Julio Ribeiro salutes two heros of the present crisis–

Two bright stars amid gloom

This is a tale of two IAS officers from Maharashtra. One is Iqbal Singh Chahal, hailing from Punjab, the son of a former Armoured Coarps officer, Lt Col MS Chahal, and the son-in-law of Ajit Singh Chatha, a former Chief Secretary of Punjab.

The other, Dr Rajendra Bharud, a tribal from the Bhil community, the son of a single mother who toiled in the fields of landowners to feed and educate her three children. He is presently Collector and District Magistrate of Nandurbar, a tribal-dominated district of Maharashtra, bordering Gujarat and MP. The Bhil community predominates in the triangle that comprises contiguous land traversing the three states.

But let me begin with Maharashtra’s CM, Uddhav Thackeray, whose positive leadership qualities enabled these officers to demonstrate theirs. When he installed Chahal as Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai, a post much coveted by the state’s senior bureaucrats, he told the officer that in the case of success in combating Covid, he (Chahal) should take all credit and feel free to speak to the media without looking over his shoulder for the CM’s approval. If, however, success eluded him, then the CM would take the rap and speak to the media. These are words and thoughts of a good leader. It is the duty of the political leadership to select the proper man for the right job and then leave the execution of the task to the one selected.

Chahal came with the reputation of cutting corners, at times, but getting the work done. Covid presented an opportunity to officers to prove their worth. People facing possible death want to know what you are going to do to give them hope and succour.

And that hope Chahal provided in ample measure. He assumed the mantle of the city’s Municipal Commissioner on May 8 and hit the ground running. He began with a mammoth meeting of his 24 ward officers and their seniors, many of them from the IAS, that very evening. The meeting lasted several hours, enabling the new MC to acquaint himself with the problems and the men and women who would be assisting him in the task of solving those problems.

He has emerged triumphant. The citizens of Mumbai have declared him a hero. Hard work, common sense and his father’s Army background all contributed to the success of his mission. The Control Room in his office was relieved of the thankless task of allotting beds. Twenty-four ‘war rooms’ were established in every municipal ward. Each of the wards had to keep track of the beds available on a daily basis and allocate them to patients in relation to the severity of each individual case. ICU beds with ventilators were assigned to the really bad cases and oxygen-hooked beds to those whose oxygen saturation level was below 92. Doctors were on duty in three shifts, their number having been supplemented by hiring 1,100 recently qualified medical graduates, each on a salary of Rs 50,000 per month. These young boys and girls are on an eight-hour shift in ambulances, 10 of which are on call in each war room at any one time. Nearly 800 Innovas were requisitioned and converted temporarily into ambulances. As the first point of contact in homes, these young doctors were to decide whether the patient required hospitalisation or whether he or she could be treated while at quarantine at home.

In short, Chahal restructured the entire Covid response mechanism and made it function as clockwork. He was ably assisted by a newly motivated staff. He is preparing for a third wave. Seven jumbo hospitals with a thousand beds each have been set up. Equipment, personnel, medicines, oxygen, etc., have been taken into account. The management of these hospitals will be entrusted to nearby private hospitals with established reputations. The idea is to associate the name of the well-known hospital with the new centre. All in all, a great job by a great son of India, and of Punjab! More power to his elbow.

The dedication to a task displayed by Chahal has found an echo in the achievements of Dr Bharud, a medical graduate selected for the IAS in 2012. This 33-year-old officer had to contend with primitive medical facilities and a population of 16 lakh, mostly illiterate or poorly educated, living in far-off villages and hamlets and lacking even simple mobile phones. He had to adapt to a system of communication that relied on physical contact through messengers. The villagers were reluctant to take the vaccination jabs and that was another job he was compelled to undertake — to educate his own people on the need for protection from the dreaded disease. He improvised, planned, and motivated his juniors and his might-have-been fraternity, the local doctors’ community, to rise to the occasion.

His exemplary work was brought to my notice by my friend and fellow activist, Shailesh Gandhi, who spent a few fruitful years with the Central government as a Central Information Commissioner appointed from the ranks of RTI activists. Shailesh intends to honour Dr Bharud in a virtual meeting later this month, where he has invited me to participate. It is important for citizens to acknowledge any exemplary work done by our public servants in order to motivate others of their ilk to work for the public good.

Dr Bharud’s district now has five oxygen plants installed in-house in the five hospitals spread over the district. It cost Rs 85 lakh to install each plant and it took just 10 days to construct each. The funds were available with the District Planning and Development Council. He recruited 200 doctors/nurses/ancillary staff to man the 2,000 extra beds he had added in the hospitals between the first wave and the second. He is ready for the third, should it strike.

Like I saluted Chahal, let me salute Bharud, another great son of a great country. While Chahal came with a small silver spoon in his mouth, Bharud is a shining example of what education and perseverance can do to lift the poor and the dispossessed out of the morass in which they are born.

: Julio Ribeiro