An Officer And A Gentleman – Vikram Kapur, IAS By Sanjay Pinto
To some, this officer born on Christmas Day has been Santa’s gift to Chennai. To others, the cross he carried during last month’s floods wasn’t good enough. But Vikram Kapur is not the sort of bureaucrat to get bogged down by criticism. Keeping his composure and a brave face despite being in the firing line, he hopped from one tv studio to another to focus on relief efforts, took a makeshift raft to reach his hot seat in Ripon Building, responded to calls, text messages and pinged back people on facebook messenger on action taken on complaints well past midnight. Chennai’s Corporation Commissioner has kept the Kapur family legacy of public service intact. With a ‘My Daddy Strongest’ sense of pride, the suave 1988 batch IAS officer recalled his father Baldev Kapur’s stint in the IAS in Punjab; as well as his cousin Vijay Kapur’s tenure as Chief Secretary of Delhi.
(Pic: Vikram Kapur, IAS, Commissioner – Corporation of Chennai)
“The Civil Services has been a family tradition and I was almost destined to be a civil servant.” Although a young Vikram stood 8th in the CBSE examination and could have walked into any IIT or Engineering College, he chose a BSc (Honours) Physics Course at St.Stephens College with a clear goal of clearing the civil services examination. And clear it he did in his maiden attempt at the age of 21, which was no mean feat especially in the late eighties, as opposed to today, with the brightest students opting for careers in Management and now even Law.
Well before he could savour the delicious Venu Biriyani in Dindigul when he was posted as the Collector, Vikram Kapur had to tackle law & order issues in the district. The task of revamping Corporation Schools during his tenure as Deputy Commissioner (Education) of the Chennai Corporation beckoned. “We have made giant strides in Corporation schools over the years. Imagine a tie up with Columbia University and using digital technology and data analytics to monitor student profiles, attendance and so on.”
Name a sensitive post and Vikram Kapur has been at the helm. Although he was the Chairman of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board for only about six months, he initiated steps to curb pollution levels caused by the “unsustainably high vehicle explosion.” Deputation with the Tea Board of India as the Executive Director for five years was literally his cup of tea. Based in Conoor. “The industry was in bad shape in early 2000. Exports had collapsed and tea growers were hit. It was a challenge to revive the sector. We introduced a host of schemes, the most outstanding of them being the country’s first E-Tea Auction.” Kapur’s innings at the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) as the Member Secretary, came right after the Second Master Plan had been rolled out. The no-nonsense officer had to grapple with development regulations, perspectives on urban planning, demolitions and follow up. “This was when the stage was set for the emergence of Greater Chennai.” The Master Plan had envisaged a paradigm shift to Public Transportation as an answer to the city’s cluttered roads. “In a way, my ‘indoctrination’, as it were, in the CMDA paved the way for my stint as the Chennai Corporation Commissioner.”
Ripon Building, the headquarters of the city’s municipal body, has been the most eventful point in Kapur’s career, a period in which he has garnered a share of encomiums and flak. Well before the floods, the Corporation had bagged an award for the ‘Best Non Motorised Transport Project’ by redesigning streets and it found international recognition at the Climate Change Conference in Paris, a stage its Commissioner missed as he was on duty battling the monsoon fury. For the record, I have not met Vikram Kapur so far. My only interaction had been through text messages and facebook messenger, untill a chat on the telephone recently for this column. And yes, I no longer anchor or report on NDTV. Yet, every SOS I had sent asking for help, sometimes even for perfect strangers who would ping me, has been acted upon. That’s been my experience with this officer and it automatically rebuts accusations that he responds only to those known to him.
I bounced several posers to him.
Q. Was the Chennai Corporation accessible enough to those in need?
A. “On an average, the Corporation helpline 1913 used to get 200 calls a day. During the floods, it shot up to 13,000 calls a day. I roped in my contacts from HCL and brought in call centre executives to ramp up our response.”
Q. It became a cliche on most tv channel discussions on the recent floods. Was it a natural disaster or a man made tragedy?
A. “I understand that sections of people are angry. We have learnt some valuable lessons. But we have had unprecedented rainfall. Upto 30 cms on a single day. ”
Q. I meant the alleged absence of warning before the release of 30,000 cusecs from Chembarambakkam.
A. “I don’t buy that argument that no advance warning was given. More than thirty thousand people were evacuated that night. We did send out warnings. There were instances of people reluctant to move out. Nobody anticipated the magnitude of the disaster.”
Q. Why were the storm water drains not effective enough?
A. “Storm water drains cannot be bigger than the size of the roads! They are meant only for local run offs. Don’t forget that only one-third of our roads have storm water drains. These drains cannot be stand alone structures. They have to empty out into something. 3 rivers were in spate. Water cannot flow from a lower to higher level.”
Q. Was desilting done ahead of the monsoon?
A. “Yes, of course, as in previous years. This can only give us 5% relief. We are missing the wood for the trees. It is a question of macro not micro drainage.”
Q. Having been at the helm in CMDA in the past, why have buildings on water bodies been allowed to come up?
A. “ Under the CMDA Master Plan, there are approvals for layouts. Developers take the short cut and carve out plots leaving local bodies to build drains etc.”
Q. So what are the lessons learnt?
A. “Core infrastructure needs to be our priority. For instance, in China, infrastructure comes first, development next. In India, it’s often development first and infrastructure follows.”
Q. The joke doing the rounds is that abroad, after an hour of rain, the water disappears. In India, the road does! How long should a well laid road last?
A. “ Roads are our priority now. Depending upon the usage, load and other factors, roads can last 5 years, arterial roads about 3 years. We are closely monitoring the process of repairing and relaying them.”
Q. Was garbage cleared on time?
A. “ We worked day and night to clear accumulated garbage. For instance in one of the worst affected zones, 1658 workers with 46 lorries and 9 JCBs had worked flat out under the supervision of 4 IAS officers. Between the 7th and 9th December, 1500 MT was removed. People were throwing out huge quantities of damaged items. Many contract workers could not turn up for work as they themselves were affected by the floods. We got workers from other Corporations. These guys had been working their hearts out. There have been scores of nameless, faceless people who lost everything but never batted an eyelid to join in the relief efforts.”
Kapur salutes the “great work” by volunteers from civil society. “They made us all proud.” He is quick to recognise the silent but pivotal role played by his wife Ibha Kapur, a Bharatnatyam dancer who “sacrificed her dancing career for the family”. I went home at ungodly hours during those days but she was so supportive and a great stress buster, always been that way.” Mrs.Kapur is quite camera shy and politely declined the usual photo shoot at the residence. In a facebook chat, she sent me a long and heart warming message explaining why she avoided the photo shoot and played down her role saying it was limited to providing a “conducive environment and good meals at home.”
You would imagine that his daughter Divya Kapur, who also went to St.Stephens, would follow her father’s footsteps. But “she has a mind of her own”. Divya has decided to devote two years of her life to the ‘Teach For India’ mission and works in a government school in Delhi. Junior Kapur – Anant is a Class twelve student at DAV School who “loves football.” If you just browse through his facebook page, pictures will reveal that Vikram Kapur is a complete family man. Like his son, he too loves sports and plays football, squash, badminton and, given his height, predictably, basketball too.
Vikram Kapur may look like a very serious person but I detected a friendly veneer, candour and sparkling wit from my only conversation with him. That has probably rubbed off on to his office staff as well, with old timers like V.Vijaykumaar being extremely helpful and on call 24×7. Criticise them till thy kingdom come but good work will speak for itself. You can’t make a bull worker a scape goat.
(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, Author, Public Speaking Mentor and former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)