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Updated: May 20, 2012 08:52 IST

‘I want to reach out to remote villages’

S. Vijay Kumar
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Sukma district collector Alex Paul Menon. Photo: R. Ragu
Sukma district collector Alex Paul Menon. Photo: R. Ragu

For Alex Paul Menon, staying clear of the media glare has become a challenge even as he recovers from the trauma of being kidnapped and detained in the jungles by Maoists. Undeterred by the sensational abduction, the 2006-batch IAS officer is determined to carry forward his mission of steering Sukma district towards achieving self-sufficiency on various fronts, including agriculture, food security and health care.

Though he parried questions on the kidnap episode, Mr. Menon spoke of the ongoing development programmes in Sukma, the new district that was carved out from the strife-torn Dantewada in Chattisgarh in January this year.

Basic amenities

The district administration proposes to reach out to scores of remote tribal villages — even in the Konta Block, considered by Maoists as their “liberated zone” — and provide basic amenities such as drinking water, primary health centres and residential schools. This was perhaps seen by the Maoists as a threat to their relevance in the area.

Taking time off during his short visit to Chennai, the 32-year-old Collector spoke to The Hindu on his ambitious projects for Sukma. With a meagre staff of 16 members, the district administration started functioning as a normal Collectorate and identified its priority areas. The concept of e-governance was in place from day one, with the staff getting computers and a low-cost Hindi operating system called ‘Brahmi.'

To start with, the focus was on the ‘student-tracking system' a novel scheme to construct residential schools to enrol children, including dropouts, under the ‘Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan'. The system was introduced to monitor the enrolment status — enrol the students in primary schools and keep track of them till they passed out of 12th Standard.

“We are not trying to fight the Maoists but only attempting to bring some development in very remote, inaccessible areas. The strategy is basically to construct more residential schools where we can monitor the well-being of children in terms of education and nutritional standards. All the community schools in interior areas were dismantled by Maoists because they feared that the police might take shelter in pucca buildings. Though they are okay with the idea of schools, they are very firm that there should be no concrete roof in the structures,” Mr. Menon said.

Community schools

With the aid of UNICEF volunteers, 122 places were identified for reopening community schools. Though there is only a jungle track to connect most of these places, officials were trying to reach out and raise structures. “Another problem in community schools is that the teachers will have to travel about 30 km to reach the school and return after work. They cannot stay there… there is no electricity, shops, etc.,” he said.

As part of the initiative, Sukma has appointed ‘Anudheshaks', boys who have passed out of 12th standard, to campaign and counsel for enrolment of students in remote locations. “We have appointed one Anudheshak for every 40 students and we pay them a salary of Rs. 4,000 a month. Their job will be to talk to parents on the benefits of schools and also teach the children in their local language like Gondi, Dhorla, Koya and Halba. This scheme has evoked a good response.”

Explaining that there was hardly any facility in the so-called liberated zones, he said development activities would go on irrespective of whether the areas were under control or not. “We are just moving on with our schemes. Most of the community schools are coming up in Maoist stronghold areas…the only buildings in such areas are smaraks, or memorial pillars. Our idea is to create basic infrastructure to address abject poverty and malnutrition,” Mr. Menon said.

Another programme was to identify the beneficiaries of the ‘van adhikar patta' or ‘forest rights patta'. Tribals or traditional forest-dwellers who occupied the land before 2005 for the purpose of agriculture were given rights on 10-acre land each. Seven thousand families, including many in Maoist-controlled areas, have benefitted by the scheme. These beneficiaries were also sanctioned houses under the ‘Indira Awas Yojana'. The development package christened ‘Total Convergence Plan' includes roads, public transport, healthcare, potable water and involvement of tribals in innovative farming and income-generating activities under the aegis of Central/State welfare programmes with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme as the base.

Recollecting his interaction with the Maoists while in their custody, Mr. Menon said: “They are open to the idea of borewells. Since heavy vehicles cannot traverse through the jungle tracks, they want them to enter via Andhra Pradesh. Maoists also want revival of primary health centres. Since there is no power and other facilities, doctors are reluctant to go [to such areas]. We closed down at least half-a-dozen functional PHCs because of these problems. Now, efforts are on to introduce mobile PHCs by roping in doctors with the help of Red Cross.”

Opening up of more fair-price price shops mitigated the burden for womenfolk who were walking 30 km to collect their rations. The project to reach out and deliver rations almost at the doorstep was well appreciated by the people. “We relaxed eligibility conditions in the ‘Antyodhaya Anna Yojana' and enrolled about 9,000 families… each will get 35 kg of rice every month at Rs. 2 per kg under the scheme.”

In a bid to connect with the people, a scheme called ‘Sabari Express' was launched, under which educated youth with driving licences would be given a 32-seater bus with a good subsidy and soft loan. At least 22 routes in the main land and forest areas were identified for these vehicles to ply.

Asked whether the Maoists were aware of the development programmes in Sukma district, Mr. Menon replied in the negative, saying that they hardly knew anything happening outside.

During his 12-day stay with the Maoists, he said there was no access to any information. “Since there was no TV or newspaper, I was not aware of what was happening around. On the 10th day, I refused to eat if they did not give me at least a radio… and they gave me one. The last two days in custody, I was listening to All India Radio and BBC [Hindi].”

Mr. Menon signed off with at least one interesting bit of information — he had taught the Maoists to make ‘rotis'. “They gave me food that tasted very bad. After a week, I started cooking. I made ‘rotis' and ‘sabji', which they also liked. I took some classes on making ‘rotis'. As the quality of rice was so bad, I got to know the ration shop from where it was bought. Action will be taken to improve the quality of rice…”

On whether the Maoists tried to subject him to some kind of indoctrination of their ideology, the Sukma Collector said they did give him some bulletins and magazines. “When I contradicted their views and raised questions backed by facts, there would be no answers…”

With the assistance of Auroville Foundation, a GPS/GIS-based town-plan has been developed in the district to build infrastructure over 675 acres of land. The facilities sanctioned include a composite Collectorate complex, government hospital, district library, science centre and mini-stadium.

KUDOS, Mr. Menon. You are the TRUE HERO !! May God bless you & your family. And you could make such tense moments funny with your "ration shop rice" incident. WOW.....You ARE the true role model for teens & the future generation.

from:  Balaji K.
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 23:40 IST

God bless good administrators like Mr. Alex. Hope and pray that people like him do not fall prey to the greed and corruption which is almost all pervasive today in the Indian bureaucracy.

from:  Adit
Posted on: May 21, 2012 at 11:28 IST

Good that happened after abduction. We came to know how these Maoists live life eating food which is not-eatable, unaware about the factual reality of situation. They live in ignorance and resort to this life of sublime life and hardship. According to law of human decision making, every one goes for comfort of desired form. These hapless tribals are forced to take guns and fight the system. For them this hardship is more comforting than the life presented by the oppression and exploitation of govt.This is good that the real information is coming out for the govt. to see their deeds after 6 decades of independence that what we have done with the weakest section of the society. We need people like Alex.... Hats off to his courage and determination... Best Luck...

from:  Santosh
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 21:05 IST

Bravo Mr. Alex Menon..Not only your family, all of India is truly proud of you.Our best wishes and prayers to you and family as well as for your initiatives to bring them, the down trodden to the mainstream. Country needs people like you! Thank you Hindu for a great story!!

from:  Mohamed Ashraf
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 20:35 IST

Thank god there are IAS officers....They are the only ones who are running this country properly...Mr Menon...You are an inspiration...I will try my level best to get into IAS and work for the country...

from:  Abhi
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 20:12 IST

Seems like a gentleman with a good attitude. Trying to make the best use of his captivity by giving the Maoists an alternate viewpoint; making rotis; describing programs so that they feel less threatened. Good show by Mr. Menon. All the very best of luck to him so that he may stay safe, do good work and help the people in these remote areas.

from:  lrao
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 20:07 IST

Remarkable confidence! I admire Menon that he is back to focusing on development and helping the lives of the underprivileged in spite of his traumatic experience. He should be nominated for a Padma award.

from:  I.C.Nito
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 19:50 IST

IAS in true sense is known now by the work Mr. Alex Paul is caring out. Knowing the questions and solving them by such glorious officer is best than those "Netas" who just shout on mike. These issues should be raised throughout the country to find out why is it such after decades of independence there still persists the poverty and society differentiation. Even those of the Netas and premium brands should be forced to be worthy of duties for the development of country and people here.

Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 15:55 IST

Wish you good luck Alex, may god give you health and courage to go ahead with your plans for the needy and deprived. Wish more young people should comeforward to serve our nation like this in a better way. A real Civilian Officer. Jaihind.

from:  ushasunil
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 14:24 IST

Thank You alex for presenting your developmental work and challenges through a very short article.This would inspire many generations of Young Men.

from:  Muthukumaran
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 13:27 IST

Your vigor to get them what they most need today irrespective of controlled or uncontrolled area is heartening. In fact, this development and opportunity creation by you is the way to their giving up of arms. We'll try to back your efforts in other parts of the country to see progress spread across India.

from:  Varun Kappal
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 13:12 IST

If only our leaders also think in the same line. This is very inspiring to see our young IAS officers dedicated to the cause of development. Mr. Alex you are a role model for many and our younger generations will benefit a lot from your ideology. I request The Hindu to bring more stories on such people who are Hero in a real sense.

from:  Prachi
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 13:10 IST

Well done Mr. Menon. You are an inspiration. Nation building can take place with such fieldwork done with all sincerity, courage and love for our citizens across our country. Fine report.

from:  Dr.Cajetan Coelho
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 12:59 IST

Nothing can be more inspiring than the story of a dedicated, fearless and intelligent public servant.

from:  Ayan Mukhopadhyay
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 12:06 IST

Mr. Alex you have rejuvenated my faith to try join Civil Services. Thank you so much for you and The Hindu.

from:  Vijay
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 11:31 IST

It is sad after 65 years of independence to read that some parts of mother India are worst than some of least developed African countries. Where are our learned Delhi administrators doing? How many Alex Menons you will need to uplift these parts of India? We complain of conversions and foreign influencing but do these people have choice? God Bless you Alex.

from:  Kantilal Desai
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 10:50 IST

Alex must be allowed to do his own way to develop the area.Let the Maoist stay peacefully and no interference necessary if they help the development.It is fact that these governments never care for the people's development since independence and talk big.No central security forces will help development,it will help netas to grab more land and money for their children and goons in a wrong way.

from:  Rama
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 10:40 IST

Well, He is one of those IAS who gives civil services a good name.

from:  Dilawar
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 10:19 IST

Kudos to Mr.Alex.Some of the schemes are new to me.Wishing good health and less influences so that he can do all that he dreams for the upliftment of people.

from:  RK
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 09:02 IST

Alex abduction was a tragic incident that happened. This must have
taken a toll for him as well as his family. My opinion to his stay
with the maoists, has made him understand the ground realities of
remote and in accessible areas.I wonder if this the only way to make government realise the hardships in these areas & act accordingly.

from:  Ankit jain
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 08:35 IST

Way to go Collector sahab.

Being abducted turned out to be a good thing after all for Sukuma district where the collector came to know first hand about their problems and demands.
I have every bit of confidence that this young man, with immense power can make a huge difference in this district, and wish him best of luck.

JFK said, "Let us not negotiate out of fear, but let us not fear to negotiate". this is exactly what the collector needs to do going forward with the tribals and naxals and bring reforms, basic amenities like power,water, rice, medicines, school and each time negotiate with naxals.
the process of teaching reforms has already started and naxals have responded to change by eating collectors roti.

If india responds to the problems of minorities, tribals, sc/st in addition to giving them RESERVATIONS, there will be a bright future for the often misunderstood people.

from:  Amer Akber
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 06:52 IST

I really salute people like Alex who are working on the ground to improve situation for the tribals. But at the same time time the government has to recognize the rights of tribals who have been living on that land for generations. We cannot force "development" on them. There has to be a genuine effort to improve their condition. It is not to be seen as a govt vs Maoists problem, its actually a problem of tribal livelihood and their sustenance.

from:  Haresh
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 02:40 IST

Hats off Mr. Menon and thank you. India owes you. Keep up the good work.

from:  Sastry Dhara
Posted on: May 20, 2012 at 02:27 IST
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