Bhaggu, 65, says he can trace his memory back to when he was five. And he remembers the paradox that’s taunted him since: Of his village — Sohras, in northern Uttar Pradesh — being flooded every year and him having no water to drink.
“They (government) distribute food, tarpaulin, kerosene, matchboxes but never made any arrangement for water,” says Bhaggu, a farm worker who goes by one name. “I think no one ever wondered that throats might be parched even with water all around.”
Every year during the monsoons, when the Ghaghra river brims over, he and other desperate villagers end up drinking turbid floodwater. “The floods inundate all the wells, tube wells and hand pumps. So there’s no drinking water,” says Dharamraj, a 40-year-old farmer in the same village.
The result: widespread illnesses and even some deaths.
This year has been better.
Exactly 200 flood-prone villages in Bahraich district were fitted with four hand pumps each, the crude water fetching devices mounted on raised platforms rather than at ground level so they wouldn’t be submerged during floods. When the floods first came this year in mid-July, these hand pumps —the only source of drinking water to the 400,000-odd people in these villages — delivered clear and potable water.
“People went up to these four hand pumps in boats or by wading through the deluge and fetched water,” says Gita Singh, head of Sohras village.
District Magistrate Rigzin Samphel says the idea came from the villagers at a meeting to find survival solutions. “Some villagers asked me, ‘If the flood water goes high why can’t our existing hand pumps too go high’?”
Uttar Pradesh has 20 flood-prone districts, as listed by the state government.
IDEA TO IMPLEMENTATION
Even simple ideas can be tough to execute. The hand pump project threw up some basic questions that needed to be answered first: How many hand pumps should be mounted on raised platforms? How should the platforms be designed? Where would the money come from?
Samphel formed a team of engineers and administrators to find answers. The first answer came easily. Following a survey, Samphel decided to raise four existing hand pumps in 200 flood-prone villages.
Then came the design.
Jal Nigam, a government body to oversee water supply in the state, proposed a 1m-high rectangular platform. The idea was debated in an open forum of block development officers (BDOs) from flood-affected areas, engineers from the state’s flood division and Jal Nigam officials.
At the end of the meeting, they decided on flat top platforms with sloping bases for the hand pumps. The slopes would diminish the force of the floodwater and the 2.9m-high platforms would offer a safe spot for people to stand on and draw water.
There was a bigger problem now. The refitting would need R14,000 per hand pump, or R1.12 crore for 800 of them. After pondering over several options, Samphel and the team decided to finance the project with funds from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or MGNREGA — a flagship scheme for providing 100 days of employment to one member in every poor rural household.
To prevent leakages, Samphel decided against transferring the budget to Jal Nigam, saving on the department’s charges, and instead handed over the funds to the BDOs.
“This was because the project had to (be) accomplished swiftly. So instead of giving funds to 155 village pradhans (village heads), we gave the money to four BDOs. This way I could have better control over the project,” he says.
Uttar Pradesh’s relief commissioner has now asked other flood-affected districts in the state to adopt the model.
OFFICER ON A MISSION
Samphel, 36, a 2003-batch IAS officer, has over the years gained a reputation as an innovative administrator.
In 2007, when this descendant of the royal family of Zanskar in Ladakh was district magistrate of Jalaun in the Bundelkhand region, he introduced voucher books with counter-foils for paying wages under MGNREGA in Chamari village, to ensure that the payments reached the actual beneficiaries. The following year, he joined hands with Bhagwati Devi, head of Shekhpur Gadha village, to rid it of its crude liquor breweries.
This June, in an attempt to end the hoarding and illegal resale of food and other essential items meant for the poor, he introduced text alerts on mobile phones in Bahraich district to inform ration card holders about the availability of stocks in the public distribution system (PDS).
And under the Sampoorna Swachata Abhiyan (SSA), a government-funded sanitation scheme, he helped build flood-proof toilets for women in Bahraich. SSA did not have any provision for funding such a project, so
Samphel used the scheme’s 15 per cent publicity budget instead.
After building the toilets, he got them painted over with ‘safe sanitation’ messages, thus ensuring that they also conveyed the right message.
“Even in limited resources, things could be changed, a difference could be made,” says Samphel, a graduate from Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce and an MBA from Delhi University.
The Economist magazine, in 2008, rated Samphel one of the most hard-working bureaucrats in the world. The same year, he won an award from the rural development ministry for his implementation of MGNREGA.
Samphel is single. The demands of his work, he says, don’t leave him much scope to get married.
Re-Imagining India is a joint initiative of Hindustan Times and Mint to track and understand policy reforms that could, if successful, transform India's efforts at inclusive growth. You can read previous stories at www.hindustantimes.com/reimagining india