IAS crusader refuses to give up fight against corrupt forces
Jaya Menon, TNN, Jul 31, 2010, 12.14am IST
CHENNAI: Growing up in Mettupatti, a hamlet in Tirunelveli district in southern Tamil Nadu, a young boy and his siblings were witness to the violent fights over religion between their parents. His father Chellakani Sadayandi, a dalit Hindu, could never accept his Christian wife’s devotion to her faith. But Suganthi Victoria remained steadfast. Ironically, years later, the boy, now 46 and a IAS officer, is fighting to clear the charge that he fudged his caste certificate to establish that he belonged to the Adi Dravida (SC) community.
It is rare in the history of bureaucracy in Tamil Nadu for a civil servant to be charged with forging his caste certificate. Rarer still, against an officer acknowledged as a crusader against corruption. While confronting the government of the day is nothing new for Umashankar, this is perhaps the most testing period in his 20-year-career. He has taken on the DMK leadership, accusing it of “vindictive action”, amidst speculation that the charge against him may be a fallout of a fight against sections in the bureaucracy.
Ironically, when the DMK came to power in May 2006, Umashankar was a favourite of the chief minister himself. After languishing for five years during the Jayalalithaa regime in an obscure post, he was handpicked for the job of ELCOT (Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu) chairman. He was in charge of one of the DMK’s showpiece welfare schemes: distribution of free colour TVs to the poor. ELCOT also played a role in setting up IT parks in tier II and tier III cities.
“The chief minister was very fond of me. At meetings he would make me stand beside him, and keep addressing me as Uma. He made it known to everyone that he liked me. But, I don’t know what has happened. He has completely gone against me,” said Umashankar, talking to TOI at his Thiruvanmayur residence, where visitors including senior officials continue to pour in.
If he is concerned about the crisis in his career, he is certainly not showing it. Frequent transfers and punishment postings have dogged him through his career. Umashankar says he was shunted out of ELCOT two years ago when he tried to dig up irregularities in ELNET, a sister concern, and later dropped from his post as head of Arasu Cable Corporation, set up at the peak of the feud between Karunanidhi’s family and the Maran brothers, to break the near-monopoly of Sumangali Cable Vision, the multi-system operator.
Now, facing a challenge to his continuance in the service, his energetic, garrulous demeanour reveals no signs of uncertainty. Winner of a national award for e-governance, he has now filed a complaint against the state to the National Commission for SC/ST for suspending him from service. “My vision, focus has not dimmed, despite all obstacles, the fire to fight corruption is still burning,” he says.
Born and raised in a small town, Umashankar completed his education in Tirunelveli before landing a job in the banking sector. The sixth son of a postmaster, he soon began to tire of his work in a remote tribal area of Madhya Pradesh. The eagerness to seek an IAS career was born out of this frustration. In his first two years in Vellore, Umashankar cracked down on large-scale black marketing of cinema tickets. Later, when he paraded some men for the same offence in Tiruvarur in 1999, the CM’s home district, his action evoked a volley of protests from theatre owners and DMK sympathizers who plastered posters against him on street walls and pulled down shutters of cinema houses for six days. An unrelenting Umashankar, then a district collector, refused to back down.
Tiruvarur became the first district in the country to adopt e-governance and the officer received an award in 2003 during the NDA regime for a paper on security solutions in e-governance. While a section of the bureaucracy consider Umashankar to be an intelligent officer and among the most IT-savvy, there are some who think he has “unnecessarily” pitted himself against the powers that be and “wasted” a good portion of his career.
It’s a career marked by frequent conflicts with authority. His first major confrontation with the powers that be was in 1995 when as additional collector of Madurai, he unearthed a scam in the construction of cremation sheds in graveyards under the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana scheme. This was among a slew of corruption cases that shook the then Jayalalithaa regime (1991 to 1996).
While it brought him into the spotlight and earned him the respect of the public, it took a toll on his domestic life. “Initially, I did not mind the frequent transfers as our children were young. But when I first heard about his suspension order, I panicked thinking of the financial crisis we will be facing,” says Surya, Umashankar’s wife, the daughter of an IAS officer, who served in Andhra Pradesh. “But I stand by whatever he does. My father was an extremely honest, upright man. Umashankar is very much like him,” she says.
Umashankar denies allegations about the genuineness of his caste certificate, saying his father remained a Hindu and that he converted to Christianity only two years ago. He is confident he would be cleared of the charges. “I will not leave the IAS. Though there are setbacks, they are only temporary. When I bounce back, nobody will be able to stop me from making an impact in Tamil Nadu.”
Times of India has published an article on Mr. C. Umashankar