The Wikipedia page for Lakhimpur Tehsil in Kheri, Uttar Pradesh shows the photo of a dying lakefront, with silt and algae choking up more than half of the lake. Around two years ago, calling Lakhimpur as the land of dying ponds, lakes and water bodies, wouldn’t have been a misnomer.
However, the Tehsil is now brimming with 137 revived water bodies and rivulets as well as fresh foliage of greenery everywhere. And it has been possible due to the rigorous efforts of one zealous IAS officer – Arun Kumar Singh, the present Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Kheri district.
His environmental initiatives have helped Lakhimpur become the first Tehsil to earn the coveted ISO:14001 certification (ISO:14001 is the international standard that specifies requirements for an effective environmental management system).
In a conversation with The Better India, Arun Kumar Singh shares about his eco-friendly endeavours of water body revival, energy conservation, rainwater harvesting, tree plantation and what not!
Find A Pond, Save A Pond
“There was a time when there were over 9,000 ponds & lakes in Lakhimpur Tehsil, interconnected with rivulets from two main rivers – Ghagra and Sarda. When I arrived at this Tehsil around 21 months ago, the number was drastically low, so much so that water scarcity was common in the summer months. At the department, we screened records from up to 1951 to identify the encroached and silted up water bodies and that’s when the number 9000 surfaced,” reveals Singh, hinting how it was a shocking revelation for everyone.
Restoring all the encroached water bodies is an impossible task, but Singh resolved to set out on a mammoth mission – Talav Khojo, Talav Bachao (Find A Pond, Save A Pond).
The task was inherently arduous, especially for a Tehsil office where langour was the prevailing norm before Singh stepped in.
Most of the encroachment happened with rampant penetration of urban trends in the last two decades. The wetlands, which once welcomed migratory birds every winter, were lying as fallow stretches covered in hedge and wilderness. The entire ecosystem of the water bodies and surrounding areas was drastically affected.
Arun Kumar Singh’s work was thus riddled with many challenges.
The determined officer meticulously skimmed the archives and personal landholding records (Pattas) and identified the locations where lakes, ponds and wetlands existed previously. He devised an elaborate plan for revival of these water bodies.
Ensuring Participation At All Levels
Singh’s first step was to streamline the work culture in the agricultural and water department offices. He constituted the Talav Khojo, Talav Bachao (TKTB) team with the key-ranking officials, local council members, Panchayat leaders and citizen representatives. Every Friday, the team would gather to discuss the progress of the slated work, future plans and brainstorm new ideas for faster revival of water bodies.
“After identifying the location correctly, we measure the amount of encroachment according to the standard parameters and then follow the legal steps to prevent encroachment for housing and other purposes. Afterwards, the villagers are engaged to dig up, desilt and restore the encroached pond to its former glory. In this manner, we have revived 137 water bodies worth a total area of 64 hectares,” informs Singh.
Speaking about the ingenious idea of TKTB mission, Kheri Chief Development Officer Avtar Singh says, “The water bodies in Lakhimpur Tehsil were revived with complete community participation as the villagers themselves doubled up as labourers through the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National. Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme. Hundreds of men and women earned a decent periodical income while also preserving the natural resources of their birthplace.”
Avtar Singh adds, “In the interior hamlets of Lakhimpur, we have restored even completely dried-up ponds. Walking trails and nature parks have been created in the suburban zones, surrounding the revived lakes. The shallow trenches which were once streams have now been converted to irrigation channels.
To amplify community participation in the TKTB mission, Arun Kumar Singh is now collecting the history and folklore behind the colloquial names of the water bodies in Lakhimpur. “If people can be intrigued by the cultural aspect, they will support the programme with increased enthusiasm and can prompt it to the next level,” he believes.
Saving Water, Power and Paper in His Office
It was not simply Singh’s lake revival initiative that placed Lakhimpur on the ISO:14001 map. He also mandated several power-saving and water-saving policies at the offices.
“We switched to LED bulbs, fans and other electrical appliances which are energy-saver, replacing the age-old existing lights & fans which consumed huge amounts of electricity. We have also advocated reduced use of power inside the office premises; like working in sunlight in the daytime or switching off the fans while leaving the office.”
The Lakhimpur Tehsil office is on its way of becoming completely digitised, thereby reducing the usage of paper, alongside enhancing the work speed and efficiency.
To conserve water, a rainwater harvesting unit (RWH) has been installed at the office campus and all the households in the area have been instructed to follow suit. “Villagers, who were earlier sceptical about the need for RWH at home, are now impressed to see how we managed to stop wastage of water and also increased the groundwater table in the area. Every home is now willingly installing RWH units,” says Singh.
Lakhimpur, which lies in the Tarai region, has been more or less successful in keeping pollution at bay due to its extensive green belts. Arun Kumar Singh is now organising additional tree plantation in every barren zone to substantiate the green cover further.
Earning the ISO:9001 certification a year ago
Interestingly, it was Arun Kumar Singh’s upgradation of the public offices that earned Lakhimpur the ISO:9001 certification for quality management and redressal of citizens’ issues last year. Being located in extreme interiors, villagers often faced difficulty in finding the Tehsil office. Even then, the absence of proper demarcation of departments and task division led to further confusion inside the office. People would often leave frustrated, unable to find the specific official to approach for their grievances. The officials also slacked in their responsibilities often, further worsening the situation for the general public.
Once Arun Kumar Singh was deputed there, he first created elaborate seating arrangements for the public, so that they don’t have to queue up in the scorching summers or pouring rains. Next, he devised separate dress codes for each department officials, so it becomes easier for the villagers, even the illiterate people, to spot them.
The digitisation of the office led to a dramatic decrease in average issue redressal time. While earlier files took a minimum of 15 days to one month to be prepared, now they were being handed over instantly.
“People now had only praises about the work efficiency of the Tehsil office. This helped us cinch the ISO:9001 certification a year ago,” says Singh.
After earning two coveted certifications for his sub-division, Arun Kumar Singh is working on war footing to develop Lakhimpur as the model Tehsil.
“Certificates only increase our responsibility, and we hope to keep up the trend of good work,” says Singh who wishes to always serve the public.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)