By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Recently, Twitter went abuzz with appreciation after reports emerged from Gopalganj about the District Magistrate (DM) posted there. A widow who worked as a cook for the mid-day meal scheme at a government-run school in the district had been removed from her position because she was considered a ‘bad omen’. The DM, Rahul Kumar, not only got her reinstated, as was his duty but also went ahead to have food cooked by her to dispel any superstition regarding widows. To find out more, we spoke to him over phone. Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:
Abhishek Jha (AJ): How did you come to know about Sunita, the widowed cook who was removed from work at the school in Kalyanpur?
Rahul Kumar (RK): The lady was removed in February 2014 by the school administration at that time. And against this order, she appealed to higher authorities. An order was passed for her to be reinstated. She joined back on Monday, December 14, 2015, but later some villagers came and started saying that if the same lady continues, they will pull out their children. They shouted at her and locked the school.
On December 17, I sent someone from the district headquarters and they opened the school. The classes and the mid-day meal – all things were started again. That day, the same lady came to my Janta Darbar. This is a public grievance redressal day at the district headquarter level. I assured her that there won’t be any further problems.
When she went back again, I got a call that some villagers had started gathering at the school. So I rushed to the place. Some people did not have any problem but a few people were there who were saying something, regarding her character and other things.
First I tried to convince them. Then it was time for lunch and I thought that these kinds of things cannot be solved only by convincing and by official action – like I start an investigation, I start taking statements of the people. This is a long process and also how fruitful would it be? I didn’t know at that time. So I strongly told them that there should not be any space for moral policing. But I thought if there is some visible action and some symbolic thing, then people will understand better… because if the DM comes and he himself is having the meal that sends a strong message.
AJ: What superstitions or prejudices do you see against women as an administrator? How do you work against them?
RK: Being the district magistrate, my primary job is to maintain law and order here, and also work for development to improve the quality of education, road, electricity, and drinking water. Superstition is not something which is directly related to my work. But if society is backward in mindset, then your efforts can’t be very meaningful. All that happened, it was not planned at all and my basic purpose was to give justice to the lady. Coincidentally, it also happened that I addressed this issue of superstition. There are so many things, not only in Gopalganj but in other parts of the country also.
AJ: Of course there are. We have near Delhi, in Haryana, the Khap Panchayats that give diktats against women.
RK: Fortunately in this part of the country, we don’t have any incident involving khap panchayats.
AJ: I meant anything similar to the case of the widow being prohibited from cooking?
RK: Look, in educated families also, widows are prohibited from participating in things considered auspicious, like rituals and festivals. We need to do a lot of things.
AJ: What are the challenges that you face as a young administrator?
RK: In Bihar, we are still at the bottom when it comes to the literacy rate and many other things. So despite all our efforts, the outcome is not what we expect because of the lack of education. This is one problem where fortunately things are changing. I have seen in the last ten years – because I belong to Bihar – I have witnessed the whole process of change. Women are graduating from school. It is a common scene at school-time. I see thousands of girl-students riding bicycles and going to their school. This is the changing picture of Bihar. But as I said earlier, a lot is yet to be done.
AJ: A lot of politicians and administrators are using social media to solve people’s problems. What about you?
RK: My official number is on WhatsApp. I have direct dialogue with people on Facebook and on Twitter too. During the last Assembly elections also, I used social media to attract the youth. If people who live outside but belong to Gopalganj forward any problem- for instance, some people have a passport verification problem, or some people who live in the Middle East or in the Gulf, since their roots are here, they also request me regarding electricity problems in their village and I try my best to sort it all out.