By Sanjay Pinto


Welfare triggered ‘warfare’. As a young bureaucrat serving in one of the most underdeveloped districts and insurgency hit in the country, his abduction had made national headlines. A decade ago, the then Collector of Sukma was held hostage by Maoists, for thirteen days. Why? Ostensibly, not for the release of “political prisoners”. In Alex Paul Menon’s own words, it was for the district boss emerging as “a humane face of the State” determined to “address not only developmental gaps but also correct historic injustice.” In a short span of 3 months, the newly created district ended up “distributing forest rights to thousands of people, penetrating hitherto untouched areas” and “enabling the education of 3000 students to combat the low literacy rate” among other ameliorative measures. This probably dented the naxals’ image as a “saviour.” The abduction and release from the forest, replete with saturation media coverage, is an inevitable flashback in the eventful career of this 2006 batch IAS officer.

Being held captive for close to a fortnight, sans any ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, was “daunting”. Quite remarkably, Alex almost construed it as a “short deputation” with the outlaws, as it afforded an opportunity to “understand its cadre better and from close quarters.” What the officer witnessed was mind boggling. “15-year-old Manglus and Hidmas were fighting with their life in the burning battlefields of Bastar and Dandakaranya for the Utopia of a Communist state, hatched and bred in the safe confines outside the jungle by making the tribal youth believe that the violent struggle is the only strategy to defend their rights.” A keen observer and chronicler, Alex concluded that “the naxal leadership is as manipulative and exploitative as the one against whom they were perceived to be fighting. The tribals are like the grass in the context of an African proverb: ‘When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled’.”

(Pic: Alex Paul Menon, IAS, Joint Commissioner – MEPZ)

The nerves of steel of this administrator were formed by his sterling upbringing. Alex’s parents – A.Varadhas, a teacher and Ganga Devi, an accountant in the treasury department, were “dreamers”. Daddy dear had particularly “dreamt of greatness in his offspring. So he named us with a lot of thought. I remember him explaining each of my names – Alex for Alexander the great, Paul for St.Paul The zealous Apostle and Menon for V K Krishna Menon and V P Menon. He instilled the feeling that ordinary lives weren’t meant for us. We are born to be leaders and lionhearts.” Despite being non-graduates, by dint of “sheer willpower” they pursued their education “amidst abject poverty” and elevated themselves to hold government jobs, “passing on the baton” to their children. As the seeds of the Civil Services were sown in his mind, Alex became a voracious reader and “idolised” C.N Annadurai and Dr.Ambedkar.

So, after a degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering from RVSCET, Dindigul and a Master’s in Public Administration from IGNOU, Alex got into the IRS in his third attempt and the IAS in his fourth shot with History and Tamil Literature as optional subjects.

And then the action began with assignments ranging from District Collector to Special Secretary Information Technology, Director Tribal Welfare and Labour Commissioner.

As the Special Secretary IT, he “conceptualised and implemented Sanchar Kranti Yojana, a program for social, economic and digital inclusion by improving mobile network coverage from 8,000 to 17,000 villages and increasing mobile ownership from 29% – the lowest in the country to 89% by distributing 30 lakh out of 50 lakh smartphones to women. It’s the largest such program in the world.”

In the Labour Commissioner’s seat, he handled the post corona crisis and created “a single window system for monitoring compliance of labour laws and also catering to the ease of doing business, which won the prestigious National e-governance Award.”

Revamping the Village Development Planning process across the district using a scientific watershed-based approach, “integrating convergence planning and community mobilisation; 20,381 works worth a few crores generating 6.6m person-days of employment – the 2nd highest average person-days in the State”,were just some feats as a District Collector. Not to forget, “providing 15,000 farmers with Soil Health Cards and facilitating the widespread adoption of the System of Rice Intensification to improve productivity and reduce input costs.” This initiative won the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration. “We also initiated a campaign for financial inclusion by opening 6 lakh Aadhaar enabled bank accounts in a district with only 17 rural bank branches for 7 lakh population, enabling disbursals worth 200 crore.” Not surprisingly a nomination as a National Resource Person for Digital Panchayat Initiative to improve citizen service delivery followed.

During his stint as the CEO- Raipur Development Authority and Deputy Secretary – Housing & Environment, “India’s largest town development project – Kamal Vihar was implemented spanning 1600 acres.”

Conducting the 2014 Parliamentary elections and the Chattisgarh Assembly polls in 2013, as the Deputy Chief Election Officer, with 18 million voters and 24,000 polling booths in an insurgency affected State was no mean task.

This ‘Tamil Nadu boy’ is now on central deputation in his home State as the Joint Development Commissioner of the Madras Export Processing Zone (MEPZ) with a sway over Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and the Andamans.

“After having spent 16 years in Chhattisgarh, I was always itching to do something for my home state. Coupled with personal reasons, this opportunity came as a blessing.” Alex’s thrust is to ensure a spurt in manufacturing and services units in the region and “earn valuable Forex.”

The dynamic officer’s personal life is just as remarkable. “I strongly believe in love. But when lovers fail you and love doesn’t fail you, you find it in an arranged marriage. Mine is a similar story!” The missus is Asha alias Pushpa Bhagyam, an MBA grad, “a passionate professional and extremely hardworking girl with immense creativity and energy. I haven’t seen her idle around even when she found it difficult to get opportunities in Chhattisgarh. She would pick whatever jobs she could, and work with full commitment.” Whether it was working with women Self Help Groups or differently-abled women artisans or social entrepreneurs or corporate clients, “she would give it her all.”. Pushpa started her own independent learning and leadership Consultancy Pull Factor and “ran operations single-handedly across various States.”

Lighting up their lives are 10 year old Adhiyan. A P. and 8 year old Navilan A P. Don’t miss the initials. “A stands for Alex and P for Pushpa, symbolising equal roles of both parents.” Parenting is a learning curve. “As people say, when you have a boy, you are a father, and when you have two, you are a referee!”

A votary of Kahlil Gibran, who quipped: “Your children are not your children

They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow.” In keeping with that philosophy, “we declared our children casteless, religion less in school certificates and exposed them to all religions for them to choose whatever suits them.”

Unwinding is by pedalling – a recently discovered passion, with a little badminton thrown in. Predictably, Alex is a voracious reader and a movie buff to boot, with “a wide genre – from many languages right from animation to thrillers to dystopian” that catches his fancy. A music aficionado “from MSV to Ilaiyaraja to Pradeep Kumar” the couple are also into karaoke together. After a hard day at work, that’s a small ransom to pay!

(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, Arbitrator, Columnist, Author & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)



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