He, as JCP Traffic, reversed a problem into a solution by introducing blue uniformed traffic assistants to man the junctions of Ahmedabad through a Public Private Partnership; she set up the single stop window system for public services through a Jan Sewa Kendra for citizens of Ahmedabad, as Collector of the city.

He was the Ahmedabad da puttar who put the Indian civil services on the map of international mountaineering, by becoming the first bureaucrat in India to scale Mount Everest in May 2008; she was the scribe who told this remarkable story to the world, weaving her own voice into the narrative.

As a dynamic duo perpetually at work, dealing with crushing pressures and a demanding schedule, the unusual IAS-IPS couple are remarkably Zen and joyful, always finding the time to meet friends and do things that fan their passion.

Anita and Atul Karwal first came as Officer Trainees of the Gujarat cadre in 1989 to the State Administrative Training Institute, SPIPA. Their first postings were as Assistant Collector and Assistant Superintendent of Police, respectively, at Dholka sub-division of Ahmedabad district.

“Dholka was a small town in Ahmedabad district. We used to drive down every fortnight to have our favourite ice-cream in Municipal Market and enjoy the ‘big city’. Although our postings took us across the state, Ahmedabad remained the recurrent theme of our lives, especially after 2003.”

They worked their way up from the grassroots level and went on to love what the city had to offer to them as parents, as officials, as social beings and as individuals with aspirations and dreams.

Atul is a fitness, sports and adventure enthusiast. Aside from his activities of skydiving, scuba diving and ultramarathons, he began to learn martial arts from his guru, Donald Melville, in 1993, when he was posted as SP of Valsad.

Settling down in Ahmedabad made it possible for him to seriously pursue this interest and acquire a first-degree black belt in Wing-Tsun Kung Fu.

Anita explains, “Atul had dreamt of scaling Mount Everest from his childhood. Although our schedules didn’t allow it and we lived in an urban jungle, he was able to prepare for the epic challenge by climbing stairs of the ‘tallest’ buildings of Ahmedabad over 20 times every other night after work. He would also walk the roads of the city with a 30 kg rucksack, from 11 PM to 4:30 AM twice a week, to ‘practice’. I think all the roads of Ahmedabad have a huge contribution in his success!”

Inspired by his Everest adventure, Atul started the initiative of a ‘Walker’s Mall’ in the city, encouraging people to walk and play on the roads once every month. A section of the busiest road was closed for all vehicles for the day, creating a festival opportunity for children and pedestrians to enjoy a vehicle free day, thus reducing pollution and celebrating the culture of the city.

Anita continued, “I, on the other hand, was a yearning artist but didn’t know what to write until I co-authored a book entitled Think Everest with Atul about his Everest journey. It empowered me to start writing more regularly; I started writing columns for Ahmedabad Mirror and later for DNA. I even indulged in poetry now and then. My second book has just been released.”

As a family, Ahmedabad provided the stability required for their young children. “It is the school, Mahatma Gandhi International School (MGIS), which turned out to be the brighter side of our lives. Because of our postings and many transfers, by the time both the girls were 12-13 years old, they had been to more than ten schools each and it was beginning to affect them negatively. When I put the kids in MGIS, life changed for all four of us. Suddenly there was time on hand, suddenly the children were more confident, they became hungry for knowledge, they were happy with school, and I didn’t have to struggle with their homework or make charts on the solar system after work. A calming balance came into our lives. I am grateful to Ahmedabad for giving this school to us.”

For Atul and the girls, the city offered many opportunities to delve into sports. “Atul would be sky diving into the Kankariya Lake and my daughters would want to do that; they would find out a marathon was going on and enroll for it, or they would know about an upcoming Cyclothon and start preparing for that… Ahmedabad is such a vibrant city. We have seen my favourite artists live in Ahmedabad… we can’t imagine anything missing from our lives.”

When she became the Chief Electoral Officer of Gujarat, Anita spent time working to identify the needs and gaps of the state in relation to electoral registration and turnout. There was severe urban apathy towards both. People had the mistaken notion that if they have an election card, they were registered, so electors had to be made aware of the methods of registration and cross checking of names. They also had to be motivated to come out and vote.

Under her leadership, the city and the state had a record turnout of voters in the 2012 Assembly elections and the 2014 Parliamentary elections.

“The city makes us feel so rooted; we just can’t imagine leaving this place and settling down anywhere else. The city makes you feel safe, culturally vibrant and socially connected as you are surrounded by the warmth of friends. It gives you the opportunities of a big cosmopolitan city, while retaining the home-like quality of a small town”.

This closing statement by Anita is a testament to the quality of the city in retaining people of high calibre and making them feel at home while giving them a canvas to implement new ideas in their profession that can and has created ripple effects across the country.

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