Honesty is more than not lying. It is truth telling, truth speaking, truth living, and truth loving. – James E. Faust.
Corruption in India is a most burning issue that is adversely affecting the country’s economy and credibility of government agencies. Not only has it held the economy back from reaching new heights, but the rampant corruption has also stunted India’s development. Mostly politicians and high-rank officials are found to be involved in the scams that cost lakhs of crores to the people of India. The government offices are said to be the haven of bribery. Almost everyone from a peon to a collector is said to be indulged in corruption.
In such dire circumstances, one man has dared to rise to the situation. Ubagarampillai Sagayam is a civil servant in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, noted for his anti-corruption activities. An epitome of honesty and principle, his strict enforcement of the laws against vote-buying played a key role in the 2011 state elections in the Madurai district, which were held under his supervision. Further, his investigation of complaints of illegal granite mining in the area led to charges against several politicians and businesses, including one mining company owned by one of Madurai’s influential political families.
Sagayam’s efforts to purge corruption have led to his being transferred over 20 times in his more than twenty years of public service. Nonetheless, they have also won him a reputation for probity; he is deemed as the common man’s collector and a hero of the local folks.
Early life and education
Born on the 3rd July of 1962, Sagayam is the youngest of five sons of a poor farmer from a remote village Perunchunai, Tamil Nadu. He received the early schooling from a Tamil-medium panchayat elementary school. Then, he went on to study in a government higher secondary school at Ellaippatti. Later, he got master’s degrees in Social Work and Law.
Sagayam cleared the civil service examination but was not preferred as an officer in the IAS. Then, He passed the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission exams and joined the IAS in 1991 as sub-divisional magistrate of Ootacamund, famously known as Ooty. There, Sagayam caught up in a row with the district collector, whom he accused of preferential treatment toward the owners of large tea estates. Following that Sagayam was transferred.
In 2000, when Sagayam was additional district magistrate in Kanchipuram, he got closed the bottling plant of Pepsi and stopped the sale of its production after unhygienic substances were found in several bottles. Sagayam also took on the Sand Mafia, responsible for illegal mining of sand from the bed of the Palar River, which caused an increase in erosion and the consequent flooding. Sagayam got the dredging closed down, despite threats of physical violence.
In 2004, when Sagayam was serving as deputy commissioner of civil supplies in Chennai, he discovered that restaurants were illegally using subsidized gas cylinders intended for household use. He confiscated a stock of 5000 gas cylinders.
In 2009, while serving as the district collector of the Namakkal, Sagayam became the first IAS officer in Tamil Nadu to publish his financial information. He posted details of his assets — a bank balance of Rs 7,172 and a house in Madurai worth Rs 9 lakh — on the district website. Although this information was already available for public inspection through the government file, Sagayam felt that there should be more transparency. According to Sayagam, a district collector ought to set an example for his juniors and that actions like this might tend to re-establish the tarnished image of bureaucrats.
During his term in Namakkal, Sagayam also tried to improve the Village Administrative Officer system. He pursued VAOs who lived in towns, far away from the villages, to live there for better management. Some VAOs and local politicians attempted to get Sagayam transferred, over which around 5000 villagers protested, forcing the withdrawal of transfer order.
The 2011 State Elections
In the March of 2011, the Election Commission of India selected Sagayam as the district collector of Madurai and handed him over the task of overseeing the 2011 Legislative Assembly elections. Up to that time, the elections there were controlled by M. K. Alagiri, son of DMK leader M. Karunanidhi. Allegedly, DMK victories had been assured by the vote buying. Soon after his arrival, Sagayam started a campaign to educate voters about the law and urged them to reject money in return for votes. He set out to check the vote-buying and even seized Rs 20 lakh intended for distribution to voters. Consequently, Sagayam’s hard steps angered DMK loyalists who burnt his effigies and filed against him accusing him of favoring the rival party. However, reasonably enough, the case against Sagayam was dismissed. Interestingly, AIADMK won the elections, and the chief election commissioner commended Sagayam’s work.
In September 2011, Sagayam again found himself against Alagiri. In building a private engineering college near Madurai, Alagiri and his family members had purportedly destroyed irrigation channels used by hundreds of impecunious farmers. This led Sagayam to issue a strong summon to Alagari and others, forcing them to appear before the court.
The Granite quarrying episode
In the May of 2012, Sagayam investigated reports of illegal granite quarrying in the surrounding areas of Madurai. These activities, already noted in 2008 by an RTI activist, had led the Madras High Court to order an inquiry. But nothing came of it until a Tamil daily Dina Bhoomi published a series of articles, linking among others Durai Dayanidhi, Alagiri’s eldest son. This led to the arrest on unfounded charges of the RTI activist and the editor of Dina Bhoomi. The issue was much publicized in the 2011 elections and pursued after the new government was formed.
Sagayam’s report accused several senior officials of collusion with illegal granite miners, suggesting that losses to the state from illegal mining amounted to some Rs 16,000 crore, and possibly twice that. A few days later, he got transferred from his position as district collector to a post as managing director of a handloom weavers’ cooperative in Chennai.
Again, Sagayam got in a conflict with a superior there as well. Going contrary to the wishes of the then state textile minister S. Gokula Indira, Sagayam filed a complaint against some members of the ruling party, who assaulted a manager at the cooperative. He also refused Indira a permanent office space in the organization’s building, noting that this would interfere with its functioning. Thus, Sagayam saw further two transfers in 2014.
Although the issue ceased to meltdown even after Sagayam’s transfer, the inquiry could not progress much, and nothing significant was achieved. Then in July of 2014, responding to a petition seeking to rekindle the investigation, the Madras High Court especially appointed Sagayam to investigate all mining operations in Tamil Nadu, despite much opposition from the government. However, it was suggested that the state government might attempt to limit his inquiry to granite operations in the Madurai area, to keep him from looking into sand mining running there.
The Graveyard incident
In 2015, he again created a sensation by spending a night in a graveyard to protect evidence. He approached the local police to unearth the bodies of victims who were supposedly buried in the burial ground after a ‘human sacrifice’ performed by a granite mine operator. When the police rejected his request, he went on to spend the night at the graveyard to save the evidence.
While officials from the bottom to the top are involved in immoral practices and looting the hard-earned money of the people, there are people like Sagayam who are tirelessly fighting them. Indeed, Sayagam is not only an example for his fellows and juniors, but also for us, the people of India. We must not succumb to any pressure or let ourselves to be lured by monetary benefits. On the top of everything, we have to put the interest of the society we live in. And that society is now in a most deplorable state owing to massive corruption. In fact, it is not only the duty of Sayagam to rid us of this; we have our part too. We have to educate ourselves and our children as well. So that, in the course of time, we would see more Sayagams coming forward and reforming the damaged system and seeing off the crooked ones responsible for the same.