A school inspection is usually preceded by a round of spring-cleaning, a fresh coat of paint, books stacked in order, polished shoes and conversations in hushed tones. What happens when the district Collector makes a surprise visit and finds no teachers but only students present? Throw a fit, issue charge memos or suspension orders and find scapegoats? It was none of the above when Rohini Bidari witnessed this strange scenario during her tour of the easternmost part of Salem. Instead, she picked up the chalk and took classes for the bewildered children. It turned out that her visit had coincided with a Teachers’ strike. And it was an opportunity to interact with the kids, minus the gaze of their tutors, “teach them a bit, test their learning levels” and get first-hand, “important insights into the quality of noon meals and sanitation”, as she believes that “children are effective ambassadors of positive changes.”
This ‘soft corner’ for government educational institutions can perhaps be attributed to Rohini’s background. “I am a pure product of a Government School, College & University, which I am totally proud of.” After her primary education at a Zilla Parishad school at Uplai village in Solapur district of Maharashtra, topping the 10th and 12th Board exams, standing first in the State in English, Marathi and Hindi, Rohini followed it up with an Engineering Degree in Computer Science from the Government College of Engineering, Pune, which boasts of alumni like Dr.M.Vishweshwarayya. Egged on by her elder brother Dr.Sandeep, she prepared for the Civil Services Examination on her own “without joining any coaching classes” spurning all campus placement offers and romped home into the IAS in her first attempt itself in 2008 “because I had never kept the option of further attempts open!”
The driving force came in the form of the “struggles” of her father, Ramdas Bhajibhakare, a farmer, who still toils “full time” and her homemaker mother Suvarnalatha Bhajibhakare. “My father had tremendous faith that one of his children would become an IAS officer to change the lives of people.”
‘Mission Change Agent’ began with her first posting as the Assistant Collector – Training at Madurai. “I did a special assignment of web casting of voting from polling booths during the Cumbum by-election inTheni district. Enamoured by the rich culture and magnificent temples of Southern Tamilnadu, Rohini’s prayers were answered with an “awesome” life partner – Vijayendra Bidari, a 2005 IPS officer who was the Superintendent of Police in Madurai. “I devoted a substantial part of my training period to learn Tamil (Sanga Tamizh) and did my district training presentation on the Jallikattu Regulation Act,which was appreciated widely at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration.”
Just not a typical ‘pen-pusher’, who would sit indoors and sign files, a common thread running throughout Rohini’s career so far, has been her outreach style of functioning. As the Sub Collector,Thindivanam in Villupuram district, she started ‘An evening with the Sub Collector’, to understand ground realities and redress grievances.” Specific problems of the people were identified and this in turn lead to the ‘On the Spot’ disposal of Patta transfer through special camps conducted village wise and tackling caste conflicts.
After a maternity break, Rohini found herself in the thick of the Koodankulam anti-nuclear protests as Sub Collector of Cheranmahadevi in Tirunelveli district. “I preferred a policy of “engagement and continuous talks with the people for two long years, in my capacity as the Sub Divisional Magistrate.” Communal problems, issues of fishermen, “rehabilitation of a ‘nari kuruva’ colony in Valliyur and the peaceful conduct of the Parliamentary Election in 2014 as the Assistant Returning Officer were highlights of her stint here.
With a strong focus on Rural Sanitation, Rohini, as the Additional Collector (Development) of Madurai, “through a community based approach, increased the coverage from 29% to 100% making Madurai the State’s first district to become ‘Open Defecation Free.” This feat won her the Swachhata Champion honour which she received from Sachin Tendulkar and opened vistas to share her success story at different fora and training programmes by the Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation. This was the start of laurels galore, like a National Award conferred by the Government of India for Outstanding work done under MGNREGS in 2017 “by converging various department schemes to create durable assets and improving rural livelihood opportunities” and the Election Commission of India’s ‘Electoral Best Practices Award’ for the Systematic Voters Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) for increasing voter participation in the Tamil Nadu Assembly Poll in 2016.
In her present avatar as the Collector of Salem, Rohini has been in a hyperactive mode. And the district needed action on a war footing, what with the widespread dengue outbreak. “I embarked upon what I called ‘Carpet Bombing’ to destroy the breeding sources of Aedes Egypti mosquitoes. So from ‘Open Defaction Free Madurai’, the next goal was ‘Dengue Free Salem’. A MySalem Mobile app for easy access and grievance redressal, a Child Friendly Corner in the Collectorate, initiatives like Salem Super Anganwadi, Malnourishment Free Salem, activating Village Level Child Protection Committes, Tribal development initiatives like the issue of land pattas for the first time to tribals under the Forest Rights Act, livelihood generation and infrastructure development activities, Environmental Conservation initiatives like ‘Nooru Eri Iyakkam’ (Rejuvenation of 100 tanks), massive tree plantation, Butterfly Atlas of Salem district, a booklet on the Birds of Salem, the Green Summer festival of Yercaud and Plastic Pollution Free Salem campaign all culminated in an award from the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister for “Outstanding Work’ during the Collectors’ Conference.
Resting on her laurels does not figure in Rohini’s dictionary. A Swayamvaram event was organised for Differently abled people resulting in 32 couples tying the knot.
In a bid to touch virtually every section, ‘Salem Thangamagal’, ‘Pinkathon’, ‘Thatha-Paati Veetukku Vaanga’ to rehabilitate destitute senior citizens abondoned by their families, Mission Open Defecation Free Salem in record time speak for themselves. Now the focus is on ‘Sustainable Salem’, selected as the only location from which Prime Minister launched the ‘Swachhata Hi Seva’ Campaign by one on one interaction with the people through Video Conference. In the run up to the Global Handwashing Day on the 15th October, Rohini sent me a whatasapp message detailing her efforts, in tandem with UNICEF, to rope in ten lakh people drawn from thirty five categories like doctors, nurses & waiters, to conduct a handwashing exercise at 5000 locations. The event, which is being verified for an entry into the Guiness Book of World Records, tied in with the district’s preparedness for the seasonal outbreak of swine flu.
It is this ‘Last Citizen Welfare Centric Approach’ that has characterised Rohini’s career. “I converge the resources at my disposal to the maximum possible extent, without resorting to the typical “We have sent a proposal, funds are awaited from the Government” excuse.
Being an officer couple is not easy. “We have many challenges when we are posted together as well as when we are apart. We ensure that we don’t encroach upon other’s domain while maintaining total professionalism at work.” Although Rohini and her cop hubby belong to the same State cadre, Vijayendra is now posted in Nagpur on deputation with the CBI. “We miss staying together very badly. Especially our son Abhijay. Thanks to technology, we are virtually together with frequent video calls and occasional visits whenever work permits us to take a short break.” Work – Life balance involves “running that extra mile and relegating ‘me time’ to the backburner to ensure that I am giving my best to this very demanding assignment and doubling up as the best possible mom to Abhijay.”
Returning home after a long day to “cheers of Abhijay, waiting to share all that happened in his school instantaneously changes my demeanor from Collector to Mom.” An understanding and mature little boy, Abhijay has his own big list of demands like “changing service rules to ensure that all IAS officers come home at 6 pm!” Sketching, playing badminton and tennis with her little champ at home and those occasional long walks with hubby, constitute her golden interludes.
A veritable polyglot in the making, it may surprise you to know that this Marathi born officer laps up Tamil novels like Ponniyin Selvan and can converse in colloquial Tamil with ease. This is a far cry from her initial days when her broken Tamil would elicit guffaws. “I made it a point to watch Tamil movies, TV serials and came up with a dictionary of sorts with expressions in ‘Thooya Tamizh’ and also picked up Kannada,Marwari & Gujarati.”
For this 34 year old IAS officer, a Bharathiar gem “Kadamai Purivaar Inburuvaar” (The duty conscious reap happiness) would best define her work ethic.
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)