Turning obstacles into opportunities

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 29 Aug 2018 12:35:13



IAS officer Ashwini Bhide has shattered many a glass ceiling with her intellect and confidence

By neil pate

From building indigenous water conservancy check dams (Ashwini Bundharas) in Nagpur to putting people and politicians on the right track for the Mumbai Metro project, IAS officer Ashwini Bhide is a woman who has shattered many a glass ceiling with her intellect and confidence.

So, when the government thought of making a big infrastructure push to upgrade Mumbai’s overburdened rail and road services, the gargantuan task was handed to none other than Bhide - a woman known to turn odds into opportunities!

The Mumbai Metro-3 project, a 33.5 km-long corridor, is India’s longest and city’s first fully underground corridor. It runs from Colaba to SEEPZ connecting many parts of the city. Once commissioned in 2021, it is expected to change the way Mumbaikars travel. The project has faced several challenges right from land requirement, environmental clearances, resettlement of project-affected people, and the latest noise pollution battle in the court. “I firmly believe that you will always find a solution if you engage with people and have a genuine dialogue with them. People want good infrastructure but some don’t want the initial inconvenience caused by it. How can that be possible?” asks Bhide, who is now managing director of the MMRC.

Once Metro-3 is operational, more than six lakh vehicles daily will be off Mumbai roads. Apart from being an eco-friendly mass transport system, it will also help save over 200 lakh litre of fuel per day. It may be prudent to mention here that globally, the public transport system density is six people per square metre; eight persons is considered to be dense. Now, cut to Mumbai where we have 14-17 people per square metre. This is the main reason why people are forced to travel in subhuman condition on trains and buses. Many end up dying. “Unless you have an alternative system, people have no choice. The reason why we need to have an efficient public transport system. Many people will leave their cars and bikes behind if the public transport system is good,” says Bhide. When asked if it is feasible to make an underground Metro in Mumbai at such a huge expense, she promptly replies, “Yes”, adding, “No project can start without a feasibility report.”

Some people have raised concerns of flooding in the underground Metro tunnel, given the fact that Mumbai is on the coast and linear. Bhide, however, wants to put these doubts to rest and says, “All big cities in the world - London, Paris, Singapore have long underground metro tunnels. Tunneling is a 150-year old technology. In fact, London has almost 400-km long tunnels. I don’t think there will be any flooding.” The city’s Metro network is planned in such a way that it actually enhances the utility of the existing suburban rail system, she claims, adding it will offer the last mile connectivity to any passenger to any corner of Mumbai.

Connecting With People

As she sifts through a couple of files on her table and sips on her green tea in her BKC office, Bhide shares that a ‘humane approach’ always helps when dealing with people, be it politicians, bureaucrats, protesters or colleagues. Needless to say, what keeps her going is the passion and the determination to provide good infrastructure to the financial capital of the country. “I am an Arts student. My first stint with urban infrastructure was when I was appointed at the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA). I was looking at files when I had no engineering background. However, I did not hesitate to learn on the field. In fact, I still remember asking an engineer about a particular technical term they were using that I didn’t understand. Through the years, I learnt that for any infra project, one needs excellent managerial skills and good co-ordination,” she says.

Hailing from Sangli, the 1995 IAS topper always wanted to do something for the society - even as a rebellious 13-year-old. So while the rest of her classmates decided to pursue careers in engineering and medicine, she decided to carve a niche for herself in the male-dominated IAS. Small wonder then that in her illustrious two-decade career, Bhide has worked as chief executive officer in Zilla Parishad, additional divisional commissioner, joint secretary to Governor of Maharashtra, additional Metropolitan Commissioner in MMRDA and secretary in School Education and Sports. “I consider myself as a ‘generalist’ and ‘foot soldier’. My stints in Ichalkarnji, Kolhapur, Sindhudurg and Nagpur helped me a lot. It gave me an insight into the issues that rural India faces,” says Bhide, who has been in service for the past 23 years.

Formative Years

Recollecting those stints, Bhide shares that Sindhudurg is a very disciplined and literate district. “People never shouted in the meetings there. They always let the other person complete his/her views. When I was transferred to Nagpur as the CEO of Zilla Parishad, the challenge before me was to look after the rural infrastructure development, women empowerment, education, primary health as well as animal health. There were initial hiccups, but I managed to complete the work there and bring a positive change,” she says.

Till a few years ago, Bhide thought her job as the CEO was the most challenging one, but not until she was given the uphill task of implementing and executing the Metro-3 project. “Sometimes, people (politicians and public) can be difficult. They protest and take out morchas without even studying and understanding the real issue. But, if you know how to handle them, make them understand your point of view and the importance of a particular project in public interest, then half the battle is won,” Bhide explains.
Not someone who will rest on her past laurels, Bhide was also the driving force behind the smooth execution of several infrastructure projects in the city - the 16.8-km Eastern Freeway, the Mumbai monorail and the city’s first Metro from Versova to Ghatkopar.

Earlier, there was no direct east and west connectivity in Mumbai. Then, it would take 70 minutes to travel from Ghatkopar to Versova, now, with the Metro, it has reduced to a mere 20 minutes. “People have stopped using their vehicles for daily commute and started using the Metro. It also eased the traffic congestion,” she says.


Against All Odds

Citing the challenges faced during the construction of the Eastern Freeway, she says today it has changed the face of city completely in terms of connectivity and seamless travel. Her contribution towards the resettlement and rehabilitation of more than 5,000 families affected by various MMRDA projects is considered a case study. “The entire stretch was dotted with encroachment, old warehouses and religious structures, etc. After going through the project plan and legal documents, I was convinced that it was doable only if we engaged with the local people and took them into confidence,” she says.
When you give her credit for changing the ‘impossible into possible’, a modest Bhide smiles and says, “I think when we work in the government, we work to make India a better country, not to earn credit for the work we do.”

For someone, who has quickly grasped the political power equations in the state and learnt how to steer clear of controversies and instead focus on the job in hand, Bhide has become the invincible go-to woman today in Maharashtra. One can see her at odd hours on the Metro-3 sites, interacting with the locals and inspecting the progress with her team members.

When asked if there was political pressure or politicians meddling in her work, she says politicians and bureaucrats are aware of their rights and limits. “In fact, we are very happy that the current government is taking such keen interest in improving the infrastructure of the city. The CM and his team is giving personal attention to all the infra projects. A team from the CM's office helps us in getting all the issues resolved. He is continuously encouraging us to take the project forward.

“Mine is a 24x7 job. Over the years I have learnt how to strike the right balance between my work and family life. My family has always understood that my job as an IAS officer in a metropolis like Mumbai is very demanding. During the Milan and Dahisar rail-overbridges, most of the work was being done at night. I used to be at the site from 11 pm to 3 am for days,” says Bhide, an avid reader with a Master's in Literature.

Her husband, Satish Bhide too was a senior IAS bureaucrat, but he resigned from the services in 2011.
Ask her about the next plum posting and she signs off saying, “We don't have permanent positions in government jobs. So wherever duty calls.”
(dnasyndication.com) l