An extra two centimetres in height – 165 instead of 163, would have catapulted Mervin Alexander into the Indian Police Service. A topper in the IPS category in the Civil Services Examination in 1987 and an avid football champion to boot, Mervin seemed cut out for the khakhi uniform and would have been an Additional Director General of Police today. But that difference of two centimetres led him to a different IPS – the Indian Postal Service, a cadre in which he now serves as Post Master General, Chennai with the same fervour and “absolutely no regret”.
In the late eighties and early nineties, quite a few agricultural science graduates and post graduates reaped a rich harvest in the Civil Services Exam. Mervin was part of that trend. The next stage was also in line with a pattern – a stint as a Probationary Officer with a nationalised bank, which was a precursor to the footballer’s dream goal. His positive bent of mind and a passion to innovate probably made the one above change the goal posts to suit his interests. Two centimetres cannot come in the way of an officer’s thirst for field action and adventure. A few years into his career, Mervin was picked for the year long 51st course at the Defence College in Wellington in 1994. “My course mates are now Air Marshalls and Generals.” Three years ago, Mervin was among the fifteen civilians selected for a training programme at the National Defence College that culminated with an Mphil degree. “I will always cherish this period in my life. I flew in all aircraft, travelled in submarines, experienced the thrill of adventure and the spirit of sacrifice.”
For almost half his career, Mervin held posts in God’s Own Country where “everyone was always so down to earth”. Right from his initial posting as Divisional Superintendent of Postal Services, Mervin has served in Thrissur, Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. Most bureaucrats view deputation as a refreshing change. Mervin has been no exception. “One of my most exciting desks was as Assistant Director General – Department of Posts in the Philately Wing.” As the Director of Postal Services in Thiruvananthapuram, Mervin introduced the E-Post Service, which helped people connect electronically with those who didn’t have an email account. The Kerala Chief Minister’s Cell used this facility to send out instantaneous acknowledgements to petitioners. A five year stint as the Chief Vigilance Officer of the Cochin Port Trust and the Cochin Shipyard Limited gave him rich exposure in the shipping industry and also the nuances of combating corruption crusade. “During this period, I wrote many articles on anti-corruption in newspapers.”
The highlight in his career, however, came soon after his promotion as Post Master General in 2009, with a coveted assignment as the Chief Executive Officer of Techno Parks in Kerala. “I used to report directly to the Chief Minister.” Mervin relished working through different time zones. “We used to have long video conferencing sessions with big business entities in the United States. One such interaction with the Chief of Oracle, bolstered by the then Techno Parks Brand Ambassador Sashi Tharoor, resulted in the IT major setting up an office in the Techno Park in just 4 months.” Mervin also recalls with justifiable pride, Tata Consultancy Service setting up a massive Global Training Centre in the Techno Park with a hundred crore for fifteen thousand software professionals.
Chennai beckoned in 2012. Ever since Mervin took charge as the Post Master General of the Chennai City Region, there has never been a dull moment. Quite like the Know Your Customer (KYC) norms for banks, he brought about a ‘Know Your Postman’ initiative. “I wanted to revive the old bond between the postman and the people.” You can now get details like the name, beatwise limit and mobile number of your local postman from the postal department’s website. Remember that golden oldie “Please Mister Postman”? Mervin has also tried to make conditions more ‘postman friendly’ by appealing to people, particularly Residents Welfare Associations “to ensure that door numbers, name boards and letter boxes are in order. I also advise people that it’s better not to write a Pin Code if they are not sure about it, rather than write a wrong one.” As an old Vigilance hand, Mervin also knows when to crack the whip. “I have suspended about 35 postmen for pocketing money out of old age pensions through the Money Orders they deliver. I often instruct my postmen that there is no difference between a tip and a bribe.” Through helplines, decoy parties and on the basis of even anonymous complaints, the PMG has made an honest attempt to curb corruption.
It’s hardly surprising that an officer like Mervin who never takes off his practical thinking cap was awarded for ‘Innovation’. When the Sukanya Samriddhi Savings Scheme was launched, Mervin realised that the Hindi name may not easily pass muster with local folks. Although the scheme came with an attractive 9.2 per cent interest and income tax exemption under Sec 80 C, there was a disconnect. So in order to make it “locally geared”, it was called ‘Selvamagal Semippu Thittam’. With 11 lakh accounts in Tamil Nadu and 4 lakh in Chennai alone, adding that local flavour clearly helped.
Taking on courier and e-commerce companies was never going to be a cake walk. But when you have a PMG bursting with ideas, think again. And it’s not the run of the mill release of commemorative stamps of national figures or to mark national events. The ‘My Stamp’ facility was designed to make the common man feel like a celebrity. On payment of a few hundred rupees, any citizen can get their photograph printed on stamps. In keeping with the Aam Admi focus, Mervin plans to conduct a Letter Exhibition. “We can display personal letters of common people. Imagine how priceless a soldier’s letter to his mother written along battlelines will be.” When I gently suggested including Letters To The Editor of newspapers in the pre-social media age, Mervin jumped at the proposal. I offered to introduce him to a senior lawyer friend and a compulsive letter writer with a terrific sense of humour – M.A. Sadanand, I could sense his eyes lighting up. “I will go and visit him, Sanjay”. Officers are after all “public servants”.
“Ten per cent of success is getting into the Civil Services. Ninety per cent is what you do in it.”
As a strict no-nonsense officer, Mervin dances to no ones tunes. The only honourable and understandable exception could be his wife Madonna who runs a dance school, with an offbeat name – ‘Madonna’s Mentals’. Erudition runs in the family. Their elder son Atul Alexander is pursuing his Post Graduation in Law at the School of Excellence in Chennai and the younger lad Rajath Alexander is studying M Tech in Material Science at IIT Madras as a DAE sponsored fellow. Football aside, this die hard Arsenal Fan loves to travel. “ I spend all my money on travelling. I have gone to all the continents in the world.” I remember seeing pictures of his recent holiday in Italy on facebook. Now here’s a bureaucrat who would welcome new postings and a change of address. If the people of Chennai ever let their favourite Post Master General go, it will be with a tearful Acknowledgement Due.
(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, Author, Public Speaker & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)