When Chennai was plunged in darkness after cyclone Vardah wreaked havoc in the city last month, restoring power was not as simple as waving a wand and saying ‘Lumos‘. What was the Electricity Board Chief upto? For starters, he had to cancel his travel to the United States, where his only son Saurabh’s Convocation at Purdue University was scheduled. ‘Watt’ a sacrifice. For more than 48 hours, there was no regular power supply at most homes across Chennai. Saikumar‘s residence in Adyar, one of the worst affected areas due to the fallen trees, was no exception. So the Chairman decided to stay overnight in his office. “I slept on the sofa and got a stiff neck”, he mentioned casually as I tried to get a glimpse into the massive operation to restore power in the cyclone ravaged city.
A routine google search may not yield pages and pages on this 1990 batch IAS officer who can jolly well pass for a college professor, which is what he may have gravitated towards, had he not passed the Civil Services Examination in his maiden attempt. With a Masters in Political Science from the University of Hyderabad and later, an M Phil degree in International Relations, Saikumar took to government service “on a whim”. Middle class values like patience and a long fuse, instilled in him by his father Krishna Rao, who was in the Audit and Accounts Service and his mother Kupamma, a school teacher, seemed to have had a bearing on his style of functioning – low profile and result oriented. Not the sort to brag about his achievements, I was not surprised when his initial text response when I broached the subject of a magazine feature was “I’m not a celebrity. Why waste your time?” The nod came only after some prodding that this column is not about Page 3 flashbulbs but a spotlight on officers making a difference.
District postings are usually newsy. But the self effacing and soft spoken Saikumar always wanted his work to be remembered and not necessarily reported. When he was the Collector of Dharmapuri, female infanticide was rampant. “With the support of NGOs, we launched a campaign to save the girl child. It involved dropping a postcard to the Collector about instances of this social evil. We were able to save about 150 infants. I can never forget how a parent who had experienced a change of heart, met me with a request to name his baby.”
Development was the buzzword in the Madurai Corporation with Saikumar as the Commissioner. Building bridges and the landmark inner ring road were possible, thanks to CRISIL ratings obtained and World Bank loans availed for infrastructure development. At the helm in the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) it wasn’t so much about ‘boosting booze’ as much as it was about streamlining the financial spirits of this golden goose. Although he was on deputation with the Government of India for 6 years, this affable bureaucrat functioned out of Chennai as the Director General of Foreign Trade for South India.
A three year tenure as the Secretary of the Public Works Department saw considerable action. The raising of the height of the Mullaiperiyar Dam from 136 feet to 142 feet, the Cauvery Award and the modernisation of the Namakkal Kavignyar Maaligai in the Secretariat kept him on his toes. I’m wondering if dinner table conversations at home resulted in some informal inputs on the work for the Secretariat offered by his wife Sumati, an interior designer.
Presiding over what insiders call a ‘turnaround phase’ in the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board\TANGEDCO, Saikumar claims to have drastically cut the organisation’s losses by a whopping “7000 crore, from 12,000 crore to 5000 crore, with a target of 3000 crore” in the near future. And how was this managed? “We reduced power purchases from costly players from about 8 or 9 rupees a unit to an average of about 4 rupees a unit.” While these figures may not mean much to the common electricity consumer, the functioning of the Power Failure Call Centre 1912 did come under the scanner. Why was it practically non-functional at a time when most residents, as a facebook post succinctly put it, were “powerless, paan-less and penniless.” Power failure meant card swiping machines, online banking and ATMs didn’t work, making the cash-tration’ measure a double whammy. BSNL, as in the case of even the 2015 December Deluge, proved to be the Ugly Duckling of the telecom sector. “We have 12 BSNL lines. The maximum queue is 30. So the call centre can handle upto 360 calls through these lines at a given time.” There is clearly a case for improvement here, which the Electricity Board boss recognises.
A fitness enthusiast, Saikumar seldom misses his jog or swim or cycling every morning. And it shows. It’s hard to believe that the officer recently turned 50! Although government service beckoned, the academic streak has been alive and kicking, evident from his PhD in Public Affairs from the University of Madras.
As his son Saurabh is poised to storm corporate boardrooms in America, after his post graduation in Mechanical Engineering and Management at Purdue, his daughter Sahiti, a Fine Arts student at Stella Maris College and an avid Bharatanatyam dancer is a busy bee at this Margazhi season. Saikumar had to contend with watching the video of his son’s US Commencement event online. Sabha hopping to watch daughter dear let her light shine on stage may be some consolation for this administrative transformer.