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Jowai, the headquarters of West Jaintia Hills District of Meghalaya has been recently gaining prominence for the manner in which the residents are involved directly in the affairs of the district administration. One might wonder as to how is that even made possible, but with a young, dynamic and vibrant mind in the form of its Deputy Commissioner, Arunkumar Kembhavi, this has been made possible.
The use of social media platform or what can be known as an e-governance form of grievance redressal is the only one of its kind, probably in the entire Northeast Indian region which was introduced by the DC himself since he took charge of Jowai in July 2015. An empathetic yet dynamic person with willingness to learn and bring about a change, here is Arunkumar Kembhavi in conversation with TNT-The Northeast Today.
Born in Bijapur and brought up in Karwar in Karnataka, the 31-yr-old Arunkumar Kembhavi studied Mechanical Engineering from Shri Jayachamarajendra College of Engineering, Mysore and worked for 18 months at Accenture in Bangalore. He is a 2011 batch IAS officer of Assam-Meghalaya cadre who opted for Meghalaya after serving a year in Assam. When not busy administering official duties, he likes horse riding, working out, reading, watching sit coms, listening to ghazals and country music.
Here are excerpts from our interview with him:
TNT: Please tell us about the inception of the idea of e-governance in West Jaintia Hills. What made you feel that this is the need of the hour?
DC: I have always believed that the most important work of a generalist administrator is coordination and to redress public grievances. There are dozens of departments in a district and it goes without saying that the DC or the Collector has to be a medium that bridges all departments and address the public complaints when something is not going right with any department.
TNT: What was the inspiration behind this?
DC: When I was a student I used to wait in lines whenever I had to go to different government offices. That is exactly what I wanted to avoid when it comes to our administration. I have deep faith in the talisman "Imagine yourself in other person's shoes". This talisman always inspires me to reply to a complaint immediately whether it is midnight or early morning or a Sunday.
In government, there are many departments who have separate complaints redress mechanisms e.g Food and Civil Supplies, Election, etc. We send Nil reports at the end of every month because nobody uses them. The procedures are either cumbersome or they are not widely known. What we have done at the district level is that, we have clubbed all platforms into one single and simple WhatsApp platform.
TNT: How successful has this initiative been and what positive changes have been brought about by this system? Who is the team behind this?
DC: Response has been overwhelming since the launch in October 2015. We have redressed more than a thousand complaints in the last one year which is huge considering the population which is just 2.7 lakh and the mobile telephony penetration which is still low. The Meghalaya State Public Grievance Commission has also expressed its happiness over our system. All the officers of West Jaintia Hills district are the backbone of this.
I was told ours is the only such mechanism in India in which the collector interacts with public directly without any intermediaries.
Online presence is not only a de rigueur but an absolute must in this day and era for administrators. Almost all Government of India Secretaries and Joint Secretaries have twitter accounts and communicate with public regularly besides giving updates on the kind of work they do. We also have a Telegram group with more than 1500 IAS officers from all over India which is used for brainstorming and to discuss issues related to the service and governance.
TNT: What is the WhatsApp mechanism? How do you address the grievances? Please explain the process of filing a grievance through this system.
DC: Mechanism is really simple. A person sends his complaint to a special BSNL number 9436394363 in the form of text/picture/video via WhatsApp. I personally carry the phone myself. This complaint will be forwarded to a closed WhatsApp group called "DCC Jowai". All the officers of District Coordination Committee are members of this group. Concerned officer will be asked to reply to the complaint. If the reply is satisfactory, it will be relayed back to the complainant. Supplementary queries if any will also be taken. The response time ranges from few minutes to couple of days to weeks depending on the nature of complaint. If there is a traffic jam on the national highway, immediately traffic branch will be alerted. If it is about fleecing of NFSA beneficiaries, then the due process will take place. Issuing of show cause notice to ration shop, if found unsatisfactory cancellation of the license etc. Fete is a contentious issue here. No loudspeakers can be used beyond 10pm as per Hon'ble Supreme Court's direction. But some localities in Jowai tend to stretch the timings to 12, even 1am. Before the WhatsApp was introduced there was no means of immediate redress. One person complained "S der ny1 shut off diz Jaintia fete going on ryt now. . .ma aunt s sick n ma nephew got paper 2 appear 2moro. . .wot d hell s wrong vit dz dstrct whre der s no voice 4 common people lyk us. . .(sic)". The police reached the spot within minutes and shut down the program. Like this we have been able to provide immediate solution to the common man even in the dead of night.
TNT: What are the complaints that you mostly receive?
DC: Complaints are of very broad spectrum. PDS, scholarships, essential services like electricity, mobile and landline, water, garbage collection, transport issues, banking, post office, illegal sale of liquor, election cards, road conditions, pollution of Myntdu river etc.
Not just WhatsApp. We have Telegram, Hike messenger, Facebook messenger on the same number. People can also send normal SMSs. Except phone calls which are barred. So people have wide variety of choices for lodging complaints.
TNT: What is the biggest challenge or bottleneck that you may have faced while executing your responsibilities here?
DC: Language is one. I am trying to pick up the local language. However it is tough. People can lodge complaints in the local language (Khasi or Pnar) which my supporting staff will help me in understanding. Reply will be given in local language itself. However it will take time if a complaint comes on a Saturday.
TNT: How is the morale of the officers and staff?
DC: The inspirational Louis Gerstner Jr, the man behind the turnaround of IBM says that there ought to be a direct communication channel between the CEO and the employees. This is exactly what I have adopted. Our staffs from all over district communicate with me through WhatsApp.
Moreover, this system helped officers to appreciate the work being done by other officers. Now everybody knows what everybody is doing in the district. It is an effort to mould an officer in a holistic manner.
Last year we came to whispering distance of winning the prestigious Prime Minister's Award for Excellence in Public Administration in Swachh Vidyalaya category. We were no 2 behind Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir. It was achieved mainly because of continuous monitoring through WhatsApp and the support I got from the fellow officers.
We have several WhatsApp groups, some are dedicated and some are general. For example we have a WhatsApp group of all health related officers and staff with medical officers, head nurses, accountants in the district. Similarly, a WhatsApp group of all bank managers in the district for official correspondence is on the cards.
We also have an informal group called "Team Jowai" in which we share jokes, birthday messages, wishes etc to build camaraderie between officers.
We have an extremely vibrant and active Officers' Club. In last one year we have organized a massive cleaning drive in market area, helped generate more than one lakh rupees for the 2nd topper in Meghalaya SSLC exam from Jowai, helped organize a blood donation camp, raised money to purchase an ambulance for a PHC, helped one boy for eye surgery, supported a hostel for orphans, encouraged a boy for higher studies through financial help, generated resources to conduct coaching for candidates appearing for District Selection Committee and many more.
One more important thing is the reduction of paper usage. For meetings and official communications, we have stopped sending letters to the departments. Even the replies are through WhatsApp only most of the times. For nominating officers and staff for various trainings that we conduct, it is done only through WhatsApp.
TNT: What other administrative reforms are you trying to implement?
DC: I remember the Hon'ble Prime Minister saying that all government servants are equal. From the Secretary level officers down to the peons. But I sometimes feel peons are more powerful. Like eunuchs in the Ancient Chinese Courts. They might tell somebody who comes to meet me that the DC is busy and may turn them away. It has happened before. Hence I have made a system "open office initiative" in which people don't ask for anybody's permission before entering my chamber, not even mine. They just barge in. I have done away with visitor slips. They can come and meet me anytime as long as I am in office.
I have also started with adalat system which is more prevalent in other parts of India. Hospital adalat, school or college adalat. Besides surprise visits I also give advance notice to people that I am coming to their place so that I can have a meaningful discussion with villagers.
I keep a tab on the social media to see what is happening in the district. Once I read that students are shelling out huge amount of money for uploading scholarship documents not to mention the missing classes, running around, waiting in cyber cafes etc. After this, we threw open our NIC office and e-district office to all the students. Now any student can come to our office, get the registration done, scan documents and upload them via our high speed internet, all for free. In this way, we respond to the practical problems of the people.
Also we are conducting outreach programs. Till now in a year, we have had departmental meetings in a dozen different villages.
I also started the tradition of having monthly District Coordination Committee meetings on every 2nd Tuesday of the month. After couple of months, we stopped sending letters inviting them for the meeting. Everybody knew that 2nd Tuesday is the DCC meeting day. If I am not there in the station, the senior most ADC would chair the meeting. In this way we systemized the monthly meetings. This is one platform in which we discuss all issues concerning the district. This DCC meeting eschewed the need to have smaller regular meetings between departments. Apart from this, we also have District Level Convergence Committee which involves only the developmental departments which would sit as and when the need arises.
We are working on getting our DC office building an ISO certified establishment. One entire floor is powered with solar energy, we are building rain water harvesting structure with a gigantic 3 lakh litre capacity sump, an ATM, a public facilitation center for e-services, fresh coat of paint, safe drinking RO water, clean public toilets, airport waiting chairs for the public on corridors, a TV in public waiting room, soft instrumental music playing on the corridors among others. Some are already done. Some are in the pipeline.
TNT: With regards to bad mobile connectivity in the region, are you initiating any measures to tackle the same?
DC: I am very passionate about internet connectivity besides physical connectivity like rural roads and national highways. In the District Telecom Committee meeting I take stock of all those sites from operators wherein there is a problem with telecom infrastructure and intervene personally by calling the headman of the village. Whether it is laying OFCs with minimum inconveniences or commissioning telecom towers expeditiously or dispelling the notions on harmful radiation, we from the office always go extra mile Private operators are very keen on expanding. In few days entire district will be covered with 4G of at least 3 operators.
TNT: Why do you think e-governance is better than other forms of grievance redressal mechanisms? I am told your Facebook page is quite a hit.
DC: I know of an officer Shri P Manivannan, 1998 batch IAS officer of Karnataka Cadre who had used Facebook widely during his stint as Managing Director of BESCOM (Bangalore Electricity Supply Company Limited). I took inspiration from him and extended to other platforms.
Ours is the only district in Northeast and perhaps one of the handfuls in India which uses Facebook as a platform not only for interaction with the public and also for airing grievances.
Recently we had a Taskforce committee meeting for Beautification of Jowai Town which had its origins in Facebook conversation. To solve all problems pertaining to Jowai town we had called a meeting and issues were deliberated, resolutions were passed unanimously on issues like hawkers, traffic congestion, public toilets, cleanliness, drug trafficking, open drinking etc. Most important issue being the pollution of Myntdu river from which Jowai gets drinking water. Most of the work was done by my predecessor Shri PS Dkhar. I just carried the baton.
Our official press releases are done in Facebook. For sensitive issues like Indo Bangladesh Border Fencing I avoid giving verbal statements. I direct reporters to our Facebook page, whatever I have to say I will say in the Facebook itself. So the possibility of misquoting me is nil.
We wanted to reach out through Twitter also but Twitter penetration is very low here. Hence we didn't take it up.
TNT: Given the fact that NGT has banned coal mining and Jaintia Hills being the hub of it, what steps have been taken to mitigate the effects?
DC: We from District Basin Development Unit conduct trainings throughout the year to sensitize people on livelihood activities. In last one year, dozens of trainings were held for organic tea, ginger, turmeric, apiculture, horticulture, fishery, poultry, piggery, black pepper, FSSAI certification of food products, ultra low cost rain water harvesting, smoking fish, pottery, Jacquard design and many more. Tourism is one thrust area that we are focusing on. West Jaintia Hills has immense tourism potential which is largely untapped.
As we speak, at least in a dozen different tourism spots various developmental activities are being carried out to the tune of crores in convergence with many departments like DRDA, Agriculture, Horticulture, Tourism, Renewable energy, Fisheries, Soil and water conservation, Forest etc.
One huge neon signboard is going to come up at the entrance of Jowai town on the lines of iconic Hollywood sign and the equally famous Pattaya sign. We have taken rural entrepreneurs for exposure trips to Bangalore, Kakinada, Kolkata, Anand, Guwahati and within parts of Meghalaya. International exposure visits to Bangkok are also on the cards from Meghalaya Basin Development Authority.
TNT: With increasing no. of job aspirants in the state, how do you think their chances of success may be increased?
DC: Our transparency measures adopted in DSC- District Selection Committee (recruitment to district level posts) have been very well appreciated by the public. Strict monitoring during exams including videography(CCTV is costly affair), different sets of question papers and OMR sheets, immediately putting up the question papers and answer keys on the Facebook(this way everybody knows how much they have scored), speedy declaration of results etc have brought in the much needed hope in the educated and qualified candidates. We are also training them under Chief Minister's Career Guidance and Counseling Scheme to equip them not only for DSC posts, but MPSC, SSC, bank PO and UPSC exams.
TNT: How do you think WhatsApp has helped you in administering such a complex district? After one year has it become annoying to remain online all the time?
DC: I have not thought of WhatsApp as nuisance for a single minute. I like to keep myself busy. I spend 2-3 hours every night responding to grievances, addressing issues of public importance, replying to messages.
Information is power. Unless we empower the rural people they will learn to live with pathetic roads, dry taps, absentee teachers and doctors, sub standard NFSA rice etc. I remember last Christmas holidays I was at home in Karnataka and I got a complaint saying that there is a dilapidated electric pole in a locality in Jowai town which might collapse anytime. When I forwarded this in the group, the MeECL (Meghalaya Electricity Corporation Limited) engineers were quick enough to locate the pole and replace it with a new one. This way even when I am away I am still pretty much on the job.
The WhatsApp platform also acts as virtual suggestion box. Their words of gratitude, loving messages, and wishes are a constant source of support, comfort and energy in my days of despair. But yes, my Carpel Tunnel Syndrome has aggravated because of continuous punching.
TNT: Your message to the people.
DC: I have always been a great admirer of Harry Truman. He had a signboard on his Oval Office table "The BUCK STOPS here", it was made in a Federal prison and gifted to him. I have an identical wooden sign on my table. Before entering the service itself I had thought that if I become Deputy Commissioner one day, I will keep one on my table. I may not be responsible for things which are going right, but true to the signboard, I sure am responsible if things are not in order. Thank you!
It may be mentioned that on our reporter's recent visit to Jowai, the people of the place also gave very positive feed backs about the DC stating that he is one of the most approachable and friendly person to interact with and that no appointment was required to meet him. With such positive testimonies from residents of the district, we may very well infer that Jowai is actually on its way to becoming one of the developed places in the region.
TNT-The Northeast Today appreciates the work of Mr. Arunkumar Kembhavi and hopes that the DCs of other states in the region also seek more participation of masses to encourage transparency and thereby promote a peaceful society.
–As interviewed by Shweta Raj Kanwar for TNT-The Northeast Today