“Lal batti wali gaadi, dekho collector babu aaya!”
This is the chant that excited young kids would greet the District Collector with, when his car would pass by the village of Dhanasar, Hanumangarh district, Rajasthan.
Mohan Lal Soni, a farmer, would watch them from the sidelines, turn to his son, Jitendra, and whisper, “Dekh beta, ek din tu bhi banega, collector.” (Son, one day you will become a collector!)
At the time, no one in the family had ever pursued higher education, so it seemed like a farfetched dream. But Jitendra paid heed and worked hard.
“I still remember when I would sit to study, my mother, Reshma, who never went to school, wondered if I was holding the book upside down. The gates of education never opened to her, but she was optimistic it would change my life. And it did,” says Jitendra.
The man, who grew up to be an IAS officer, has fought several odds—including financial troubles and the death of his older and only sister—to get to where he is today.
However, it isn’t his personal journey that makes his story unique, but the number of lives his innovative projects have impacted that does.
Here are some of them.
As a probationary officer at Rajasthan’s Pali district in 2011, one of his first social welfare initiatives was a school-on-wheels project called Vidyapravahini, where buses were equipped with projectors that displayed educational audio and video content.
The district authorities and its volunteers would then go into the slums every evening and teach the kids for hours.
“It was a warmly-welcomed initiative which was completely funded by donations from well-wishers, bus owners, citizens and other good samaritans,” says Jitendra.
Later, posted as Sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) Mount Abu, his focus shifted to tourism promotion, encroachment removal and restoration of the Nakki Lake.
Charan Paduka Abhiyan
The IAS officer shot to fame during his posting as Collector of Jalore. One of his incredible initiatives, that moved the hearts of citizens and was also replicated across the state was the Charan Paduka Abhiyan.
Shedding light on the initiative, he says, “It was the month of December, and I was visiting a government school, where I noticed a few kids walking in tattered footwear that did nothing to shield them from the harsh winters. It moved me to tears, so I bought and distributed footwear on the same day.”
Later, the Gram Panchayat conducted an investigation where they found out that more than 25,000 kids were going to school without proper footwear.
“We then decided to give them free shoes under a scheme we named Charan Paduka Abhiyan. We publicised the initiative on our Facebook page too. In less than 15 days we had help pouring not just from the district, but all across India and good samaritans in New York, China etc. We provided footwear to more than 30,000 students then. The state government highly appreciated the initiative after it went viral in the media, and the CM then ordered for the Charan Paduka Abhiyan to be replicated across the state,” says a proud Jitendra.
Till date, the initiative has reached more than 1,76,000 students.
Saving lives, literally
Apart from being the saviour of school kids, the IAS officer was also awarded the prestigious Uttam Jeevan Raksha Padak for saving eight lives during the floods in Jalore.
When floods hit Jalore on 27 July 2016, the officer and his team were notified that eight people were stuck and required to be airlifted. The first attempt at helping them was unsuccessful since it was a high-risk area. The second time around, he decided to get onto the sortie too. There was water on all sides; the school was at a distance from the angry gushing waters. One of the family members was trying to jump into the waters to save them. But people were holding him back. The officer couldn’t let them die. And so he jumped with the only hope that he could help the family reunite.
Jitendra had never spoken about his heroic feat with anyone, and was shocked when a picture of him saving lives went viral. The copilot on the sortie had taken that picture and submitted it to the armed forces.
Using tech for good
The officer who is now serving as the Project Director, Rajasthan Urban Infrastructure Development Project (RUIDP) is also known for his use of technology for good governance.
One such initiative was using a mobile monitoring system to track the progress of various NREGA projects in real-time. This earned him the State e-governance and the CSI-E-governance award too.
He also incorporated technology-enabled programs in day-to-day administrative functioning, including the poll day SMS monitoring system, the biometric attendance system in Government schools, and the Sampark–a Whatsapp-based grievances collection and redressal system.
While serving as the Collector of Jhalawar, he also launched an initiative to bring rare O negative blood group donors on one platform and help victims who needed it during the golden hours.
What started as a mere WhatsApp group to help people is a full-fledged application called Rakhtakosh that is providing help 24×7 to people in need of the rare blood group.
Till date, it has saved 8,000 lives.
The officer’s brainchild E-Gyankendra also found space in the Prime Minister’s list of 66 emerging initiatives in the country.
Under this, they provided a town in the district free Wi-Fi facility. But to avoid the instances of youngsters misusing the facility to surf adult content, they created a wi-fi hotspot called E-Gyankendra.
Once you click on the hotspot and enter the password (publically available), you would be able to surf educational content for classes six to ten in the form of video tutorials. The content is created using textbooks and various online educational resources to help students get the best of both worlds. This content can then be downloaded and consumed completely free of cost.
“In the first month itself, more than 9000 GB data was downloaded,” beams Jitendra.
Apart from being replicated in other states, the project also won him the World education award presented by the Sri Lankan Education Minister and UAE Secretary in Delhi in 2018.
The IAS officer has clinched several awards for the many projects he has envisioned and successfully executed in the districts he has served.
He won the Best collector award at the state level and also the coveted Excellence in NREGA Administration Officer award.
He was also felicitated with the prestigious Kalam Innovation in governance award for Charan Paduka and other initiatives.
Recently he was also bestowed the G-files award at the national level, which is presented to Civil Servants for extraordinary achievements in governance.
When asked about the critical components of good governance, he says, “There are four: a sensitive administration, out of the box solutions, innovative thinking, and neo-public administration. Our initiatives cannot be restricted to bureaucratic frameworks but need to go the extra mile to put the common man we serve first. I believe in empowering women, senior citizens, children and differently-abled persons with facilities that would benefit them. The use of information and communication technology can go a long way in ensuring this.”
He also adds how important it is to strike a work and life balance. When he reaches home from a tiring workday, he leaves his IAS suffix outside his home. Because when he enters the four walls of his home, he is only Jitendra, a loving husband and a doting father to his little daughter.
“To maintain that balance, I write books, poems, and do wildlife photography. I tell people that, ‘Main vyast hun par atvayst nahi hun,’ (I am busy, but I am not helter-skelter). It is essential to take a step back and bask in the calm too.”
The man who has won literary awards including the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puruskar has authored many best selling books and co-photographed two coffee table books.
Even as he ends, he has an important message for UPSC aspirants, “I come across several aspirants who complain about the lack of resources. I want to tell you; it doesn’t matter if you have studied in a regional school or if you are a father when you are preparing for UPSC. If you have decided that this is what you want to do, work hard and give it your best shot. If I could do it while shuttling between a million things, you can too. Look for motivation, not excuses.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)