Though most bureaucrats would see a stint as the district collector of strife-torn Dantewada in southern Chhattisgarh as a “punishment posting”, Om Prakash Chaudhary, 30, thinks differently. “I asked for it from the chief minister,” says Chaudhary, who hails from Raigarh district up north. He was the municipal commissioner of Raipur when he was chosen to replace R Prasanna, the then Dantewada collector, in March 2011. Prasanna was moved out of the district after an incident in which members of the anti-Maoist vigilante group Salwa Judum attacked social activist Swami Agnivesh, who was going to visit three villages allegedly burned down by Special Police Officers (SPOs) and CRPF jawans. It was under immense pressure that Chaudhary took over.
It did not take Chaudhary long to recognise that the low literacy levels in Dantewada stood in the way of the district’s development. Only 37 percent of the population can read and write, according to the 2011 census, making it one of the least literate districts in India. Chaudhary figured the only way to deal with the problem was to provide for immediate needs, even while thinking simultaneously about long-term solutions. “It is a vicious cycle where lack of education leads to unemployment and vice versa, and this continues over generations,” he says.
One of Chaudhary’s initiatives is called ‘Choo lo Aasman’ (Touch the Skies), comprising two coaching centres where the district’s brightest students are taught by teachers from the ‘Mecca’ of engineering and medical coaching, Kota, in Rajasthan. Moreover, Chaudhary turned the barracks vacated by the Border Roads Organisation into a campus for girls, adding an additional floor by using bamboo-based sheets so as not to overburden the existing structure. Thus, the existing space was doubled at half the cost of constructing new buildings.
Though not many students from the first batch got through the competitive exams in 2012, most of them scored better in their board examinations. “Our aim is to improve the understanding of science even among average students. It hardly matters if they do not clear the competitive exams,” says Chaudhary.
Chaudhary has a knack for fast completion of projects. During his stint in Raipur, he had got the four-storey municipal corporation building constructed in just 13 months. In Dantewada, as part of what he calls “the long-term solution”, he is supervising the construction of a 150-acre, solar-powered Education City, which aims to establish Dantewada as an education hub at the international level. Being built at a cost of more than Rs 100 crore, provided by convergence of funds meant for various government schemes and the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds of the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC, which mines iron ore from Bailadila mines in the district), it will house 15 institutions, including an industrial training institute, a polytechnic college and various residential schools. The campus would cater to more than 5,000 students and is expected to be completely functional in a-year-and-a-half. Recently, the consultancy firm KPMG listed it among the world’s top 100 innovative infrastructure projects for its potential to provide opportunities to the youth in developing their skills.