'Glass ceilings are kept lower for women'

Dr Renu Raj

She was a house surgeon but that was not her calling. She knew what she wanted to sign up for, took the UPSC exam and bagged an all-India second rank. Dr Renu Raj, now the sub-collector of Devikulam, Kerala, remains best known for taking on land-grabbers head on. And it all stemmed from a decision to heal society -- albeit on a larger scale.

"Many of those who come after acquiring professional degrees are those who dream of civil services earlier itself. There is always an element of uncertainty in the UPSC exam. Vacancies being limited, the chances of getting through are less. Having a professional degree in hand gives a good back-up plan and security of a job," she explains.

She dreamt of coming into the service since she was a child. "But it was towards my end of graduation as a medical student that this dream shaped into a goal. I realised that behind the physical illnesses of most of the patients were social reasons too.

"Many children are underweight and had nutritional deficiencies because their mothers weren't able to have a proper diet during pregnancy. Those who repeatedly came with diarrhoea often lived in places where hygiene was just a myth.

"Without finding solutions to these social maladies, it was not possible to treat their physical illness completely. And I prepared myself to set out on this journey," she says.

Dr Renu started working as a doctor after she cleared her mains. As for the interviews, "I knew it was more about confidence and expressing truly who I am."

Does she miss practising as a doctor? "Not much, though I like that profession as well. I meet a lot of doctors during the course of my work and it feels good to interact with them, now with a wider perspective,'' she says.

When it comes to cracking the UPSC exams, regional language aspirants are sometimes at a disadvantage. However, Dr Renu says, "From my interactions with friends who cleared the exam after studying in the vernacular medium, I can say that the medium of education will not keep you away from your dream if it's strong.

"There are options of writing the mains and attending the interview in regional languages. But attempting in vernacular medium has the handicap of lack of availability of study materials and difficulty in expressing properly the ideas to the examiner or interviewer.

"But mostly, a minimum level of English in hand to convey one's ideas to the examiner/interview board is necessary. However, a good vocabulary and communication skill are always an added advantage."

Driven and determined at a young age, she is trying to do her bit to root out the maladies eating into society. "Corruption and nepotism have always existed and are still existing. Many a time, true merit is being overcome with the urge to satisfy sections based on their political, religious, casteist and financial agendas," she avers.

"Though we talk of gender equality very often, women find it difficult to break glass ceilings that are many a time kept lower for them. Only if we let them get out of the additional burden of proving their worth despite being equally qualified can we utilise the potential of that 50 per cent of our population to the fullest," she says.

She has clearly no illusions though. "We should not be waiting to make everything perfect. It should be about using the imperfections and diversities perfectly, to make a better world."

Some time ago, she had taken on the bigwigs in the corridors of power earning the 'firebrand' title. In a place notorious for land controversies, ask her what keeps her motivated, she says, "Munnar is mesmerising. But every site visit and inspection is tough and physically challenging (because it takes hours, sometimes very long walks, treks and climbs) exposing you daily to its pristine beauty.

"But associated with every beauty, there is a beast! And the land-grabbers are the beasts who feel that they can privatise the beauty. What they don't realise is that the beauty of nature is to be shared by the world," she says.

The land issues where she is posted, she feels, are complex and land laws are different from the rest of the country.

"The population here includes Malayalam and Tamil-speaking people, tourists, plantation workers and tribals. The difficulty of the terrain along with frequent landslides, forest fires and man-wild animal conflicts are in addition to this. Hence it becomes a challenge and one needs to utilise one's knowledge and skills to manage such issues."

"It is all about your mental strength and commitment that ultimately help you work productively in places like this," she says.

Her focus these days, however, is on the elections, describing it as "one of the most challenging and exciting parts of my work so far".

"It was teamwork. We started with the preparations and SVEEP activities two months before. Edamalakkudy, considered as one of the most inaccessible polling stations in the country, comes under my LAC. Lot of hard work went into it. It was a rich learning experience and it felt great to see democracy thriving here while it is retreating in many parts of the world."

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