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‘He’s just a call away’ — Haryana IAS officer was at the job even when he was down with Covid

The Sonipat district collector was hospitalised in April with Covid, his daughter was on ventilator. Still he kept in touch with his team to ensure that pandemic management in the district was on track.

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Sonipat: In the second half of April, Sonipat District Collector (DC) Shyam Lal Poonia and his wife and daughter were infected with Covid. While Poonia had to spend more than a week in hospital — between 19 and 27 April — his condition was more stable than that of his wife and daughter.

Poonia’s wife, Suman, had developed health complications, following a congestion in her chest, while the couple’s eight-year-old daughter, Hitashree, remained on ventilator support for five days, between 19 and 24 April. All three were admitted at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh.

Poonia’s 10-year-old son, Yashmit, was the only member of the family who escaped the disease.

Poonia with his wife and children | By special arrangement
Poonia with his wife and children | By special arrangement

No one, perhaps, would have blamed Poonia if he had switched off from work at the time — to recuperate, to be with his wife and daughter. Surprisingly, however, the Sonipat DC, continued to be in touch with his colleagues, even from his hospital bed, taking stock of the pandemic management measures in the district.

Poonia says there was no chance he could’ve been gone missing at such a time — when the district was facing a health crisis. “What we do at this time is what justifies our salary. Sonipat needed me then more than anything else. Besides, what else could have I done from my hospital bed? So I ensured my team was always motivated and had new ideas coming their way,” Poonia told ThePrint.

The father in him remained worried, though. “Chinta toh hoti hai (you do worry),” he said.

Poonia got discharged from hospital on 27 April, and was physically back at work on 28 April. On 29 April, the DC had hit the ground again, taking stock of the district’s preparedness to handle the pandemic situation, at the city’s crematorium and civil hospital.

That’s the reason, perhaps, that the first thing you hear in Sonipat, when you ask about the Covid situation in the district, is that no matter how bad things got, DC Poonia was always on ground, always a call away.

Also read: Covid a hoax, vaccine will kill us, say Aligarh residents who’ve ‘sworn’ against taking shot

Sonipat’s second surge

The second Covid wave hit Sonipat around 3 April when the positivity rate started going up. From 5.95 per cent on 3 April, the positivity rate had gone up to 54.71 per cent on 25 April, according to data shared by the district collector’s office.

From 49 new cases on 2 April, the number of new cases went up to 72 on 3 April and 492 on 15 April, according to official data. The number of new positive cases recorded on 3 May was 1,187.

There have been 222 Covid deaths in the district in the second wave.

To combat the crisis, Sonipat has consistently increased testing in the second wave— from 9,659 tests conducted between 1 to 3 May, the district conducted 18,171 tests between 19 and 22 May.

Led by Poonia, the district has also been working on a war footing since April, to manage the crisis. And, finally, the disease might be showing some signs of abating. The positivity rate in the district has declined, from 32.56 per cent between 1-3 May, to 6.41 per cent between 19 to 22 May. On 24 May, the number of total active cases in the district was 1,227.

Also read: Modi-BJP-RSS meeting was on ‘way to undo damage’ of Yogi govt’s Covid handling in UP

Plans in place

When the second wave hit, the first thing the district did was increase its capacity of medical oxygen. The district’s oxygen quota was 9 metric tonnes towards the beginning of the second wave, on 24 April. This was increased to 13MT by 2 May.

“With the help of oxygen audits at bottling plants and hospitals we’ve been able to save two-three metric tonnes of oxygen usage every day. Which has helped us increase the number of hospital beds with oxygen support, from 605 to 950,” said an official in the district administration, who did not wish to be named.

The district has also installed one new oxygen plant and commissioned another. The administration sought the help of Professor Jogender Gahlawat, a professor at Sonipat’s Gateway Engineering College, who helped set up a PSA Oxygen plant with a capacity to generate 200 litres oxygen per minute. The plant had been given to the Civil Hospital under PM CARES initiative, but its equipment had been lying unassembled since February.

Since then, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has directed other districts in the state, such as Jind, Karnal, Faridabad and Hisar, to set up oxygen plants under Professor Gahlawat’s supervision.

Another oxygen plant with a capacity to generate 1,000 litres per minute, has been commissioned at BPS Khanpur, with money provided from the corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds of the district’s industrial association. Sonipat is now in a position to share its extra oxygen supply with hospitals along GT road, and in Bahadurgarh.

Taking a leaf out of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal’s decentralisation model, Poonia also appointed numerous nodal officers and gave them a certain degree of autonomy to work on their projects. Every oxygen plant and every hospital has a nodal officer, who updates the DC about their area of supervision and data by filling out a virtual information sheet twice a day.

The Covid control room in Sonipat | Sooraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
The Covid control room in Sonipat | Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint

The district also set up a Covid control room on 26 April, with three dedicated helpline numbers to assist people in booking ambulances, arranging for oxygen cylinders, consultation, consultation on vaccinations and blood transfusions. At least 50 teachers are working as volunteers at the control room that is operational 24X7, along with 30 computer operators and three senior supervising and three doctors.

Sonipat also has a dedicated tele-consultation service for home isolated Covid patients, managed by 120 medical students from the Khanpur Medical College.

“So far we’ve made 14,000 calls and referred at least 100 patients, with deteriorating vitals, to specialised Covid health centres. We’ve saved at least 100 lives by providing them quick medical aid via tele-consultation,” said Poonia.

The district has constituted 53 teams to conduct testing in villages, opened isolation centres in hotspot villages and also established village coordination committees to ensure smooth testing in rural Sonipat.

Since 1 May, the district has added 450 hospital beds with oxygen support to its health infrastructure, and plans to add 500 paediatric beds to prepare for the third wave, which many experts believe may affect more children.

Also read: Sunil Bansal, head of the dairy business of Ramdev’s Patanjali, dies of ‘Covid complications’

Praise for Poonia

Referring to the time the Poonia family spent in hospital, battling Covid, one of the Sonipat DC’s colleagues, told ThePrint, “Even under so much duress, sir didn’t stop working, just look at my WhatsApp history… he shared ideas about an oxygen plant from Maharasthra, gas cylinder requisition from Rajasthan… and many other innovative ideas from the rest of the country. At one point I asked him to log off and take care of himself, but there was no stopping him from getting work done.

“I am not saying this in a bid to praise my boss, but to see someone so motivated all the time without betraying the slightest hint of tiredness, who doesn’t get cranky… it makes it easier to work,” said the colleague.

A farmer’s son from Rajasthan, DC Poonia is from the 2010 Manipur Cadre and had been the Deputy Commissioner of Churachandpur and Thoubal districts of Manipur, where he worked against insurgencies in these areas and helped establish better administrative infrastructure in remote areas of these places.

His first posting in Haryana was in Dadri in December 2019. He took charge as DC Sonipat a year ago, at a time that was especially tumultuous for the district, when he was required to not only manage the prevailing pandemic situation in the district but also the ongoing farmers protests against new farm laws.

“We’ve tried our best to cooperate and work with the farmers. Though they didn’t let us conduct a testing drive, we’ve carried out a vaccination drive at the protest site, distributed thousands of paracetamol strips and 1 lakh masks at the site. We engage with them in the best possible manner,” said Poonia.

The DC is as unfazed by criticism, as he is unmoved by praise.

Even after ThePrint published a story mentioning a gap in the data between official Covid death figures and the number of bodies that were cremated, he didn’t avoid interacting with journalists from ThePrint. “My colleagues showed me the story, which was critical in nature, but I told them that it’s your job… it doesn’t mean I’ll stop picking your calls or cooperating with you,” he said.

While admired for his enthusiasm for work, Poonia also has a reputation for being strict. On a visit to the Haryana Multispeciality Hospital on the night of 13 May, the DC found the hospital to be flouting Covid norms, overcharging people, and Covid and non-Covid patients being treated in the same ward. The hospital was denotified from the list of Covid hospitals the next day.

Accessibility to people and enthusiasm for work are not new to him. In his 10-year-long career, the Sonipat DC said he hasn’t taken even 30 days off. His longest ‘vacation’ was in April this year, when he was hospitalised with Covid.

The reason he works long hours, he said, is because he gets anxious if files pile up on his desk. “You never know when you get transferred, so I do my job one day at a time and like to wrap up as much as I can in a day. I don’t like files staring back at me from my desk. Even when I see anyone’s office full of files… it just makes me uncomfortable,” he said.

But though Poonia brushes off hard work as norm, Sonipat can’t stop praising its new DC — he answers calls, is forthcoming with solutions to problems, he doesn’t sit around in his office, but is always found on the ground.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: In this Haryana village where ‘40 people died’ in 3 weeks, residents want vaccines not tests


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