You probably know Mr. M G Rajamanickam as the District Collector of Ernakulam. Some know that he has been awarded the Best Collector of Kerala Award. Some know he is also married to R Nishanthini, who is an IPS officer. If you are a Kochiite you have probably seen him as the chief guest of almost all the important events in the city. And his face is a familiar one for TV channels. His name is mentioned in the news one way or the other. He is probably the most famous amongst the district collectors of Ernakulam District. But those who know him personally know him for many other reasons. They recall him as a humanitarian. He is someone who cares for his people. He cares for his surroundings. He doesn’t care what the media has to say about him, and no one has ever been able to take that smile away from his face. When we met him for an interview, it was almost 10pm, but he still had that smile even though his eyes looked tired from a long day’s work. The man is always pleasant. There are so many things that he does, which he doesn’t need to do as a Collector. But he still does it, because he believes as an Indian, and as a human being there are far greater responsibilities. Whilst his family and friends waited outside to finally have some quality time with him on a dinner table, he spoke to us passionately on how the future will see better days for Kochi.
Where were you born and raised?
Madurai, a place called Thiruvathavur, which is a village. It’s a rural area. I studied in a government school there till plus two. I studied in a regional medium, which taught Tamil. Though I was in a village, my father worked in Meenakshi Temple. He was a clerk in the temple, so, later on, we settled in the city. I have two elder sisters also.
Where did you do your Mtech?
MTech is from Anna University, Coimbatore. I did my BTech from Madurai Kamraj university. We call it as B.E. (Bachelor of Engineering). Mechanical was my mainstream. I was a gold medalist for M.E. in my University.
I always had the aim to do Civil Service right from my childhood. But I feared I won’t be able to pursue my dream because of my social and economic background. So I thought I’ll just pursue some higher studies that will enable me to work as a lecturer. That is why I went for ME. But then after completion, I thought I should give Civil Service a try. So I gave it three attempts. The first attempt I cleared the preliminary, but couldn’t clear the interviews in the first and again the same in the second attempt. Then the third time I cleared it with the 80th rank in the country.
Do you have any role models or inspiratory figure in your life?
Not really. There was not a particular person. But I try to see the good in everyone and take a leaf out of their book if I find it to be interesting.
Kannur was the first place you were in charge of as the Collector, right?
Yes, but I was in Kerala from 2009 as the Assistant Collector in Thrissur. Then, later on, I became the Sub-Collector of Munnar. Then got placed as the Survey Director, Registration IG etc. I held different positions in Trivandrum. After that in 2013 December, I posted as the Collector of Kannur. Then from 2014 onwards I’m in charge of Ernakulam District.
You were the youngest Collector when you took charge in Kannur, weren’t you?
Yes, in my batch also I was the youngest. Generally, people take more than 6-7 years to become the Collector after Civil Service. But I got so lucky and took only a little more than four years.
When you joined Ernakulam District, the first initiative you took was the fixing of the potholes in roads. This was a surprise for many.
Generally, throughout my career, I used to interfere wherever I found the public had a distress. This was the first issue that I came to know when I joined here. I joined in February. That time the monsoon and the initiation of the metro took a toll on the roads. That time I met a person who came to me with a paper showing the amount of money they are paying for the tolls each month, and yet they have to go through all these potholes. When so many people are paying such a huge amount to maintain the road, and despite that there is nothing happening then it is an issue. NHA has given all the maintenance contract to other parties. I issued a noticed to the NHA, but they didn’t get any response. So I just stopped the toll.
How would you rate Kochi?
Kochi for Kerala is like what Mumbai is for India. Not just because of the commercial aspect, but for its capability and potential. Kannur is a good place. But it is still a rural area. There is not as much potential there for everybody to grow. But Kochi is a commercial hub. You get so many things here. There are more business opportunities, and more of a cosmopolitan future.
You gave Kochi some other distinction that will make Kochi proud. You are the first ever Collector from Kochi to get the Best Collector Award.
[Laughs] Thank god for that. I got that pretty soon after I joined. In 2014, 1st of January, the central government had introduced a new land acquisition act. Entire Kerala was stuck up in terms of land acquisition because of the unavailability of the routes. Kochi metro also faced that similar problem. So I took a decision to go for a direct purchase of land that was required to complete the project. It was a very speedy implementation. It is one of the fastest land acquisition in the history of India. Other than that there were other social activities we introduced. Like Jyothi, for the underprivileged student in government schools. Then Angels; which is a networking of ambulances. There were few other causes like these at that point of time that we introduced. All these combined together, gave me that honor.
But what gave you the glory also took away your name. The land acquisition came back hard at you with controversies that might haunt you for a long time.
True. As far as that is concerned, land Acquisition had no rules at that point of time. But as far as we were concerned we needed to complete the project for the people. Our negotiations didn’t have any effect on people who didn’t want to give their land. And as per rules, there is nothing anyone could do about it. Everybody knew that there was no other option then go for a compromise with these people who were unwilling to cooperate. But media took this up in all the bad sense. Funny thing is no one read the agreement that was made there, and everyone started to make acquisitions and come into conclusions despite not knowing the mere truth.
The same media who made that acquisition didn’t care to clear it up when the court justified your innocence on the matter!
Exactly. But my character is different. I didn’t respond when they wrote well about me, so why would I when they wrote something bad about me? I’m least bothered about all these. As far as I am concerned metro will not have come had I not negotiated and come to terms. My conscience is clear, so I am least bothered about these media sensations.
Coming back to a lighter note now. Once you said in a TV channel, and I quote, “Janmam kondu njan oru tamizhan aanengilum karmam kondu njan oru Malayali…” (Even though I am a Tamilian by birth, by virtue I am a Malayali).
I had a very hard upbringing. It was always striving hard and work, work, work for me. I only started to settle in and lead a comfortable life with this job. And that started in Kerala. I have been here for almost the past nine years. In terms of culture, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are very similar. Hence, I like Kerala.
2016 for you started with a great initiative. You took on a new cause and dedicated your time for ‘Ente Kulam Ernakulam.’
It is an initiative from Anbodu Kochi. It started with a very small Facebook group of nine. These nine friends decided to help the Chennai Flood victims. So they started collecting supplies for the victims and did their bit. This was the time I noticed them and happened to meet them. Then thousands of people came together to joined the cause and relentlessly volunteered for 10 days in helping the Chennai victims. We were able to send 24 trucks of supplies to Chennai. All the transactions were made through Facebook. I personally called my friends at Chennai and noted down what all were their requirements. Once that was over, we all met up and talked about how without knowing each other we were able to make such an impact.
We decided that we should do something here to avoid Chennai like situations in the future. I could relate to that idea because I had something similar in my mind for a long time, but I just didn’t know how to implement. I knew this could take a lot of money and other resources also to do such a thing. But with such a big team that was no longer an issue. That is when we decided to go ahead with this initiative to clean our ponds. Chennai situation happened because all the ponds were clogged.
As it was relevant at that point of time, everyone was happy, and more people joined. We went on to clean and preserve up to 51 ponds at a very short time. I felt that was an achievement by itself. Our idea was not just to clean, but to bring a general awareness. We wanted to also tell them that it is not only water that needs to be conserved, but all natural elements should be looked after.
I volunteered myself, as I wanted the people to see this, and later on, that might inspire them to take it on by themselves. Initially, people had their doubts, but when they got to see our dedication, and how serious we were, they also took it seriously. I was also able to get thousands to join the cause.
But then there was one other important person who went together with you through all these, and that is your beloved wife.
[Laughs] that’s true. Well, I first met her after our college days, right after the exams got over. She is from Tiruchirappalli district. The Collector of that district called all people from Tamil Nadu who cleared the exams. It was there I met her. She was the one who coordinated the event. Then we met again at the academy. We became good friends through our training days, and by the end of the training, we thought why can’t we get married. Then after 10 days, we got married. It has been seven years of togetherness.
Coming back to Anbodu Kochi, don’t you think since there is such a big cause behind it, there needs to be more advertising to this since that could result in more people coming forward to join the cause?
We personally don’t need any recognition. I definitely don’t. Everything we do here is for a cause. When we were at it, by the end of it all, people from media did come over and telecasted it. But we never called anyone to do so. We believe that if we do our work the way it should be done, people will gradually take notice and spread the news. Our idea was to make people aware enough to take up this cause. That has been achieved to an extent. So that way, I guess we are successful in calling towards others.
You have been here in Kochi here for the past two years. What would you say is the biggest problem the city is facing?
Well, generally we should consider the entire Ernakulam district. But most of the times when it comes to administration and things like that, it will end up in Kochi itself. Nobody is giving attention to the rural areas of the district. Hence, we try to focus more on the rural problems. That is one another reason why media is not focusing on ‘Ente Kulam, Ernakulam,’ so to speak, because they all revolve only around the city. Real problems are in the rural. Every area faces a different set of problems. The problems of the rural areas are different from that of Urban areas.
One of the major problems of Kochi is her waste management. If you compare any other western or developing the country, you will find the atmosphere there more healthy, peaceful, hygienic etc. another problem that is affecting Kochi is the water supply. Other parts of the district are having more concerns of the same, much more than in Kochi. Congestion is another problem for Kochi. Mobility is vital for any urban city. As far Kochi is concerned, even if Metro comes, this problem will still exist. Because the roads here are very narrow and the number of vehicles here is multiplying. You know, from MG road to Vytilla is hardly 2-3 kilometers. It takes almost 45 minutes to reach there. Had it been a 4-lane, it would have taken only 4-5 minutes. Even if the metro is completed, it will still take half an hour to cover that distance. This waste of time is affecting everyone as far as qualitative productivity is concerned.
And what would be the positives of the city?
Kochi has a lot of positives. There is always a force of attraction towards this place. In terms of Kerala, Kochi is the hub of all activities. Be it business, social, economical, commercial etc. this is the place that things happen. In the last 2-3 years, the investment to the public was so much so, that there was 10,000 crores of money spent on the Metro. This will give a lot of employment opportunities.
Another thing which comes to my mind is that if there is a scope of water network developing, then this will take away the problem of road congestion. That will be the second phase that we will be working on. This will save hours of people’s time. As of now, 690 crores is coming in from the government fund for this project. This will also help to work on maintaining the roads. And at the same time will help in attracting more tourists to the place. Usually, whoever comes to Kerala, 90% land in Nedumbassery airport. From here only they will go to the tourist spots like Kumarakom, Munnar, or Alappuzha.
We have the ports, container terminals, Shipyard, Cochin Refinery etc. so there are a lot of opportunities.
Despite all this would you agree that we are still 40 years behind Bangalore or other Metro cities?
Yes. But I would not say it like it is 40 years or so behind anyone. Yes, we are lagging behind some other metro cities. That is because of our internal issues. There is no ease of doing business here. It is not like we have some foreign investments coming here either. Development is happening with the capital of the people here who worked in the gulf or somewhere. I still feel whatever potential Kochi is not exploited properly, because of several issues like labor problems, strikes—which invariably affects tourism also. These are not the problems of Kochi alone. It is the same for the entire state. People who want to do business would always choose another destination like Bangalore just because of these problems.
Can you explain what prompted the Jyothi project?
I studied in a school that didn’t even give me a proper classroom. If you consider that, Kerala has a much better social infrastructure, but still needs to improve. From my personal experience, I thought the students shouldn’t suffer the same way. So we initiated the Jyothi project wherever we thought the conditions are under par. We chose few government schools that we felt needed better infrastructure. If the infrastructure is poor, the not all students will turn up to these schools. People who have some sort of financial stability usually send their children to private schools. So the main aim of the Jyothi was to provide the government schools with the same facilities that will be available in private schools. We are also giving free entrance examinations to students by having a tie up with a famous trust in Cochin city. We have selected 500 students, and they are doing their Medical/Engineering entrance examinations under us.
How would you rate yourself as a Collector?
I would never rate myself as the best [laughs]. Because there is always room for improvement. My administration and perspective before I met Anbodu Kochi were different. I believe now my execution is much better than before. Had I rated myself the best at that point of time, I wouldn’t have been able to do all these which I have done belatedly.
What to you is satisfaction?
Solving the problem of the common man, I guess. If I can just contribute something to the society each day, then I guess I have done my job.
Your advice to the people of this district?
The people here are very good. But the problem here is everybody wants their rights, but no one is taking up the responsibility. They should understand that the rights are for everyone, and people should act to take up their own responsibility. They themselves should be the change. People say the environment is becoming filthy. Until and unless you stop throwing those garbage, there can’t be an expectation of a better environment. Government can’t do everything.