Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta says the best thing about her rather unconventional career is that there is never a dull day.
As the Chief Secretary, Panchayati Raj, Government of KarnatakaUma cares most about “working for those who are on the fringes of the sector in which she works”.
“It’s difficult to choose, but some of my favorite areas of work are in the area of non-formal education – for school children, adult literacy, anganwadis, disability, adolescent girls, women’s empowerment, transgender rights and now the work of rural libraries. There was something special about designing and implementing policy interventions in these sectors,” she says Your history.
Born in Mumbai and raised in different parts of the country, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and finally Bengaluru, Uma studied English literature in college and taught French in a school for a year while preparing for the civil service exams, and then entered the Indian civil service at (IAS) in 1992.
“I wanted to do something to recognize and ease the struggle of so many poor women,” she says.
She remembers a woman who worked part-time at home and often came to work with horrible bruises on her arms and body.
“In those days she sat in our kitchen and cried softly. My mother made her a cup of tea and they talked softly. She later explained to me that the woman’s husband was an alcoholic and regularly beat her. My mother also said that the best way to help such women is through the system. That memory stayed with me,” Uma shares.
Their first posting was at Madhugiri, a subdivision of Tumkur in Karnataka, and then at Sagar Taluk, deep in the Malnad region of Karnataka, in the Western Ghats.
In Madhugiri, she helped restore a historic one kalyani (pond) that was part of the city’s heritage but had almost disappeared under a landfill. This was purely voluntary work.
Sagar, an area of heavy rainfall, dense forests and plantations, presented very different problems.
“Here, too, I experienced deep affection and respect from the people. I have met some amazing people and made some dear friends including the great intellectual and cultural activist KV Subbanna from Heggodu. Both Madhugiri and Sagar were great places to work and I learned a lot as a young officer,” she says.
development at the base
Uma believes Karnataka is at the forefront of decentralization and a vibrant sector to work in. There are around 6,000 gram panchayats, along with taluk and zilla panchayats.
She points out that Gram panchayats have played a key role in effective Covid management in rural areas.
“We helped them by establishing Converged Local Action Task Forces, giving those task forces multi-session online training, and issuing empowerment orders that would help them do their jobs effectively,” she says.
Following the Gram Panchayat elections in December 2020, five-day orientation sessions for nearly a lakh of locally elected officials have been organized in hybrid mode at nearly 300 taluk sites for six months during the pandemic. Fifty percent of these elected officials were women.
“It was a massive exercise, but essential, and we were able to do it effectively,” she notes.
They are now working to guide Gram Panchayats to revise their taxes, collect them online, deliver services effectively and improve local government. Gram Panchayats will also look at perspective planning this year, including child and gender budgeting.
“Beyond the basic activities of street lights, drinking water and sanitation, Gram Panchayats have started supportive activities for anganwadis, schools, hostels and veterinary clinics. They are taking on greater responsibility for local administration and that is how it should be. Very soon Panchayat Development Officers will do registration of births and deaths and registration of marriages. This will help the rural communities a lot,” says Uma.
revitalizing rural libraries
Karnataka’s over 5,600 rural public libraries have accepted 18,000 rural children as members free of charge. Uma believes this was possible not only because of the enrollment effort, but also because the children wanted to come to the library themselves. The rural libraries now function as decentralized learning centers.
“NGOs, corporations, donor organizations and individuals have donated over a million books. In addition, many organizations work with us such as Azim Premji Foundation, Sikshana Foundation, Pratham Books, Dell Technologies, Adhyayan, Concerned for Working Children, BGVS, India Literacy Project, Yuva Chintana Foundation and many more. More than 3,000 rural libraries are now equipped with computers and internet connections,” she says.
Uma emphasizes that rural communities have now pushed this to establish study circles, patio libraries, garden libraries, small free public libraries, arts and crafts activities and more. It is planned to open 330 more new rural libraries this year.
A strong Anganwadi network
She also touches on the role of the 1.4 million-strong network of Anganwadis in caring for the country’s youngest children.
In Karnataka, anganwadis work six and a half hours a day, which they do as part-time care for poor mothers who can safely leave their young children behind while they pursue paid work.
“Among other services, Karnataka’s Anganwadis provide eggs, milk and hot meals every day not only for about two million children in the state, but also for pregnant women and nursing mothers in the state. This daily hot meal for pregnant women has helped improve pregnancy weight gain, improve hemoglobin levels, improve baby birth weight, and also improve the mental health status of pregnant women through the informal social networks they form by they come to the Anganwadi every day,” she emphasizes.
While Covid partially affected the daily functioning of anganwadis, like everything else, Uma says supplementation has continued through take-away rations and dry ration distribution.
“Gram Panchayat Task Forces played an important role in ensuring the effective distribution of these provisions. Although the anganwadis were closed for daily childcare to ensure children’s safety, anganwadi staff and volunteers worked on spreading science-based awareness, contact tracing, ensuring essential services and Covid vaccination. I’ve seen Anganwadi workers holding hands even with elderly people who were nervous about vaccination,” says Uma.
Empower women entrepreneurs
Another particular initiative close to her heart is the involvement of women’s groups in local solid waste disposal in Gram Panchayats. Not as workers doing the work of segregation, but as entrepreneurs doing the work from start to finish. As part of this, more than 3,000 grams of Panchayats have signed memoranda of understanding with women’s SHG associations. Over 3,000 women have signed up for the 30-day home driving training, and more than 700 women have already completed the training.
“Women driving the dump trucks doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s a big step towards empowering women in rural areas. There are women in Kolar, Uttara Kannada, Haveri, Yadgir who all drive the mini trucks and experience this sense of empowerment from being behind the wheel of the vehicle. Little girls in the villages will see them and realize that jobs are no longer taboo for women,” she shares.
She watches with pride as a young woman in a remote part of Uttara Kannada becomes the first woman in her community to have a driver’s license.
Uma admits that we live in a world that is still patriarchal in many ways.
“The first women to enter the civil service faced great challenges, but today there is a hall in the IAS Academy in Mussoorie named after Anna Rajam Malhotra. So what I’m going to say is that these things take time, and we see things changing over time. It’s good to see that women make up up to a third of the youngest batches of IAS. Representation is important because public services need to look more like the people we are meant to serve.”
For those aspiring to a career in public service, or already in one, Uma has some pragmatic advice.
“Every day offers so many opportunities to do something meaningful! I would also like to give this advice to young women starting their careers in public service: that it is not about us, it is about the work. Whatever role we work in, there are always ways to make life a little easier for other women and girls who are less privileged than us. Provide a safe, inclusive, harassment- and discrimination-free workplace where colleagues treat each other with respect,” she signs.