“District collector, U. Sagayam of Madurai, Tamil Nadu – By refusing to take bribes, the Madurai collector has earned 18 transfers in 20 years, a modest house and bank balance and lots of respect”
Three years ago, as district collector of Namakkal, Tamil Nadu, U. Sagayam voluntarily declared his assets: a bank balance of Rs 7,172 and a house in Madurai worth Rs 9 lakh. Once, when his baby daughter, Yalini, who had breathing problems, was suddenly taken ill, he did not have the Rs 5,000 needed for admitting her to a private hospital. At that time he was deputy commissioner (excise) in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, and there were 650 liquor licences to be given out. The going bribe for each was rumoured to be Rs 10,000.
(He needs a special mention here because the assets of an IAS officer-couple in Madhya Pradesh were valued at Rs 360 crore. They had 25 flats in three cities)
‘Reject bribes, hold your head high’, says a board hanging above Sagayam’s chair in his modest office. That’s the code he lives by, even if politicians are incensed they cannot bend him their way—he’s been transferred 18 times in the last 20 years—and has made enemies of both superiors and subordinates. “I know I sit under a dangerous slogan and probably alienate people,” he says. “But I have been the same Sagayam from Day 1. Standing up against corruption is not for a season. Nor is it a fad. It’s forever”, he says.
On a hot summer afternoon, on Madurai’s busy main road, the district collector, U. Sagayam, saw a young man talking on a cellphone while riding a motorbike. He asked his driver to wave the man down, got down from his car and meted out instant punishment: plant 10 saplings within 24 hours. Somewhat unconventional justice, some might say. But that’s how Sagayam works.
He also took on a mighty soft-drink mnc when a consumer showed him a bottle with dirt floating in it. He sealed the bottling unit and banned the sale of the soft drink in the city. In Chennai, he locked horns with a restaurant chain and recovered four acres valued at some Rs 200 crore.
Sagayam’s masters degrees in social work and law come in useful in his role as an administrator. He knows the rulebooks in detail and is not afraid of using them, however powerful the opponent. No wonder then that Sagayam’s career is marked with the scars of countless battles.
Sagayam’s wife Vimala has stood by him all these years but she was rattled by some of the threats during the elections. “He always says if you are right, nobody can hurt you,” she says. “But sometimes it becomes difficult.”
Sagayam says he learnt honesty on his mother’s knees.
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