In the remote Uplai village, in Maharashtra’s Solapur district, a young girl shone at school. The daughter of a marginal farmer, Rohini Bhajibhakare was taught from an early age that becoming an IAS officer was the ultimate service to the nation.

“My father (Ramdas) cultivated jowar in his less than two-acre holding. He used to face a lot of difficulties in land matters and was never able to meet the officials concerned. He told us that there was someone called a ‘district collector’, who could set everything right if he wanted to. He always wanted someone from his family to become an IAS officer, as that would mean helping a lot of people,” says the 32-year-old Rohini Bhajibhakare, who was recently appointed collector of Salem district in Tamil Nadu.

As she conducts surprise checks in government hospitals, advises nurses not to put two dengue-afflicted children in the same bed, sends WhatsApp messages and SMS greetings to teachers on September 5, gives pep talks to students and visits the rural areas of Salem to listen to people’s grievances, her father’s words constantly ring in her ears.

“When I was getting into the IAS for training, my father told me, ‘You will get a lot of files on your table from now on. Never see the files as just papers. Just remember that by your signature, either lakhs of people will be benefited or lives will change for the worse. You have to always think of what is good for the people’.”

Officers from outside TN cannot manage with just English and Hindi. Tamil is a must. “Until I picked up the language, during the first five to six months of my career it was difficult to connect to the people. But now I am able to connect with them,” she says.

Bhajibhakare is all too aware of her peer in Karnataka, the IPS officer D Roopa and her battles against the system. “So far I have not faced any situation (like Roopa),” she says. “My seniors have been very supportive. In Tamil Nadu, the systems are very strong — the State is system-centric. It is one of the best-administered States in India. Systems will go on irrespective of who is in power and the work will go on. There is no interference in my job.”

The fourth among five siblings, she completed her Std X at the local union school in Uplai and Std XII in Solapur. She remained a top ranker throughout. “My father wanted me to do BA as I was planning to get into the IAS anyway, but I pursued engineering as I wanted a professional degree as a back-up, just in case I did not make it to the IAS,” she says. After completing BE computer science at the Government Engineering College of Pune, one of the best in Maharashtra, she did not take up a job. The UPSC exams beckoned — “I studied for it without any help from coaching classes” — and she cleared it in the first attempt.

The 2008 batch officer’s first posting was in Madurai (TN) as assistant collector, followed by Tindivanam as sub-collector. Along the way, a chance meeting with Vijayendra Bidari, a 2005 batch officer, at a combined course for IAS and IPS officers saw love blossoming between them. They married and a son was born to them. At the end of her maternity leave, Bhajibhakare was posted as sub-collector at Cheranmahadevi in Tirunelveli. She returned to Madurai as additional collector before her current elevation as Salem collector in August this year.

People’s officer

What Bhajibhakare is most proud of, however, is her work in Madurai. The district is the first in the State to become open defecation free. Bhajibhakare ensured not just the construction of toilets in the rural hinterlands but also community-wide participation, meaning that these toilets were actually used.

“The scheme was called Community-Led Local Sanitation and we focused on changing mindsets, not just on construction of toilets. We worked extensively and it was very satisfying,” she says.

In August 2016, she was presented the Excellence in Implementation of MNREGA award by cricketing legend and Rajya Sabha MP Sachin Tendulkar. It was recognition for her efforts in using the rural job guarantee scheme for watershed development work — there was a rise in the groundwater table in Madurai, as a result.

Alongside the successes are the many challenges brought by the job, which, in turn, bring out her tough side. “As collector, there are regulatory duties — protests and law-and-order issues. We have managed these without any loss of life or too much problem,” she says.

She credits her humble beginnings for her innate tenacity and ability to tackle adversity on the job. Gender discrimination, thankfully, is seemingly missing on that list of adversities.

“As a woman, I did not find anything which hampers me while doing my job,” she says. “In fact, being a woman has helped me. I have always got a lot of appreciation and love from people while doing my job. There are personal and professional life balances, where you have a child at home and you have an important conference in Delhi. That we keep juggling on a daily basis, but it is not a hindrance.”