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One cop's vision helps turn Chhattisgarh slum around

Like most police officers, Ramesh Chandra Sharma is primarily concerned with maintaining law and order. But his methods for achieving this are far from ordinary. They have changed the lives of the tribal residents of Faridnagar slum in Durg district

In Chhattisgarh's Durg district, the lives of 91 Gond tribal families have been turned around by a novel micro-model project initiated by a Raipur police officer and implemented by a few local street kids.

Some years ago the Faridnagar slum, home to tribal families from the Bastar region, was riddled with crime, alcoholism, unemployment and domestic unrest. Today, the men go out to work every day, bringing home their wages each evening instead of spending it on alcohol. The women too earn a living -- making candles and paper bags, and growing mushrooms. Most of the local tribal children attend school regularly. Some families have even taken bank loans to buy autorickshaws. Soon, every family expects to have a permanent house of its own.

The catalyst for this transformation? A little emotional blackmail.

The idea came from Ramesh Chandra Sharma, then superintendent of police at the local police station. Sharma had received reports that Faridnagar was home to about 150 young ragpickers who also indulged in petty criminal activities.

Driven chiefly by law and order concerns, Sharma's first move was to set up a one-room school, Akshar Arakshi Pathshala, in the locality. He got together a group of volunteer teachers from within the police force. Now, the school even has a library and a computer gifted to it by a computer firm.

"I had never dreamt that this would galvanise into a kind of social revolution. I wanted these kids to have a basic education," Sharma says.

Initially, only a handful of children attended Sharma's school. Many parents forbade their children from coming into contact with the police. Gradually, however, the barriers between the police and the people came down and the children began to confide their family problems to the police. "We decided to reform the whole family and asked the kids to stop eating if their parents didn't mend their ways," says Sharma.

So, the children went on hunger strikes to protest their fathers' alcoholism or frequent fights between their parents. Sharma lent moral support to the children's cause by making frequent visits to their huts when a so-called 'disciplinary' campaign was underway. Eventually, the haranguing and the 'bhookh hartals' (hunger strikes) had their desired effect.

Next, Sharma got the administrative and welfare wheels turning in favour of the tribals. He introduced the slum residents to the Ambedkar Awas Yojana -- a scheme that provides the poor with finances to start their own businesses. This year, after two insecure decades, all the adults in the Faridnagar slum have been included in the voters' rolls and issued below-the-poverty-line (BPL) cards.

In one short year, virtually everything has changed for the tribal inhabitants of Faridnagar.

Sharma is unusually modest about his contribution to the revolution. "My only role in this project has been to convince the concerned departments to introduce their projects in this locality."

Source: Tehelka, March 6, 2004