“I was in a constant state of fear about these students. Loneliness, anxiety and depression can do terrible things to these young minds and my prime focus was to ensure their safe departure from Kota,” explains Kasera.
#ThankyouDMKota trended on Twitter about two weeks ago. A hashtag which was an expression of respect and gratitude for Om Prakash Kasera, a 2012-batch IAS officer currently posted as District Collector, Kota in Rajasthan.
Kasera helped more than 50,000 students stuck in Kota reach homes safely. Naturally, Kasera has been inundated with messages from parents who had been worried sick for their children. “It is bewildering to get calls, SMSs, Whatsapp messages, and social media appreciation posts. I was just doing my job,” he says humbly.
In conversation with The Better India (TBI), Kasera speaks about the relief he felt when the bus carrying the last of the students pulled out of the Kota bus station on 12 May 2020, and how he organised the entire operation.
Stranded Far Away from Home
Each year Kota – “the coaching capital of India” – splits at its seams to host the thousands of JEE and NEET aspirants who migrate to the city to prepare for their exams. Once the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown was declared, the situation became precarious for these kids who had come from across the country.
“The first lockdown was announced almost overnight and with that, almost 60,000 students were left stranded in Kota, away from their homes and families. These students are at a very vulnerable age and we had to be quick with their evacuation,” informs Kasera.
Considering that the majority of the learners are teenagers, the parents, teachers, and the administration were especially worried about their emotional and mental well-being. “One of the biggest challenges we faced was to keep the morale of the students high. We found that many hostels and paying guest accommodations had shut down their kitchens and mess. The food supply for the students was severely affected,” he says. Once he was apprised of this particular situation, Kasera and his team organised community kitchens for a regular supply of meals to the students.
Helping the Students At Every Step of the Way
“I was in a constant state of fear about these students. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression can do terrible things to these young minds and my prime focus was to ensure their safe departure from Kota,” explains Kasera. He made sure that the institutions had roped in psychologists to conduct sessions with these students to talk them out of the fears that they were experiencing. “For every 40 to 50 students we tried to get a counsellor who could help them navigate and articulate their feelings,” shares Kasera.
While these measures helped them sail through the first phase of the lockdown, with the announcement of lockdown 2.0 coming in, the students began panicking and demanding to be allowed to return home.
Lockdown 2.0 and the Mounting Desperation
“Once Lockdown 2.0 was announced, we knew that this issue needed to be addressed immediately. We saw that this battle with COVID-19 is not going to end very soon, and keeping them here, away from their families and support system, was not the right thing to do,” says Kasera.
Also, it was not only about the students. “There was a point when I had a barrage of calls from parents of these students. They wanted their kids to be allowed to return home. We also started getting calls from various state departments,” says Kasera. It was a difficult time for Kasera and he knew he had to find a way to get these kids home safely.
“After several rounds of discussion and dialogue with the Central government, we managed to get the go-ahead to start sending these students back. That was the moment I breathed a sigh of relief,” says Kasera.
“While with some states the process was easy, with a few others it took a lot of back and forth to come to a consensus on the arrangements. I did not want any harm to be caused to the students in the city,” he says.
While some state governments arranged for the buses to Kota, others insisted Kota administration make all the arrangements that would be reimbursed by the respective state governments later. Managing to send 50,000 plus students back home while adhering to all the social distancing norms was not an easy task. “A majority of the students here were from Gujarat, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Bihar, and the Delhi/NCR region,” he says.
Now that it is all done and dusted, Kasera says, “I can now proudly say that each one of the 50,000 plus students who left Kota has reached their homes. There was no confusion of who needed to go where, no untoward incident that took place either here or during their journey, and the best part is that no student tested positive even after almost 28 days of being at home.”
Words of Appreciation
Social media is often used to bring out the inconsistencies in government policies and administrative actions but, in this case, the outpouring and appreciation of love and respect for Kasera is heartening. “I have been getting 1000’s of phone calls each day, from relieved parents and students. On 15 May 2020, three days after all the students had reached their respective homes, these students from all across India started a twitter hashtag,” smiles a proud Kasera.
“It is for moments like these where one gets to serve the people that I entered this profession. I am happy I have these memories to look back on and cherish,” says Kasera.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)