Not long ago, a heartwarming video of IAS Surendra Kumar Meena surfaced on social media.
The 2012-batch IAS officer was on a surprise visit to a primary school in Sundergarh, had carried with him slippers for the students—many of whom are accustomed to walking barefoot.
However, much to the amusement of the visiting team, the tiny tots were trying on slippers for the first time, and kept mixing up the left and right slippers.
Meena immediately got down on his knees and helped each child put on the slippers, while repeatedly asking them to wear slippers to school henceforth.
Prior to his days as a district collector of Sundergarh, the 36-year-old officer from Abhaipura village in Sawai Madhopur district in Rajasthan was posted as the District Collector of Mayurbhanj (from April 2017-April 2018).
An electrical engineer, Meena previously served as a scientist at the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It was during his stint here that he first visited Odisha and fell in love with the state.
“I happened to visit Chandipur in Odisha for test firing of missiles and the people of the state became very close to my heart. When I cleared the UPSC, I opted for Odisha as my first preference. I am thankful for the opportunity to serve this state,” says the unassuming officer.
Meena is one of the few senior officials in Odisha who uses technology to directly connect with the people and their problems. Interestingly, he has been using social media and applications like WhatsApp to connect with the people and officials to expedite government entitlements and benefits to the poor.
In fact, he set an example when he used Whatsapp to help 1,200 labourers to get their tools and bicycles under the Nirman Shramik Yojana in a record time of ten days, applications of which were pending for more than two years.
Earlier this year, field workers from the International Justice Mission—an organisation working for rescue and rehabilitation of bonded labourers—were in for a similar surprise. They had accompanied ten victims, including an acid attack survivor, to the District Collectorate.
“Not only did the district collector listen to the survivor’s ordeal with patience, but immediately called the labour department officials, directing them to act on the case swiftly. He took time to appreciate and encourage us for our work, and shared his WhatsApp number, asking us to send documents related to the case so that he could follow up,” says Ronald Nanda, a field worker.
Another field worker, Mithuel Pani, shares that over the ten years in which they have been accompanying victims to government officers for compensations and entitlements, the processes last months and even years! But the collector’s kindness was overwhelming.
While an administrative position generally requires rigidness, it is unusual to come across leaders who can empathise, put themselves in others’ situations, and consider things from different perspectives.
No wonder that Meena has struck the right chord with his juniors in the government machinery, who are all buckled up to follow his footsteps and serve the community in the best possible manner.
Anamika Singh, Block Development Officer, Sundargarh block, said that she was encouraged by the efforts of the district collector to visit gram panchayats that are cut-off due to the difficult terrain.
She says, “On one occasion, the vehicle could not go any further. He got down, borrowed a bike from one of the locals in the area, and drove to the village where people were waiting for him to pour out their grievances.”
She continues, “We all intend to perform our best but often fail to do so for lack of motivation. However, when seniors lead by example and commitment to duty, it energises the entire team. It is evident in how our approach towards the people has changed even as we work towards meeting our regular targets.”
While discussions on his compassion continue to do the rounds, the young IAS officer is equally admired and appreciated for his pro-poor welfare measures, innovative livelihood initiatives, and use of technology to bridge the gaps in the delivery of public services in the underdeveloped district.
It is noteworthy that despite being a mineral-rich district, Sundergarh is infamous for distress migration of women and adolescent girls to cities for work. The bureaucrat received much praise for using the District Mineral Fund (DMF) for the benefit of the areas affected by mining-related operations.
With the help of the Odisha Rural Development & Marketing Society (ORMAS), Meena facilitated the Shaktigaon Project, under which 15 Self-Help Groups (SHGs) were trained for economic empowerment. As many as 42 women, including 40 tribal women, were trained to manufacture noodles.
Funds from the DMF were used in the purchase and installation of machinery, setting up of the infrastructure, purchase of raw materials, packaging materials and electricity costs. The business already has a turnover is Rs 1 lakh per month with a net profit of Rs 15,000, informed a senior official.
Similarly, efforts were made to hike the prices of Siali leaf, a forest produce, from Rs 14 to Rs 16. These leaves collected by tribal women are used to make siali-leaf plates that are in demand for their bio-degradable properties, especially after many districts in the district enforced a plastic ban.
A production/training unit established at the block head quarter, Bonaigarh, has benefitted more than 1,000 families from Bonai and Gurundia.
Thanks to Meena’s initiative, at least four SHG groups comprising 40 women each, have been engaged in manufacturing slippers which are supplied to the local market. The women marketed the slippers during the national Pallishree Mela at Rourkela, Baliyatra Cuttack and Dhenkanal in 2018, making a business turnover of Rs 2 lakh.
This apart, the young officer was instrumental in clearing encroachments and rehabilitating the displaced, ensuring minimum support price for crops, connecting farmers with the market and ensuring a green cover in the mining-prone district.
During his role as the district collector of Mayurbhanj, he visited as many gram panchayats as possible. He was instrumental in providing health services to critically ill children under the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund (CMRF).
To contain the growing cases of violence in witch-hunting in the tribal-dominated district, Meena established a Rapid Response Team (RRT). He was also much appreciated for his project ‘Paint My Town’, in which he involved artists and students to paint the walls of Mayurbhanj with pictures and slogans to raise awareness on education, child labour, environment protection, and sanitation.
Surendra Kumar Meena has now assumed the charge of Managing Director, Odisha Lift Irrigation Corporation (OLIC). Locals, however, continue to remember him for initiating the road across the hilly terrain of Phuljar to Keonjhar, reducing the distance from 143 km to 78 km, cutting the travel time by several hours.
“As a child in Rajasthan’s Abhaipura village in Sawai Madhopur district, I often wondered why our district collector did not come to my village and listen to our problems. I believe that going to the people and the community, talking and listening to them in their settings, will drive us to work much better than just looking and reading through a bunch of papers,” concludes Meena.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)