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Poonam Malakondaiah, IAS

Interview Date : 15-06-2012

It is not a common phenomenon to come across an IAS officer strongly rooted in spiritualism. Yes, it does raise many a brow to see a tough, committed, diligently-working-towards-goal kind of a government servant. Talk of service and you find some people an embodiment of it.

Poonam Malakondaiah is one such remarkable official who fought her way through nepotism, chauvinism and many lackadaisical set-ups. It is no mean task that this simple, strong woman was honoured as India’s Third Honest IAS officer in the recent India Today survey. Ironically, we all know about another IAS officer from the same batch as her, who landed behind the bars for yielding to corruption. And here is this lady, who, come what may, stood steadfast on the strong foundation of her honesty and went by rules-not bending or breaking them.

TCG had an opportunity to interact with this forthright, fantastic and fiery woman of substance recently, where she shared some best moments of her life, in a nostalgic trip down the memory lane.

Where and how did your journey towards Indian Administrative Services begin?

My maternal grandfather was a police officer and we used to listen to many anecdotes from my mother recounting acts of his bravery. In fact my mother used to say that he was known as the Tiger of Bundelkhand and he was always posted to trouble-prone areas which usually other officers would shy away from. Those times British  Officers used all tactics to put pressure on the Indians. Those days’ people who fought for freedom were considered traitors.

I heard all this from my mother who used to narrate these tales with a lot of zest and pride; I guess that was when the seed was sown in me! By the time I saw him he had retired from service and we actually never saw him in action as it was the pre-independence era. But we were thrilled to hear his heroic deeds.

Whose lives impacted you as a child? Could you tell us about your parents?

My mother being a deeply religious person would make sure all the family members prayed and celebrated all the festivals together, including the domestic helpers. Being religious does not mean just the prayers but develop great love towards humanity which helps you embrace the race with a compassionate oneness. You do not bother much about trivial matters –especially you are out of ‘consumerism’. For me it was a heady mix of bravery, religious strength from my mother, and patriotism from my grandfather. This wasn’t from any story book but drinking straight from their life experiences. My grandfather was a very humble person who used to echo my mom’s ideals always. My father’s father was an agriculturist, who always lived for the poor and fought for their rights. My father was the first generation literate, who went on to become a scientist. Since he was serving for the government we used to relocate once in every three years. This was a boon for me as I got to see the varied diverse nature of this culture. This kaleidoscope was mind-boggling, as a child I used to fantasise a lot about nature, culture and celebrations!
I was fortunate enough to have a family that made it a point to travel across the length and breadth of this beautiful country, spend some time in the rural areas which used to be our summer resorts.

So you learnt a lot in travelling?

Certainly, we used to travel by train for three days to go to our village in UP from Coimbatore. Whenever the train stopped at every station my dad would educate us about the place, we would experience the place, see the people, eat food thus getting the authentic taste of the culture. To me Andhra Pradesh in those days would mean Vijaywada idlis and wadas and Khazipet for piping hot lunch and Nagpur - lovely oranges, as kids we would eagerly wait for all these places! As we were always shuttling between North and South we developed a deep understanding and bond for both the halves.
We observed that superficially the cultures may look different in both the hemispheres but at the core it’s just the same, a grandmother in Coimbatore would tell same stories about Krishna or Rama as her counterpart would in a remote village in UP. Yes, dresses are different but celebrations are same—so it is truly unity in diversity.

Where was your schooling?

Most of my schooling was in Coimbatore as my father’s posting there was for a long stretch. Mine was a missionary school which inculcated a strong value system in us. I can proudly say it was the place where I picked up love for extracurricular activities and had the zeal to excel in everything. I don’t see such a school now, which trains students into holistic humans, not just insisting on academics. When schooling happens at a place you do not hail from learning is multi-fold, unknowingly you tend to pick up and imbibe a lot. Discipline was very important aspect of our school and had excellent sports facilities too. I was good in athletics. Apart from this I used to take part in essay writing, poetry, quiz, etc which won me over 200 certificates.
All this happened because of the school. These competitions were held by Rotary Club, Lion’s  Clubs etc. We used to go for excursions. Another most  important aspect of my school days is that neither of my parents ever said that education is a tool to earn, like many parents today do, nowadays it is learn to earn, but ideally it must be learn to learn. We were never told you should become this or that, but give your best to everything you do.
People usually don’t understand the difference between North and South. We saw this as kids and we used to patiently explain to our people South doesn’t mean Chennai only!

How about your children?

They also studied in many schools like me, getting transferred along with me. But their High School education was from here only. My daughter is pursuing medicine in Osmania and son is studying Law in NALSAR.

What was the next step after school?

After school, like everyone else we were busy looking for a good college. I dreamt of becoming a doctor and serve the poor like Florence Nightingale. But I did not get a medical seat. Throughout schooling, I was a topper in my class in academics and co-curricular activities and not having acquired admission into medicine was a real blow that hit me hard. In fact, I was way down in my own class when I saw the 12th results. We had no clue as to where things went wrong, questioning evaluation was unheard of in those days. My Botany teacher, Sister Marialla was in tears to see her hopes on me just crash.
My parents were deeply disappointed at the face of it but later accepted things as they were and put me in ‘normal’ college. That was the first time I realised experientially, whatever you may do, the result is not in your hand and my mom reiterated the same. She just said study this well.

Also another important and valuable lesson I learnt through this experience is when sister Marialla said God has something better and bigger in store for you. All my friends went off to top medical institutes, except me. And here I am in place where not-so-brilliant students are rubbing shoulders with me! I took BSc Botany and embarked on a new phase of my journey. It took almost three months for me to get back on tracks. I topped Madras University and got Govt of India, Ministry of HRD’s merit scholarship. It was during this period when I befriended a Microbiology graduate who was deeply passionate about the subject.

I applied for scholarship with ICAR for Microbiology as my father was also a scientist, to guide me. I got IARI and ICAR fellowships and went to University as Research Scholar. Dr. Subba Rao was my guide for PhD. I wanted to do a project which would benefit the ecology/ environment. Hence took Vesicular Arbuscular Mycorrhiza (VAM): a potential biofertilizer as project in M.Sc. Impact of pesticide on this bacterium. If it is mutated and brought into rice genome it would do Rhizobium’s job. I won a gold medal in MSc and went on to do PhD, as my ultimate aim was to do something about nif (The nif genes are genes encoding enzymes involved in the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen)genes. Dr Chopra who is considered as father of plant Biotechnology was my rolemodel.

The best part is that I got this idea because my mother used to talk about harms of plastic, how to protect our environment. Education in our family was looked as a wonderful tool to expand your thinking horizons but not an earning machine.

How did you develop this love for Civil Services?

I was in Delhi, sharing room with a junior and a good friend of mine in the hostel. I used to see her prepare for civil services; she would get the study material, forms to be filled etc, in which I used to help her. She got the forms and asked me to apply too, as I didn’t even know what IAS was I wasn’t too keen, but I did it. I would observe the study material closely and found the subject, approach very interesting.
I got through the preliminary round along with her. By then, I was totally sold out to the Administrative Services! When it came to subject selection it was Botany and Zoology, Botany honours from Madras University wasn’t really valued there. Many people discouraged me about the combination of the two which take me nowhere. But at that point my research was very valuable for me, so in the day time, I would go for research and at nights, we would prepare for IAS.

My guide wasn’t very happy with my decision as it would affect my research. But, it didn’t deter me much and I took the exam too, with Botany and Zoology combo, I got through. I went for the interview as I got a call after that, in which they suggested me to attend coaching classes. I said I don’t have the money and time as research was my first priority. With my own preparation I took the exam and got selected.
This was most difficult moment for me because I had to choose between IAS and Research. He advised me to go for civil services. Which year did you start this new phase?
In 1988, I went to Mussorie, did my training, and came back to Warangal as a trainee. After that I joined as a sub-collector in Bhadrachalam.
In 1990-91, I took off as a collector, when Bhadrachalam was going through terrible floods. I plunged straight into action. Since then, there has been no looking back.
You are known as India’s third most honest, forth-right and sincere IAS officer by the India Today Group.

Could you share some of your achievements with TCG readers?

Everything about the job including the cadre allotments was new to me. I landed in Bhadrachalam. It was the first time when I actually saw and experienced what holding the court was. I saw the tribals there being exploited and their land was occupied by selfish outsiders, who wanted to acquire their land by force. When I saw the situation, on hand the helpless tribals were forced to come from their villages on foot to fight their case. They had no clue what was happening, as they got terrified with the lawyers and the serious ambience there. I saw their helplessness and the greed of the miscreants and said the court will be conducted in their village only; they need not come to the town.

This created a flurry, but Constitution was in my favour, as there was no rule that courts should not be conducted in village. Thus I began a controversial move, to benefit the needy.

What are your most coveted achievements?

To me it was 24X7 non-stop excitements; every day of my service was fast-paced and thrilling. Being a public servant for 24 years is an honour. I think my most talked about project was the Monsanto Seeds – where the corporate was banned from supplying BT cotton seeds to farmers. Reason: failure of the company’s seeds in previous crops and its refusal to pay compensation to farmers as decided by the agricultural commissioner of the state.

This is perhaps the first time that a state government has blacklisted a corporate entity from marketing its products. Akshar Deeksha was another much talked about project which brought tremendous satisfaction to me.
If you get involved in a particular job everything is challenging. To handle challenges with right attitude and cool-mind is what a job like this is all about. I can proudly say that I never gave in to nepotism, never had fear of any sort and never hesitated to go by what’s exactly there in law. I would advise all the aspirants to develop love towards their nation which will certainly take them a long way and help them contribute something meaningful to their mother-land.