Monday, November 27, 2006

The mistress of all she surveys

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Mumbai collector Valsa Nair Singh keeps a track of land records and helps social service networks

Shevlin Sebastian

One day when Valsa Nair Singh, the collector of Mumbai, went to the David Sassoon remand home in Mahim, he saw a boy, Hemant Wagle, (name changed), in the sickness ward, all alone. “When I enquired, I was told that Hemant was not allowed to take part in any vocational activities or community programmes because he was HIV positive,” she said. Upset, she asked the boy what had happened. Three years ago, when Wagle had come to Mumbai with his parents, at CST station, he was jostled and separated from his parents. The police picked him up and sent him to the Sassoon home.
The authorities tried hard but were unable to locate the parents. “Since Hemant was from Solapur, I got his photo published in the local newspapers and somebody saw it and informed the mother,” said Singh.
The mother and the child were reunited but, amazingly, Hemant did not want to return home. “He said he wanted to make a lot of money and only then would he return home. Sadly, Hemant and his mother did not know he is HIV positive,” said the collector.
This is one of the many incidents in the daily life of Singh. Apart from social service activities, her main job is revenue collection and maintenance of land records. “I want to fully computerise the land records,” she says.
She is also keen to make the system transparent. So, if somebody wants to make a property registration card, “I do not want people to complain that it is taking time or that the mutation took place in somebody else’s name, without their knowledge. This is due to bad upkeep of records.”
With that in mind, she has sent many crumbling survey maps to a remote sensing agency in Nagpur, where it will be digitised. This is one way of preserving them and it can be updated regularly. “So far, 80 per cent of the work has been done,” she said.
Apart from this, she has set up a task force to detect child labour. “Those children who are rescued, will be initially put up in the various remand homes of the city,” she said. Later, they will be rehabilitated. A pilot project for 50 children is being launched.
As collector, she is in charge of an area that runs from Colaba to Mahim and Sion, an area of 69 sq. kms. There are 35,000 landowners and 1500 pieces of property, which has been given on a lease.
Playing a mediator's role
On an average, she gets around 40 visitors daily who come to her with various complaints. They are usually members of co-operative societies, who have plenty of problems within themselves. “There are many cases of lease violations, so I act as a mediator and take action wherever necessary,” she says. “We usually conduct inspections where the lease terms have been violated.” She also ensures that all open spaces belonging to the government are free of encroachments. Last week, she launched a drive in Ganesh Murthy Nagar to demolish unauthorised constructions.
When I tell her of the public perception of the bureaucracy being inefficient and lethargic, she says, “For every 10 ineffective officers, there are 15 effective ones. The problem is that the rules are too many and, unfortunately, we have made these rules. Even for an efficient bureaucrat, it is difficult to break out of it.”
One of the things that stymies efficiency is, of course, corruption. But the amazing thing is that even though she is the chairman of the corruption eradication committee, and has publicised, through newspapers and television, that she will meet the public on the first Monday of every month, she has received very few complaints. “I am puzzled by the lack of response,” she says.
Appointed at the end of July, the general consensus of those who have interacted with her is that she is approachable and helpful. Kunti Oza, who is helping the Cuffe Parade Citizens’ Group and Cuffe Parade Residents’ Association to upgrade the Macchimar area, says, “Mrs. Singh is taking a lot of interest in our project and is always available.”
Nayana Kathpalia, a trustee of the Oval Trust also agrees. The Trust is planning to convert the Cross Maidan, which is owned by the government, into a designated garden for the public. There will be a children’s corner, a walking track, and a place for people to hang around. However, Shirin Bharucha, another trustee, says, “Since Singh is new to the job, she needs some more time and latitude to function.”
God’s own country
Singh is a Malayali, who grew up in Cochin and Thiruvanthapuram, the daughter of an IPS officer. She met Ashish Kumar Singh, from UP, when he was giving guest lectures at the IAS Training Academy in Kottayam. Love bloomed but it would take three years for them to get married. “My parents had no problems,” she says. “What I liked about him was that he is an intellectual.”
It is not and has never been easy to have a successful inter-community marriage. But Ashish does not feel so. “A marriage is about individuals, and not communities,” he says. “If, at all, an inter-community marriage is more interesting, it is because there is more cultural diversity. Ours is a marriage of the mind and soul.”
They have been married for 14 years and have two children, Aditya, 12 and Amartya, 8. Today, Ashish is posted as private secretary, minister of state, in the PMO in Delhi and has completed two and a half years in a five-year tenure. Since Valsa is from the Kerala cadre and Ashish is from the UP cadre, both have opted for the Maharashtra cadre. Valsa speaks Marathi fluently and says, “What I like about Mumbai is that it is a place where an outsider is made to feel at home. In fact, I consider myself as a Mumbaikar.”
For one who belongs to God’s own country, it is clear where her heart lies.

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