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The ‘thick skinned’ civil engineer behind ‘Dharavi model’ and Mumbai’s footpath challenge

The ‘Dharavi model’ has made international headlines, and perhaps, just as talked about as the model is the face behind it — assistant municipal commissioner Kiran Dighavkar. 

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Mumbai: In March, Kiran Dighavkar, an assistant municipal commissioner with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), didn’t have a lot of work.

He had just returned from a family vacation to Goa soon after which the country went under a lockdown to tackle the Covid crisis. There wasn’t a single case in his jurisdiction — the areas of Dadar, Mahim and Dharavi comprising Mumbai’s G North administrative ward. 

“Besides enforcing the lockdown and preparing for any signs of Covid in our ward, there wasn’t much to do,” he told ThePrint. “I used to sit in my office and watch films on Netflix in my spare time. In one such movie, Kamyaab, there was a dialogue that stayed with me. The lead character would always say, ‘enjoying life, aur option kya hain’.”

All that changed on 1 April when Dharavi recorded its first Covid-positive case. Dighavkar knew that given the nature of the slum sprawl, the next few months were going to be challenging.  

“As my team sprung into action, I kept thinking about that dialogue. Aur option kya hain,” the 38-year-old official said. “We have to face the challenge, so we might as well enjoy the process.” 

In the days that followed, Dharavi, with a population density of 3.54 lakh people per square kilometre, became a Covid hotspot and cases kept mounting to breach the 2,000-mark. It was only in June that the numbers began falling. 

As of Wednesday, Dharavi has just 99 active cases, even as the total number of Covid positive cases the area has recorded since 1 April is 2,415. The World Health Organization too took notice of this success story. 

The ‘Dharavi model’ has made international headlines, and perhaps, just as talked about as the model is the face behind it — assistant municipal commissioner Kiran Dighavkar. 


Also read: There’s a price war to hire doctors & nurses in Mumbai’s Covid-hit satellite cities


The Dharavi model

In Dharavi, social distancing and lockdown were almost impossible to enforce and almost every resident of the congested slum settlement ended up being a high-risk contact. 

Instead of harping on social distancing, officials from Dighavkar’s ward concentrated on rigorous contact-tracing, creating large quarantine facilities and isolating vulnerable populations, regularly cleaning community toilets to maintain hygiene, taking over private hospitals for treatment and ramping up testing. 

As a result, the average growth rate of Covid-positive cases in Dharavi plummeted from 12 per cent in April to 4.3 per cent in May to 0.83 per cent in June and just 0.38 per cent so far in July. The average doubling rate of cases, which was 18 days in April, now stands at 430 days, according to data with the BMC. 

“We had to develop a thick skin and work without getting emotional. I remember taking a call late at night once about someone critical needing a hospital bed urgently,” Dighavkar said. “Three hours later, I called them back to inform them that we had found a bed only to discover that the patient had passed away. I quickly moved on to the next person on the waiting list.” 

A media favourite 

While the Dharavi story catapulted Dighavkar to national fame, locally, the civil engineer by qualification has always been a media favourite. 

“He knows that the media plays an important role, so unlike many other officials, he keeps in touch with reporters,” a BMC official who did not wish to be named said. “Even during the Covid crisis, he has been the only BMC official to have transparently shared statistics with journalists on WhatsApp on a daily basis.”

“Dighavkar is frank, talkative and a great conversationalist. He can hold a mehfil,” he added.  

Before being posted in the G North ward in 2019, Dighavkar worked as an assistant municipal commissioner in Mumbai’s A ward, comprising some of Mumbai’s most elite areas such as Colaba, Cuffe Parade, Churchgate and CST, as well as the city’s M East ward, rife with slums.

Son of a former Maharashtra State Electricity Board engineer, Dighavkar grew up in Nashik district’s Satana taluka. His eyes were set either on the Indian Administrative Service or the Indian Police Service. 

After two failed attempts, however, he gave up and joined the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation as an engineer eight years ago, starting out with the civic body’s roads department. He later wrote the Maharashtra Public Service Commission exam for the post of an assistant municipal commissioner and cleared the exam in 2013. 

Speaking to ThePrint, Dighavkar said, “My parents used to always tell me, wherever you go, execute at least three projects that people will remember you for.” 

His list of such projects range from a Rs 90 lakh toilet to beautified footpaths — most of these have secured good coverage in the local media. 

A journalist who has reported on Mumbai’s civic beat for several years, said, “Dighavkar knows what stories sell. That’s why he is always in the limelight.”


Also read: They vowed never to return. But no savings, no jobs & debt force migrants back to Mumbai


From a viewing gallery to a footpath challenge 

Besides Dharavi’s success story in battling Covid, Dighavkar’s name has been associated with a number of showpiece projects such as Mumbai’s costliest public toilet at Rs 90 lakh built on the iconic Marine Drive in an art deco architectural style, and a fancy viewing gallery opposite the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. 

It was also during Dighavkar’s tenure at the A ward when a foot overbridge outside CST collapsed, killing at least six people. Dighavkar’s team had recently beautified the bridge, got it painted, re-tiled and had its structural stability assessed through the civic body’s bridges department. The assistant municipal commissioner, however, didn’t directly face any fire for the incident. 

In his current posting, Dighavkar kicked off a footpath challenge, appealing to residents of Dadar and Mahim to send the BMC photos of broken and potholed footpaths on Whatsapp and promising to fix them within 24 hours. 

Currently, he is in the final stages of wrapping up a ‘cultural spine,’ a pet project of Shiv Sena cabinet minister Aaditya Thackeray, son of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. The project involves giving a facelift and pedestrianising the entire Caddell Road that has a church, the Siddhivinayak temple, Chaityabhoomi, and the Mahim dargah. 

Friend of Aaditya Thackeray, foe of the MNS 

Dighavkar, also the nodal officer for Mumbai’s Swachh Bharat mission, has been in touch with a lot of Mumbai-based celebrities such as Sachin Tendulkar and Salman Khan due to the high-profile projects he has been associated with. 

“Sachin Tendulkar and I had even discussed setting up a kabaddi ground in the M East ward,” Dighavkar said. 

He is also close to Aaditya Thackeray, having associated with him on projects like pedestrianising Mumbai’s artsy Kalaghoda strip on weekends, the CST viewing gallery and the Caddell Road ‘cultural spine.’ His proximity to the Shiv Sena leader has earned him the ire of the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), especially after Dighavkar took charge of the Dadar-Mahim areas, the primary battleground of the Shiv Sena and MNS. 

In November last year, Dighavkar had a tussle with a few MNS leaders after he took down lanterns that the party had put up at Dadar’s Shivaji Park for Diwali a few days after the festival was over. Former MNS corporator Sandeep Deshpande was arrested with three others for allegedly abusing Dighavkar over the issue. 

“He tears down MNS posters, but doesn’t take any action against illegal sheds built by the local Shiv Sena MLA despite us writing complaints about it,” Deshpande said. “He should behave like a BMC official, not an agent of a political party.

“If you ask me, there is nothing extraordinary about him. He is just a bit too extra and a bit too ordinary,” the MNS leader added. 

Dighavkar shrugged off the criticism, saying he took down the MNS lanterns as it had been a few days since Diwali and there was a danger of them falling on walkers’ heads. 

He hates political hoardings of any kind, he said. “They dirty the city, and we have the law on our side and the full power to take them down. Why should I favour any one party?” he asked. “I have even taken down a hoarding welcoming Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray to the BMC headquarters once when he was not the chief minister.” 

‘Never tested for Covid’

A BMC official said Dighavkar also has the knack of taking his team along even in stressful situations such as the battle against Covid in Dharavi. 

“He is not a cabin officer. He works on the ground, and in all these months, never once was he seen wearing a PPE even as he was working in one of the most high-risk localities of the city,” the official said. “He also keeps sharing videos of work done by his team members. They are never about him.”

For the same reason, Dighavkar, who has two children aged 10 and five years, internalised much of his stress and insecurity over the past two months. “Towards April end and the first week of May, I had major insecurity, but I couldn’t show it on my face. If I show my fear, what happens to my team members,” he said. “So, I kept accompanying them to quarantine centres and other places on the field to boost their morale.” 

Dighavkar goes home every day, follows a strict sanitisation protocol, and maintains distance from his children. But, he says, there are days when he wakes up in the middle of the night, feeling cold and rushes to get his thermometer and oximeter to ensure his readings are fine. 

“We tested 35 of our team members for Covid and 21 tested positive. But until date, I haven’t gotten myself tested. If I test positive, I lose 14 days,” Dighavkar said. 

“I haven’t had any symptoms. I don’t want to know,” he added. 


Also read: How many Covid cases in Maharashtra? State govt and civic bodies can’t make up their minds


 

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1 COMMENT

  1. With respect to Covid and Dharavi, my thought is that Dharavi residents are the most disease resistant group owing to the density of population and the broad exposure they have during normal course of life.

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