Harshika Singh, 32, knew from her school days that she wanted to be make a difference in people’s lives. As the District Collector of Tikamgarh in Madhya Pradesh, she has been able to live up to that dream. Harshika, an IAS officer of 2012 batch, was posted in Tikamgarh last year.
Tikamgarh lies in the hilly terrain of Bundelkhand close to the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh border. The region has often been in the news owing to its acute water scarcity and for being notoriously underdeveloped. Human development indices are woefully low, and this has translated into alleviation in gender disparity. However, the district has been taking slow yet steady steps towards improving the lives of women since her arrival.
The journey to IAS
After finishing her graduation in Economics from St. Xavier’s College in her home town Ranchi, Harshika wanted to pursue master degree before attempting the civil services examination.
She recalls, “I was encouraged by my father to apply in colleges abroad. I did not think much of it because I felt there was little chance that a student from a non-top tier institution could make it to a top college abroad. Nevertheless, I applied to London School of Economics and forgot about it. Two months later I came across an email informing me that I had been unconditionally selected for the M.Sc Economic History programme.”
After finishing her post graduate course in 2009, Harshika returned to India and started preparing for IAS. Studying by herself without any external coaching, she went on to secure an AIR 8 in the UPSC examinations in 2012.
Harshika started her career as the Assistant Collector of Hazaribagh in Jharkhand, and later served as the deputy secretary (Finance and Commercial Taxes) in Jabalpur in the same State. Her husband, Rohit Singh is the District Collector of Datia district, also in Madhya Pradesh.
Empowering women through literacy
Harshika says, “Tikamgarh has one among the highest maternal mortality rates and skewed sex ratio in the country. There is a panchayat in Tikamgarh which has a high sex ratio; at first glance it may seem like a positive indicator, but the real reason is that each family has 6-7 daughters as they keep trying to have a son. This can be attributed to the patriarchal mindset that makes families view sons as a blessing and daughters as a curse. In many instances we have even found female babies lying discarded in the wilderness.”
Most of these girls are not given formal education and are restricted to staying home, doing household chores. “As opposed to the female literacy rate of 80-85% in Jabalpur, where I was previously posted, the figure for Tikamgarh is a dismal 45%. This was an eye-opener of sorts, and I realized that the first step towards improving the lives of women is to educate them,” narrates Harshika.
In a district where women still observe feudal etiquette such as wearing ghoonghat, getting them to step out of their homes for education is no mean feat. But Harshika was undeterred; she set up Mahila Gyanalaya Vidyalayas for uneducated girls and women in 35 Gram Panchayats in just one year. Notably, most of the students at these schools are the mothers-in-law of the teachers.
Talking about how she got the idea of getting the educated women in the district involved in the literacy campaign, she says, “I came across this lady who had an M.Com degree and had been married for 4-5 years. I was talking to her mother-in-law and asking questions pertaining to their health when she quipped in and answered the questions. I thought why not get the educated women in the panchayats to educate and motivate the other women?”
When she presented this idea to the GP-level government committees, and many officers showed interest in the initiative.
One room in each GP building has been converted into a library now and a door-to-door campaign urges each family to participate. “In every village now, educated women are coming forward on their own and taking the lead.”
The classes are held in the afternoon and the curriculum focuses on teaching the women how to read and write, do simple calculations, etc.
Towards a healthier life
Harshika has also made significant efforts towards bringing down the maternal mortality rate in the district. She says, “This is such a backward place that pregnant women are not allowed to leave their room for nine months thanks to some regressive customs, thus depriving them of proper medical attention. We have been trying to spread awareness about the dangers of such practices wherein we also try to involve the menfolk.”
The other health issue plaguing the women in the district is anemia. She says, “The hemoglobin levels of most women here hovers around 3-4 g/dL as opposed to the normal minimum level of 12 g/dL. We are organizing health check-ups in the gram panchayats under which all the women are profiled and handed a health card. Their records are also maintained online. The women are made to undergo check-ups every 15 days and depending on the results, they are prescribed appropriate supplements to normalize their hemoglobin levels. ”
Harshika is also striving to create more awareness about life threatening diseases such as Breast Cancer and Cervical Cancer. “The check-ups also ensure timely medical intervention in case of life-threatening diseases,” she adds. Until now, 12,000 women in the district have been screened under the health camp and 500 women undergo check-ups on a daily basis.
(Edited by Athira Nair)