A bright eyed young girl in Vijayawada had no trouble deciding her goal, well before her teens. Her father K.M. Rao, who had returned from Germany and set up an electrical factory manufacturing transformers in their hometown, “would often show me the Ambassador car of the Collector as it went around Vijayawada with its red light and would tell me to aspire to become an IAS officer – that stayed on with me.” Having lost her dad at the age of thirteen, Usha’s mother Hymavati had to look after her three children who had big dreams.
The image of the Collector’s Car and her father’s words and blessing, had an electrifying effect. After graduating in Economics from Ethiraj College in Chennai, Usha joined the Hyderabad Central University for a Master’s degree, but left to join the premier Indian Institute of Foreign Trade at New Delhi for an MBA “only so I could have a back-up career, in case I did not make it to the Civil Services.” But Plan B wasn’t needed as she stormed into the IAS in ’94 and bagged a Gold Medal in Law during her training at the Academy.
The high standards set during her formative years, has pretty much marked her career in the IAS. Known to be a silent worker, Usha texted me after an email interview. “It’s the most I have ever spoken about my job, and I’m in a permanent state of squirming after this!” After her initial postings as Assistant Collector – Kancheepuram, Sub Collector – Periyakulam and Deputy Secretary – Adi Dravidar & Tribal Welfare, Usha was posted as the Joint Chief Electoral Officer at a time when Electronic Voting Machines were being introduced by the Election Commission of India for the Parliamentary Poll in 1999 on an experimental basis in 4 constituencies in Tamil Nadu and in 45 Assembly Constituencies in the 2001 State Election.”It was thrilling to be part of moving on from the era of paper ballots to learning about EVMs and being involved in the training and organisational aspects, especially as they were being viewed with a great deal of suspicion. I remember that a team from the US Consul General’s office had visited the Elections Department to understand the working of the EVMs, and as a young officer, I was excited to learn that we could be teaching them a thing or two about voting technology at a time when they were still using punch cards!”
As the Joint Commissioner, Commercial Taxes, she was part of the team that oversaw the transition from the Sales Tax regime to the VAT system – under the leadership of Mrs Malathi, the late Chief Secretary, who was then the Commissioner of Commercial Taxes. “It was an extremely busy time, having to learn and understand the VAT system thoroughly and then interacting with various sectoral trader and industry groups, to be responsive to the problems of their respective sectors by examining representations received from trade and industry associations, highlighting specific issues for the smooth transition of the respective sector to the VAT regime, and preparing sector specific draft guidance on VAT rates etc. It was a hugely instructive experience.”
From commercial taxes, Usha found herself in the thick of municipal administration as the Additional Commissioner, Education and Health of the Chennai Corporation. “My most satisfying stint was in urban management – we revived the Community Colleges of the Corporation, by introducing vocational courses for which there was industry demand, and tied up with various companies to ensure guaranteed employment to the students immediately after completion of courses. For the first time, we introduced Spoken English classes for the higher secondary students of Corporation Schools; we also began the distribution of free sanitary napkins at all the girls’ schools; introduced mobile libraries – these were some of the initiatives that I felt had a direct impact on the beneficiary group, and hence was extremely satisfying.”
Assignments as the Collector of Chennai and Karur, with a deputation stint as the Director of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Bangalore, dot her resume. Usha completed a two year PGPPM in Public Policy and Management from IIM, Bangalore in 2015 where she kept her Gold Medal streak intact. When Chennai was almost marooned that year, she was one of the few senior IAS officers handpicked to monitor the rescue and relief efforts. “This was an unprecedented event, but were on the field 24/7 – the initial task was to coordinate with the Army and rescue people from residences in water logged areas like T.Nagar and Nandanam; the next was to clear the water from certain critically affected areas like Seethammal Colony – people were extremely agitated and angry on the first day – but the sheer presence of all of us working on the roads through the night as we poured over old maps to find drainage channels made them very helpful and encouraging – we finally managed, through trial and error, to slowly drain the water out. Parallely, we had to manage relief centres to ensure adequate food and water and clothing etc. Apart from these initial tasks, the next couple of weeks were devoted to ensuring hygienic cleaning of all areas to prevent the outbreak of epidemics. While it was a harrowing time for all the affected people of Chennai, I was privileged to be part of the team that was involved in directly helping people in so many ways.”
The unanswered questions on the reasons for the Chennai deluge may find answers in her current position as the Member-Secretary, CRRT(Chennai River Restoration Trust) and Managing Director of TNUIFSL (TN Urban Infrastructure Financial Services Ltd) “CRRT is currently implementing the Cooum River Restoration programme with the help of the various line Departments. We have just commenced work on the Adyar River Restoration Programme as well – Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Adyar river project, comprising 358 acres of the Adyar Creek and Estuary have been successfully restored. While CRRT is spearheading the project, there are a number of agencies that are working hard on restoring the Cooum River to its past glory – it is an extremely challenging project, given its huge scale and scope, but the government is committed to it at the highest level, and we hope to achieve our project objectives of stopping sewage inflows into the river, solid waste management, improvement of flood-carrying capacity, resettlement and rehabilitation of slum dwellers and biodiversity restoration. Waterbody reclamation and conservation in urban areas is one of the biggest challenges in the urban sector, and I believe it is something that needs to be addressed on a priority basis.”
Usha’s husband V.Sivaramakrishnan is the Managing Director of Oxford University Press, having held previous leadership positions at Manipal Global Education, Ford Motor Company and Procter & Gamble. Their daughter Shweta Sivaram is a third year law student at NALSAR, Hyderabad and son Arvind is an ace debater in the tenth grade at PSBB. Both her siblings are settled in the US. With both hands and feet full, what with two posts at work and her sister who has come down to Chennai on a visit, Usha did not turn down my request for time for this feature. In a sense, this voracious reader seems to exemplify a Shiv Khera maxim – “it’s not your position but your disposition that matters.”
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)