LUCKNOW: On a cold December night of 2018, an old and frail woman was sitting on a charpoy in front of her house on the outskirts of Banda. Without a quilt or even a blanket, she found it difficult to take even a nap. Suddenly, she felt the presence of someone next to her.
“Kaun hain aap (who are you)?” she asked. Pat came the reply, “Main aapka Jila Adhikari hoon (I am your District Magistrate),” as the old woman instantly felt the warmth of a shawl. The benefactor was the then Banda DM Hira Lal who covered the woman with his own shawl in a humane gesture which is his trademark.
A 1994 batch PCS officer promoted to the IAS in 2010, Hira Lal, now Additional Project Director at the Uttar Pradesh Aids Control Society, is a bureaucrat with a difference and has many feathers to his cap. But it was his stint as DM of Banda, the backward district of the parched lands of Bundelkhand, that made him stand out.
Plagued by multiple adversities like water scarcity, perennial drought and malnutrition, besides deforestation, Banda witnessed a makeover when Hira Lal helmed it from August 2018 to February 2020.
Soon after taking over as DM, the officer started addressing the issues one by one. His priority was to bring the district into the mainstream of development. His first endeavour was to conserve water by launching the drive Bhujal Bachao, Payjal Badhao (enhance groundwater, protect drinking water).
During his two-year stint, Hira Lal created a record of sorts by building 2,605 contour trenches and holding 469 jan choupals engaging around 35,000 villagers on water budgeting and groundwater recharge. Moreover, he also got 2,183 hand pumps installed and 260 wells across 470 gram panchayats recharged -- and all that in just a month. This achievement entered the Limca Book of Records in February this year. His efforts resulted in the accumulation of at least 1 lakh kilolitres of water annually.
“The drive was supported by Water Aid India, Akhil Bhartiya Samaj Seva Sansthan, People’s Science Institute and students of the Mahatma Gandhi Chitrakoot Gramodaya Vishwavidyalaya,” says Hira Lal.
The Banda water campaign, acknowledged nationally, was a first-of-its-kind community engagement model with large scale use of village water parliaments for mass action on water conservation, recharge of groundwater, rain water harvesting and mass awareness campaigns.
“If you can’t be a pencil to write anyone’s happiness, then try at least to be a nice eraser to erase someone’s sorrows.” This is what Hira Lal believes in and all his efforts are driven by this motto.
His next thoughtful initiative was to bring respite from the issue of malnutrition. He raised awareness among the people about the issue and followed with concerted actions to mitigate it. The district administration reached out to UNICEF. The unique Banda model to address malnutrition was a mix of both facility and community based interventions.
“Central to the strategy was the week-long ‘Bal Poshan Satra’ (child nutrition sessions) involving feeding demonstrations and counselling sessions for mothers. Health authorities took care of clinical examination and treatment of identified Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) cases. Other pillars included weighing campaigns, growth monitoring, creating awareness about home cooked nutritious diet and also tracking of individual cases,” says Hira Lal while elaborating on the strategy against malnutrition.
A total of 2.6 lakh children under five years of age were weighed across the district. Of those, 16,344 were identified as severely underweight and 2840 were diagnosed with SAM. As a result, 484 SAM cases recovered completely and 1676 underweight cases also recovered fully.
Besides, Hira Lal brought about sweeping jail reforms in Banda and initiated startup programmes roping in different departments to create jobs for district youth. “Those initiatives were to give much needed exposure to the youth,” says Hira Lal.
Hira Lal created another record by planting 15,000 saplings on a single day in the district which was craving for green cover. He initiated the phenomenon of ‘Ped Prasad’ by roping in religious sites like temples and mosques to inspire people to plant more trees and even gift trees to each other during birthdays and marriages.
He also received an award from the state governor for being the best election officer as Banda registered the highest voting percentage in the state during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.