A seat at the premier and coveted National Law School India University, Bengaluru, would usually guarantee a six figure starting pay packet. But mega bucks were the last thing on the mind of this law school topper, who in his final year, realised that “Public Service would be more suitable” for his “temperament and life goals”. The “immediate trigger” for starting preparations for the Civil Services Exam was his roommate in the college hostel who had already started burning the midnight bulb. A short stint as a Legal Manager in the private sector reinforced his conviction that he was cut out for a career in the government, not the plush ambience of a law firm or the court halls. So the files trumped briefs and ‘Sir and Madam’, ‘Ayya and Amma’ became part of Arun Roy’s lingo instead of ‘My Lord’ in 2013.
A middle class background with middle class values instilled in him by his academician parents – Prof. K.Vijayakrishnan and Prof. Vasantha Kumari, shaped the career choice of this small town boy from Tiruvalla in Kerala, who wanted his work to be “professionally, socially and personally rewarding”. The IAS offered the “right blend”. The opportunities for job satisfaction and job diversity are “tremendous”, with “a fair amount of economic and social security.”
For a youngster who studied Law because he just “could not handle science and numbers”, fate ensured that this 2003 batch IAS officer would end up spending six years of his fourteen year career in the Finance department of the Tamil Nadu Government! The number crunching aside, the common thread running through Roy’s journey in the IAS has been a strong desire to make a difference.
Although he describes himself as an “incrementalist” who doesn’t believe that civil servants can bring about “radical changes, which even if done, will not be sustainable”,vulnerable sections of society in places he has served, can never forget him. Like a school girl in Krishnagiri who was about to be married off and sent a fax of her wedding invitation through a well wisher to Roy’s camp office on the eve of the marriage. As the Collector of the district, he could act “just in time”. The campaign against this social evil, through a robust communication strategy “was very effective in preventing scores of such marriages.” Or a senior citizen who was driven out of his sole parcel of land by his own son. “We initiated proceedings under the Maintenance and Welfare of Senior Citizens Act, 2007, about which awareness was very poor at that time and successfully restored the property to the elderly person. This action was later upheld by the Madras High Court. I believe it was the first time in the State that this Act was invoked for a property related matter.”
As an IAS probationer, Roy was deputed to Cuddalore to assist the district administration, the day after the tsunami struck in 2004. “My job was to coordinate with all NGOs who were pouring in with relief. It was a highly satisfying job. Later, I got posted in the same area as Sub-Collector of Chidambaram where I could coordinate long term relief operations like construction of new houses and community infrastructure for the affected.” What ranks as “the most satisfying experience” in his Chidambaram stint was handling the 2005 massive floods when over 300 villages in and around Chidambaram town were inundated. “Rescue and relief, particularly providing food for thousands of people through decentralised kitchens for over a week remains a very proud memory for me.”
Arguably, Roy’s biggest break till date, was his posting as the Acting Vice Chancellor and Registrar of the National Law School in Tiruchirapalli. In about eighteen months, this national law school alumnus himself, injected his trademark stimulus package for the fledgling institution and managed to “put it back on a clear growth trajectory, as evidenced in the increasing interest in admissions.” With the exception of Ashok Vardhan Shetty who was appointed as the Registrar of the University of Madras during its challenging phase in the late eighties and more recently as the Vice Chancellor of the Indian Maritime University, Roy is perhaps the second bureaucrat in the State to have been posted to an academic institution.
Roy’s tryst with natural disasters is clearly not over. In his present avatar as the Managing Director of the Chennai Metro Water & Sewerage Board, he is conscripted to the uneviable task of tackling the worst drought in the last fourteen years. But he seems to have got off to a good start. “Anticipating the drying up of reservoirs during summer, we started looking for new sources of water well in advance. This led us to the abandoned quarries from which we are now drawing 30 million litres per day. We also scouted for water bodies with reasonably uncontaminated water. At the Porur lake, we have installed an innovative modular treatment system for purifying 4 million litres of water every day (MLD). We could also increase the yield from the Neyveli acquifier region from 40 MLD to 110 MLD within 6 months.” Looking ahead, Metrowater has given “a big push to water recycling by now making it compulsory for all new multi-storeyed and special buildings to have grey water recycling systems. Without it, no new water or sewer connection application will be accepted. This, I believe, will have a big impact in the city’s future water use pattern.”
There are legitimate questions on every Chennaiites mind to which Roy, an avid college quizzer, will not be able to easily find answers. How will we tide over the present crisis, with depleted ground water levels? What do we do about water of different colours sometimes flowing through our taps? Why do we face such acute scarcity so close on the heels of unprecedented floods in 2015? Roy acknowledges the clear and present challenge. “With all the reservoirs having dried up, we are already at the peak of the water deficit situation. I don’t expect things to get much worse from here on till the North East monsoon sets in. We have been successful to some extent in zeroing in on alternative sources of water. The other part of the strategy is to keep covering the areas of deficit piped supply with lorry supply. The lorry supply per day has now crossed 8000 trips per day as against a normal of 4000 trips. It needs to be noted that in none of the previous droughts have we exceeded 6000 trips per day. So it is a new record. We are geared up to increase it further.”
The Metro Water Chief sees only two solutions to Chennai’s water woes – desalination and water recycling. On both counts, he claims the Board is making “good headway”. Two desalination plants, 150 MLD and 400 MLD, “are in the pipeline. Tenders have now been invited. Two tertiary treatment reverse osmosis plants (TTRO) which can convert 90 million litres of sewage into industrial quality water per day are being constructed.”
To exchange notes on administration, Roy does not have to look too far, as his wife G. Laxmi Priya is also an IAS officer and currently posted as the Collector of Ariyalur. But the young officer couple will have their hands and feet full with their adorable toddlers – Mukil and Sai. That leaves Roy with little time for his main hobby – reading. “I read as much as I can, though my favourite genre keeps changing. At present it is Philosophy and History.” There have been some “passing fancies like running and tennis. I was a keen sprinter in school, athough I don’t look like one now!” I dare say, Chennai’s water scarcity will keep him on his toes.
(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Bestselling Author, TV Political Commentator, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)