A farmer in Piravom town in Kerala’s Ernakulam district sowed the seeds of sacrifice decades ago. And the harvest reaped has been more than bountiful. Circumstances had forced a bright John Varghese to discontinue his education after Class X to shoulder the responsibility of the family. Neither his humble earnings from his grocery shop, nor that of his wife Salomy Varghese, a Lab Assistant in the Health Department ever came in the way of giving their children the best possible education. As the couple scrimped and saved every rupee earned, their two sons – Alby and Athul would get more books than toys. Vacations were more in the form of travelling together for inter-school quiz competitions and debates.
Alby went on to study medicine at the Jubilee Mission Medical College, Thrissur and Athul completed a BTech degree from NIT, Calicut. But the Johns were not doubting Thomases. Their dreams were bigger than joining a hospital or opening a clinic or working in an industry.
Alby John was enamoured by the IAS. But having studied in small town schools, he didn’t quite have the confidence to take on the rigours of this fiercely competitive examination. “During my internship, a senior friend had cleared the exam. That boosted my morale and right after my internship, I wrote it and by God’s grace and my parents blessing, cleared it in the first attempt.” By ‘cleared’, Alby meant getting the All India 4th Rank! Preparation over eight months was in between his part time job in a hospital. Alby picked Medical Science and Malayalam Literature as his optional subjects. “Many small things I did in school and college helped me. Like I was a quizzer and also into public speaking and creative writing. I did not join any institute but many senior friends from the quizzing community who cleared the exam gave me useful tips.” In keeping with one of the Ten Commandments to ‘honour thy father and mother’, Alby turns emotional. “Whatever I have achieved in my life, I owe entirely to my parents and the many sacrifices they made.”
With a ‘Dr’ prefix and the magical 3 letters ‘IAS’ after his name, Alby hit the road in Devakottai running. A tough revenue sub division in the state, maintaining law and order, stopping illegal mining and land grabbing and demolishing encroachments were the challenges for the new Sub Collector. “I worked on an integrated rehabilitation project for transgenders in the division. Being one of the arid districts in the state, I also took interest in renovating the tanks in the region. I had my first lessons on Municipal Solid Waste Management in Devakottai and Karaikudi Municipalities in my division.”
Baptism by fire in Devakottai placed him in fine form to head the Corporation of Tuticorin as its Commissioner. “With Swatch Bharat Mission funds, we were able to make a turnaround in waste management and ensure 100 percent door to door collection and segregation of waste in one year. Today, 15 Micro Composting facilities across the city process the wet waste while most of the dry waste fraction is being sold to recyclers in the city. We also decided that the proceeds of the sale of the recyclable waste can be distributed among the sanitary workers themselves and as on date Thoothukudi Corporation has disbursed a whopping 1.5 crore rupees to sanitary workers. In fact, we were able to reduce the volume of waste that’s going to the landfill from 220 metric tonnes to 130 metric tonnes. Our ultimate dream was to close down the landfill and convert that space into a Biodiversity Park. I believe the city is in the right direction and it will be able to make it one day.”
That was not all. The Tuticorin Corporation emerged as the first local body in the country to invoke the ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ principle. “We sent around 2.5 lakhs plastic wrappers back to manufacturers. We took a lot of initiatives to get the town rid of single use plastic and promoted alternative products. In fact, we took the retail vendors in to confidence and through the retailer’s association, Thoothukudi started a Plastic buy-back scheme in all the shops in the city.”
Car free Sundays on a 2 km stretch on the Beach Road in Tuticorin were started to give a fillip to “public engagement.”A Kayaking Club and a Bicycle sharing system was started in the backwaters of Tuticorin and a water sports facility was initiated along the Muthu Nagar Beach. Twenty five thousand new water supply connections were provided, obviating procedural delays with House Service Connection Melas, roping in banks to give EMI facilities for the one-time deposit.
As news of Alby’s environmental crusade and proactive administrative measures spread, he was placed in the hot seat as the Regional Deputy Commissioner – South, Chennai Corporation. Under his sway are 5 zones in the civic body. The wide turf was not the only challenge. “There were elections right after I joined here and I was the Returning Officer for Chennai South parliamentary constituency and we completed the elections in a fair, free and transparent manner.”
Given his avid interest in Solid Waste Management, Alby noted that being one of the largest cities in the country, Chennai’s garbage footprint is also huge, pegged at around 5000 tonnes on a daily basis. “On instructions from the Commissioner, we are trying to decentralise the waste management process with Micro Compost Centres and Material Recovery Facilities. We have identified the Bulk Waste generators in the city and have given them an ultimatum to take responsibility for their garbage and to process it themselves. However, the end result is only possible with public engagement and participation and we are regularly interacting with Residential Welfare Associations and are organising regular awareness drives.” The Chennai Plogging Challenge with citizens as volunteers to clean the city is his brainchild. As is a project for the holistic welfare of sanitary workers.
The task of “identifying the small waterbodies in the city and trying to restore them to their original capacity” is underway. “We cleaned the Porur lake last week and I am also in the process of initiating Rain Water Harvesting in at least a thousand houses in each ward.” And if you have often lamented how we launch satellites into space but persist with manual scavenging, Alby’s robot ‘Bandicoot’ is the antidote to clogged manholes.
An essential quality in a good public speaker is the art of listening. Alby is not the typical pen pusher. “I give people a patient hearing. I always respond to calls and messages and try to take feedback from all levels. In fact, most of the initiatives in solid waste management in my earlier tenure were based on suggestions, feedback and criticism received from the sanitary workers.!” An officer with a few years under his belt may be viewed as a green horn. Here’s a green warrior on a mission.
Listening also promotes thinking out of the box. In Tuticorin, for instance, Alby rolled out a project named ‘Water Stand Posts’ to give water supply connections to slums in the city. Since slum dwellers did not have their property assessed, often due to the lack of land titles, the administration was unable to give house service water connections to them. Long queues in front of public fountains was a regular sight. “Speculation that giving water connections would mean that these houses were getting regularised, making it impossible to do future eviction drives was rife. We took a leaf out of the Bombay Municipal Corporation’s initiative in Dharavi and introduced a concept of water stand posts where we give community house service connections to the doorstep of the slum tenement. The connection is metered and a self-help group, formed by 2 or 3 houses, would foot the bill. From the doorstep the plumbing and distribution of water is the responsibility of the Self-help group. This ensured potable drinking water supply to the slums without compromising on the policy of “no water supply connections without property assessment.”
The term ‘subordinates’ doesn’t seem to exist in Alby’s lexicon. They are viewed as partners. That streak perhaps led to the successful wooing of his Medical College junior Gopika Rajeev! The bridal march ensued after a few years. Gopika is now pursuing a Post Graduation in Radiation Oncology at the Adyar Cancer Institute.
When he isn’t playing with his cute toddler son – Siddarth Rene, Alby loves to mentor underprivileged students for the Civil Services Exam. Even after moving from Tuticorin where he had started a free Coaching Centre, he is in touch with many students. His face lights up everytime he gets a message from them. “Six of them have cleared the Group 1 prelims and I am sure some of them will make to the final list.”
The rough and tumble of administration leaves Alby John with little time for his hobby of writing short stories in Malayalam. Action is more meaningful than fiction!
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)