Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear salwar-kameez and sarees and work in Uttar Pradesh. One such hero is Ritu Maheshwari, who is quietly leading a predominantly male-dominated workforce towards making Noida the best suburb of the National Capital Region. Her vision is built on inclusivity, empowerment, transparency and feedback.
The Noida Authority CEO may not have a sigil like Batman or Superman, but she’s earned the respect of her peers and the admiration of citizens. Initiatives such as more women’s toilets and a Pride metro station in Sector 50—the first of its kind in North India dedicated to transgender people—have gone a long way in changing Noida’s image.
But it is ‘Madam-Sir’s’ move to make Noida’s governance system based on feedback that has won Maheshwari the most praise. Now, it is easier for people to register complaints especially as most services, including registration, have transitioned online.
“The CEO has made the entire process very approachable. The authority, too, is very prompt whenever we contact them for any help or grievance. That also helps us to do better work at ground level,” says Anita Joshi, president of the Resident’s Welfare Association (RWA) of Sector 51.
Another denizen, Rajiv Sharma, has seen Noida change over the nearly 20 years that he’s called it home. “Land registration is a smoother process now, with everything being online. We do not have to wait in long queues and run from pillar to post,” he says.
These initiatives may not be as eye-catching as a superhero swooping into a burning building to save people, or as compelling as the unveiling of 500-ft statues. But they’ve made Noida a coveted place for residents, retailers and businesses.
Recent years have seen a scramble to rent or buy property in Noida owing to affordable real-estate pricing. With parks and trees, the suburb is inching its way to becoming the ‘Manchester of Uttar Pradesh’, as envisioned by Sanjay Gandhi in 1976, when it was first set up. With its nearly 50 per cent green cover, state-of-the-art residential societies and sheer ease of living, Noida is even giving its posher cousin, Gurugram, a run for its money.
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Power to women
Ritu Maheshwari’s push to re-imagine Noida is taken from a playbook that she has relied on ever since she joined the civil services. A 2003-batch officer of the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), Maheshwari joined Noida Authority as its CEO in 2019 and is also the Managing Director of Noida Metro Rail Corporation (NMRC). In the past, she has worked as a district magistrate (DM) in UP’s Amroha, Ghazipur, Pilibhit, Shahjahanpur and Ghaziabad.
She has ensured the prompt and smooth implementation of Yogi government’s ‘Shakti Mission’, which is aimed at bettering the safety and security of women in UP. “It is indeed important to have women in various levels of administration and to work with them. It is important to make the city safer for women,” says Maheshwari.
In January this year, she inaugurated over 50 ‘pink’ vending kiosks to be operated by women in the city, officials say. Success remains elusive, but it is early days yet. Officials say they are discussing ways to promote the business model and make it more profitable.
Noida Authority has a long way to go for equal representation of women in the workforce. Even before the pandemic, the female unemployment rate in UP stood at an abysmal 9.4 per cent. But when it comes to women in leadership roles, Noida police certainly seem to be doing a better job. Of the 14 officials listed under the Senior Official category, three are women – Shriparna Ganguli, ACP (Crime), Meenakshi Katyayan, DCP (Crime) and Vrinda Shukla, DCP (Women Security).
With the Noida Commissionerate only two years old, it is a definite stride in the right direction. Even Noida’s arch-rival Gurugram got its first female commissioner in February this year. In both suburbs, traffic monitoring has been one of the top priorities.
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The Kanpur story
The Noida experiment is not her first attempt to bring visible social and administrative changes to areas of her posting. It started with her first appointment as an IAS officer in 2011. Maheshwari was all of 33 when she became the Managing Director of Kanpur Electric Supply Company (KESCO). To say that overhauling the system was not easy would be putting it mildly. Maheshwari’s arduous journey even inspired a documentary.
In Katiyabaaz (2013)—which translates as ‘expert electricity thief’ in the Kanpur dialect— filmmakers Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar situate the city’s electricity war along the David and Goliath narrative. Except it is probably difficult to figure out who’s who. On one side is a young administrative officer determined to pull KESCO out of its loss-making grind, and on the other is Loha Singh, an expert electricity thief.
It is a thrilling, insightful documentary, more because these are not fictional characters, but real flesh and blood protagonists.
“I am the most ferocious katiyabaaz in the area,” declares Loha Singh in the documentary. But is he really Maheshwari’s adversary? If anything, he is the most disadvantaged individual in the electricity drama. It is a network of power and class differences, with a dash of sexism thrown in for Maheshwari.
It is not that she was unaware of the power crisis faced by common people. “The stealing was both due to a sense of helplessness and also jugaad,” she says. Also a qualified electrical engineer, Maheshwari had some understanding of the crisis she had landed up in.
“What was almost frustrating to watch was that Maheshwari never spoke out against the way things were stacked against her because she is a woman,” says Mustafa.
The filmmakers portray a female IAS officer who wants to be fair. But no one lets her forget her gender—not the politicians, co-workers or ever-disgruntled residents. She is aware that it is an unequal world, and that is precisely why she knows that an all-guns-blazing approach would probably just lead to a transfer order. “Sometimes it feels like life’s better for those who just sign files and go back home, ” Maheshwari says in the documentary.
She has to find a ‘middle path’ so that she is not annihilated in her attempt to change the way Kanpur’s electricity system is being run.
Early morning raids and enforcement in the era of mechanical meters were a tightrope walk. She undertook the transformation of these meters from mechanical to electric, bringing the loss-making machinery—which earlier stood at 28-29 per cent—down to just 14-15 per cent.
But her idealism is tempered by a healthy dose of cynicism. “I am sure there is still electricity theft going on, “ she smiles.
Though Noida is a different ballgame when compared to Kanpur, she follows a similar approach. You will not see Ritu Maheshwari making war with the system even when she’s tackling corruption or improving the grievance redressal system.
“Noida is a bigger model, and it has as many challenges. If Kanpur had an electricity crisis, Noida’s issues are varied. We had to shift from an administrative to a municipal model. That was my biggest challenge,” she says.
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Ticking all boxes
Maheshwari is slowly ticking the boxes that make a suburb an ideal place to live in. For now, she is focused on making Noida more investment-friendly, and well-connected through the Aqualine metro. Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with Swedish furniture giant IKEA, which plans to invest Rs 5,500 crore in Noida’s mall and hotel infrastructure, and South Korea’s Changwon have already been signed.
From turning various dumping grounds into forest areas to ensuring a seamless garbage collection and disposal/recycling system, Noida has also emerged as the cleanest suburb of NCR. ” Whatever good work we are doing, it has definitely been possible due to the support and initiative of our CEO,” says S.C. Mishra, deputy general manager and senior project engineer (public health), Noida Authority.
The model cleanliness followed by Maheshwari is “for the citizens and with help of citizens,” which has been tremendously successful. From involving RWA’s, Apartment Owners’ Associations (AOAs) to residents and even children, Maheshwari has made sure that everyone is invested in upholding and perpetuating this immaculate sanitation model.
Maheshwari doesn’t need special powers to transform Noida. But perhaps a small army of more women like her leading the way would help.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)