A land of dense Dandakaranya forests, serene streams and ancient tribal traditions, Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district has long been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Since the late 1980s, it has been conflict-ridden and synonymous with hunger, violence and bloodshed.
The good news is that a positive change is slowly but steadily rolling in. And this is much-awaited transformation is happening due to the efforts of people like IAS officer Saurabh Kumar, the pro-active and popular district collector of Dantewada.
A 2009-batch IAS officer of Chhattisgarh cadre, Saurabh is a man on a mission.
Soon after taking charge of Dantewada’s administration, the young bureaucrat was struck by the distressing fact that the district didn’t have enough doctors, engineers, or even science teachers in its schools.
Skilled manpower from outside the region was reluctant to come to the district and the local youth lacked the training. Facing this stark reality and the prospect of a bleak future, they often turned to a life of violence and left-wing extremism.
Understanding the threat this posed to the future generations, Saurabh decided to do something to change this. He realised that helping local students make the right career choice and fulfil their dreams was a simple yet powerful way of ensuring that they didn’t go down the path of violence.
That’s when he took it upon himself to help Dantewada’s higher secondary students plan their career.
Without much fanfare, he introduced two-hour career counselling sessions in which he directly interacted with students (between 50 and 100) picked from random government schools in the district.
Popularly known as “Lunch with the Collector”, these sessions are held every Wednesday at the Government Transit Hostel at Dantewada’s district headquarters. During the session, each student is invited to share his or her interests, ideas and favourite field of study while Saurabh and his team of officials note them down.
After all the students have spoken up, Saurabh (who holds a B.Tech from Allahabad’s Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology) discusses the various options available for each of them and outlines the steps they can take.
This is important because, more often than not, students are unaware of the multitude of professional courses they can pursue and the premier institutes where they can do this.
The affable collector and other senior officials also share inspiring stories of struggle that showcase how hard work, focus and determination can pave one’s way to success. Not only does this inculcate the habit of studying seriously, it also helps develop much-needed confidence in students to meet life’s challenges head-on.
After the counselling session (that is also attended by teachers and school staff), the students are offered a simple yet wholesome lunch of puri, dal, a couple of sabzis, papads and salad. This coincides with a short interactive session in which Saurabh’s team answer any doubts/queries that students may have while seeking feedback from them on how the counselling sessions can be made better.
Amazingly, this is not all. Once a fortnight, Saurabh also invites the parents and teachers of bright students for an “Evening with the Collector” to discuss steps that can be taken to help him/her make the right career choice and live a fruitful life!
Unsurprisingly, this thoughtful initiative has endeared Saurabh Kumar deeply to the locals of Dantewada. By educating its children and channelising their energy in a positive direction, this committed IAS officer is not only giving the conflict-ridden district a new lease of life, he is also inspiring many officers across the country to do the same.
Interestingly, in 2017, he also received the Prime Minister’s award in the category of excellence in innovation for converting Naxal-hit Palnar village of Chhattisgarh into a cashless village post demonetisation though it had no cellular connectivity!