In December 2017, firebrand IAS officer Dr Renu Raj, the sub-collector of Thrissur at the time, received an anonymous call.
“It was information from a hilly part of Thrissur. ‘There is illegal mining happening here madam’, the anonymous caller said. When I asked these informants to give the complaint in writing, they refused. They were scared about repercussions,” recalls the doctor-turned-IAS officer.
And yet, the gutsy officer was determined to solve the mystery. So she led a raid.
Around 4 am, alongside her team of officers, she embarked on the mission. As they were approaching the said area, they saw seven speeding lorries carrying granite stones.
They stopped the lorries and began to interrogate the drivers.
Before the befuddled drivers could contact their comrades to stop sending the other lorries, the team seized their phones and keys. Police officials were called to keep an eye on the seized vehicles.
“We followed the directions and found even more heavy-duty vehicles. We seized the trucks and kept policemen and revenue officials at the spot to ensure they couldn’t escape.”
The real shock was awaiting them 10-12 km ahead.
“Quarries are dangerous because they have small entrances and a vast area inside. If you get trapped, it is difficult to exit, since the entry and exit points are the same, situated close to water bodies. We reached the quarry and had to climb up for another ten minutes. When we were reaching the top, we saw two people trying to escape from another side. It set the red flags. Something was fishy. When we ran to the area, we saw explosives, mining equipment, excavators and jackhammers, set up to explode the area for more granite stones.”
The team tried to chase the men in the settlements close to the area, but couldn’t find them. The police were notified, and all the explosives were seized. The bomb squad was alerted to ensure that the explosives did not detonate, and the quarry was shut down. It belonged to the family of a known Panchayat president, who was also the leader of a political party.
Starting at 4 am, the operation ended at 2 pm!
From raiding illegal old age homes to quarries owned by powerful men, in three years of being in service, the IAS officer Dr Renu Raj (from the 2015 batch) has made headlines. And we must say, for all the right reasons!
This is her story.
Born to a District Transport Officer of Kottayam District and a homemaker in Kottayam, Kerala, Renu was excellent at academics. After completing school in the city, and Class 12 in Thrissur, she joined the Government Medical College in Kottayam.
It was during her internships that she realised that she wanted to do more than treat people and their bodily ailments. It was as if a forgotten childhood dream was beckoning her to join the civil services.
She recalls, “I respect the noble profession of medicine. But as I met people from different backgrounds walking in and out of the hospital and tended to their illnesses, my interest in their backgrounds, living conditions, access to basic rights, etc grew. I felt I could do a lot more for them as a civil servant. And so, I decided to listen to my heart and pursue my childhood dream.”
After her internship, Renu moved to Thiruvananthapuram where she dedicated a full year to prepare for the coveted Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam. She even worked part-time as a doctor until the mains result.
Speaking about her preparation, she adds, “Initially, I was all over the place and confused, just like beginner aspirants. I started studying for my prelims and mains together. I did not stress too much on the result at first, because I knew I had a professional degree to fall back on. Also, I did not prepare for too many exams; I had my eyes set on the goal and gave it my best shot.”
Renu, who was unsure at first about clearing the exam in the first attempt, had also registered for the second attempt. But when the results arrived, she was in for a surprise.
That year, Dr Renu Raj made national headlines with an All-India Rank of 2!
She adds how her parents have been her biggest pillars of support, who even shifted to Thiruvananthapuram when she was preparing, so she wouldn’t lose focus or have to fret over accommodation or food.
Fast-forward to her journey as a young bureaucrat.
What is the biggest stereotype about entering the service, I ask her.
“When we are outside the system, we often think that it is easy for bureaucrats to do whatever they want to do, leverage their power or make changes. While it is true that you can bring about change, you also need to understand that you are entering a system that has been in existence for years. And change happens, but only by following a procedure. The concept that everything changes at the snap of a finger is not true. It requires a lot of work and focus.”
She continues, “But you come to a very responsible position at a very young age. The position you stand in demands maturity and responsibility beyond your age.”
While she trained in Kochi for ten months before the academy training at Mussoorie, her first independent posting was in Thrissur.
It was here that she worked tremendously for senior citizens, a segment of the population in the state that is double that of the national average.
She informs, “During my posting, we would get almost 35-40 cases each month, of children abandoning their parents at old age homes, hospitals or temples.”
And while the Senior Citizen Maintenance Act of 2008 is existent in all states, compliance was an issue. The IAS officer created a group of ten conciliation officers. These were people from different walks of life, like retired government officers and educationists, who volunteered to mediate between broken families, convincing children to take their parents home.
“We could sort a lot of cases. In some, we were able to persuade the children to look after the parents and if not that, pay for their maintenance up to Rs 10,000 per month. In cases where the children still disagreed but had received land from their parents, we got the ownership back.”
To ensure that the grievances of the senior citizens were addressed, the Collectorate also started a different room with conciliation officers on the ground floor, since the building had no elevators. This was to accommodate the elderly who would find it difficult to climb the stairs.
When she received the information that an unlicensed old age home in Thrissur city was extorting money from the elderly to the tune of Rs 20,000 per month and non-refundable deposits to the tune of Rs 2.5-3 lakh without any receipts, she led a raid on the home.
She shares, “We were told that the home locked elderly persons inside a room. Bedridden and suffering from dementia and similar conditions, these elderly were not even given proper food. When we raided the premises, we found one male and two females, two of whom did not have any documents. We rescued them and sealed the home. The elderly were then sent to a government-run facility.”
The cherry on the top was that the team was able to track the children of these elderly, some of whom despite being abroad, came down. The conciliation officers were able to convince them to take their ailing parents home.
She recalls, “We did not fight or argue with them, just told them that all the money they were spending on their care could be used to give them a more homely atmosphere, if they hired caretakers at their own homes. The elderly citizens were moved and thanked us. It was very emotional.”
It was also under her tenure that a mega medical camp in collaboration with Amruta Hospitals was conducted, which saw a footfall of 2,000 senior citizens; treatment was given on the spot, and 250 free surgeries were conducted later.
The illegal quarry raid in December 2017 also brought her to public limelight. When asked about the reaction of the locals after the quarry was shut down, she says, “They collectively thanked us, adding how these explosions in the nights would scare their children. Even their windows were cracked, and none of them had the courage to complain. This operation brought our work to the limelight, and we were able to carry out similar operations elsewhere too.”
Dr Renu Raj was pitted against powerful men. Were there repercussions?
She reveals, “I was told there would be problems, not just due to political pressure, but because many of the quarries that we shut down were owned by financially powerful people. But I found that once an officer proves that they are credible, nobody dares to threaten them directly. To be honest, I expected repercussions, but nothing happened. It reinstated my faith in the system too.”
The young officer, who has now taken charge of Devikulam (Munnar), is now focused on two problem areas in the district. Notably, she is also the first woman officer to be posted in the area.
“I am determined to follow a twin approach for Devikulam. The illegal encroachments and constructions will be one area I will look into, and the second is the social issues of the tea-plantation workers. Many of them struggle with employment, have no land or basic education. There are several tribal hamlets too. Only when we crack down on illegal encroachments, will we be able to reclaim government land and give it to the marginalised communities that need it the most. Also, I want to work for the development of women and children, a sector that often gets overlooked due to other existing issues,” she signs off.
And we wish the brave officer the very best! May her tribe grow!
If this story inspired you, get in touch with Dr Renu Raj at 94470 26452.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)