“I ensured that the bureaucracy catered to the vulnerable groups which do not have a voice.”
Rajendra Ratnoo IAS joined Civil Services in 2001. While serving as Sub- Collector of Cuddalore, he coordinated the flood relief programme in Tamil Nadu during October 2004. He initiated the Community Kitchen as a pilot project, and this concept has now been mainstreamed into the common flood management programme. Following this, he managed the tsunami response in December 2004; the Chennai floods in November 2005 where he was given the special flood duty; Cuddalore floods in 2007; heavy rains causing loss to crops in 2008; floods in November 2008; phyan cyclone in 2009, flash floods in Kanyakumari in 2010, and the Thane Cyclone in December 2011.
In an exclusive interview with Rajendra Ratnoo IAS shares with Marie Banu his passion towards social causes.
Why did you choose to join Civil Services? Who has been your inspiration?
My father has been my source of inspiration. He was a very bright student, but could not complete his education to the level he wanted to. He worked in the District Collector’s office at Tonk in Rajasthan, and used to take me to the Collector’s chamber on Sundays.
This triggered my curiosity. At the time of my post-graduation, I internalized my goal and decided to dedicate myself for some socially meaningful and productive work either through civil services, or teaching, or working for an NGO.
My aptitude was towards social work. I again attribute this to my father. I was an above average student, but up to the 12th standard was not outstanding in sciences. Somewhere, at the back of my mind, I wanted to pursue Civil Services and therefore chose to study social sciences.
Would that be your advice for those aspiring to join the IAS?
For a student aspiring for IAS, he should choose a subject that he is comfortable with and should make note of the scoring trend. I believe that if we allow children, guide them and facilitate them to choose a subject where they have an aptitude for and interest in, they can excel.
As District Collector of Cuddalore District, how long do you think it would take for the farmers affected by the Thane Cyclone to restore their livelihood? What have been the government efforts to support them?
There are many areas in which we have brought in normalcy. For instance, we have restored domestic power supply as well as power supply in agricultural areas where there were standing crops. In that way we have minimized the damage as much as possible. Nevertheless, certain crops like cashew, jackfruit, and coconut will take years to yield as there has been heavy damage.
The government has come out with a very good package for the farmers and we will be coordinating the rehabilitation programme for five years. More than 70,000 acres of cashew fields have been partly or fully damaged and over 40 percent of the trees have been uprooted. This requires a huge amount of manpower and resources for cutting, clearing, leveling the fields, pitting for new saplings, providing new high-yielding variety of saplings, planting, watering, protecting the saplings from cattle, and providing inter-crops until such time the cashew starts yielding. For inter-cropping, the government would be providing all the inputs free of cost for a period of five years.
Have there been cases of migration or threat of farmer suicides due to the large scale of devastation caused by the Thane cyclone?
No. We have been fully able to control the distress. I first came as a monitoring officer to Cuddalore and was later put in charge as District Collector on 21st January, 2012. We coordinated sector specific meetings with stakeholders and affected farmers. We had two rounds of meetings with the cashew farmers, did their needs assessment, and noted their expectations. Similarly, we had meetings with the jackfruit and coconut farmers. We did not adopt a top-down approach, but instead captured their needs to tailor the rehabilitation package. In that way, their distress has been largely reduced and I could see the cheer after the package was announced.
I remember the first meeting with the coconut farmers, when Kothandaraman who had lost around 1000 trees broke into tears. Another progressive farmer was uncontrollable as he was shocked with his loss. But, when the same farmers learnt about the magnanimous package offered by the government, they were ready to take the challenge of growing the crops.
You have been administering the relief and rehabilitation of tsunami as well as Thane Cyclone in Cuddalore District. Were the lessons learnt from the tsunami beneficial for the Thane programme? What has been the steps taken to ensure sustainable agriculture?
I think that we have learnt a lot of lessons from the tsunami programme. Incidentally, this is my ninth disaster management experience.
Until now, the farmers were cultivating cashew using the rain-fed agricultural method. But, due to large-scale tree plantation, there was need for irrigation. As the small and marginal farmers were in majority, the government decided to provide them with a community borewell. In this, 20 to 25 acres of land form one cluster and the farmers would share one irrigation source. The government would further be providing them with micro irrigation and drip irrigation facilities.
To compensate with the restriction of water, the government has introduced water conservation methods as well as planned to provide large number of check dams to enable recharge of rainwater in this region.
While you served as Collector at Kanyakumari District, you launched the ban of non-recyclable plastics. Can you tell us more about this campaign? What do you think would be the best method to curb usage of plastic in our everyday lives?
I think that the ban alone would not suffice. The Kanyakumari campaign had many unique components and experiences. One method was to lead by example. The resource persons who led the campaign had to first ensure that their behavior and attitude changed before they took the message to the public.
The second strategy was to impart knowledge on why plastics affect the environment; the gases that are emitted while burning plastic; soil health; cattle health; and marine health. By imparting appropriate knowledge, we could bring about a change in the attitude of people. But we did not limit ourselves here. Literature on many of past campaigns showed that despite knowledge and attitude, people did not change their behaviour. We therefore targeted formal and informal key persons in the community and motivated them to serve as role models at grassroots level. We brought about change in their behavior and inculcated leadership qualities, thereby empowering and enabling them.
Our communication strategy was a mix of mass media and inter-personal communication. We formed sustainable forums along with the government. One of them is ‘Friend For Nature’, a citizen’s forum. I now hear that over 90 percent of the people in Kanyakumari carry their own bags and have stopped using plastic bags.
This was because, the efforts that were made since the beginning of the enforcement phase was sustained even after the intensive campaign.
Which social issues are you passionate about?
There are a lot of issues which I am afraid we would not be able to capture in this interview. I have always had concern for the vulnerable groups. Wherever I have gone, I ensured that the bureaucracy catered to the vulnerable groups which do not have a voice.
For example, in Cuddalore, the Irula tribals, Narikuravar community the differently abled people, HIV affected people, folk artists, and schedule castes are all marginalized. Considering the unique historical, social, and cultural circumstances which have made an impact on their lives, I feel that the administration should address the needs of these groups.
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