Jothi Nirmala, the collector of Kanyakumari district, was awarded the Kalpana Chawla award by the Tamil Nadu government at the Independence Day celebrations in Chennai this year. The award was initiated to honour Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born woman to go into space. It is given to a woman who has displayed exceptional bravery in the discharge of her duty. The award includes a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh and a gold medal.
Nirmala was given the award for taking on the sand mafia in the district and also bringing about harmony after violent clashes between communities and also intra-community violence among fishermen here.
This is her story in her own words:
I was the Revenue Divisional Officer here in 1995-97. At that time there was a lot of sand mining from the local rivers particularly the Kulithurai river. The then Collector Rajagopal told me to look into the matter.
I thought that it would be a simple matter of seizing the lorries but it was being carried out in a very well planned way.
They were using divers to scoop sand from the river bed and filling vallams (small boats). The sand was then transferred from the vallam to a lorry and smuggled to Kerala. When we went to one bank, they used to go to the opposite bank. For us to reach the other bank, meant travelling 8 kms. When we went to the other side they came back this way. Thus the hide and seek went on.
We formed a team of revenue officials, police and Tamil Nadu Water and Development board officials.
We also got a fibre boat from the fisheries department and hired our own divers. We used to start the raid at 3 am every morning. Our divers went into the water and secured the vallams.
In a few weeks of intense raids we seized 175 vallams and 250 lorries and sand mining was stopped.
I passed the grade one exams of the TNPSC and was appointed as RDO. After we gain experience we are conferred with the IAS cadre status. I joined service in 1991 and this year became collector.
I have served in Cuddalore district as Danida project director (a Danish government sponsored project). I was later a special officer in the commerce department for women entrepreneurship. Then I was District Revenue Officer of Cuddalore. After that I spent three years looking after sugar mills in Tanjore and then joined the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation in Tirunelveli.
After the tsunami came I was appointed DRO of Kanyakumari district. Now I am the Collector here.
I am a native of Tuticorin district. My father Dr Balasubramaniam was a professor of history in VOC college. I did my schooling in Subbiah Vidyalayam. Then I graduated and also did my post graduation in history. My first job was a lecturer in history in St Mary's College, Tuticorin.
I always wanted to be an IAS officer and I attempted every selection exams till I passed the group one exams.
The other reason I was considered for the award was for handling communal violence in this district. This has been considered a communally sensitive district. Inland it is between Hindus and Christians and on the coast it is among the fishermen.
If the officers are good and they have the trust of the people it is very easy to bring about peace in a tense situation.
In the coastal areas you will find two groups in every village. In Kurmpanai village they were attacking each other with bombs. The police were not entering the village. I told them that they had to stop the bomb throwing. The police did not come with me but I went there on the beach. When they saw me they stopped.
Kodimanai, Vadimunai, and Colachel always have some trouble. Kodimanai fishermen are known as cattamaran people and Colachel is known as the mechanised boat people. Thus they don't like each other.
The women among the fisherfolk wanted peace. They used to write to me with diagrams underlining where bombs were hidden. I used to go there with the police and we used to always find the bombs. Luckily now the bomb culture has come down.
To promote Kanyakumari as a tourist destination we are starting a sound and light show at a cost of Rs 2.25 crore. We are also renovating the Thiruvalluvar statue and the Vivekananda memorial.
The rubber industry is flourishing here. Originally the planters were getting Rs 40 a kilo and now they are getting Rs 120. One concern is that farmers are shifting from paddy to rubber which is not good but we cannot do anything. They will do what is economically good for them.
It was a team work that got me the award and I dedicate the award to them. Without a dedicated team I could not have achieved any success.
I am very happy that I was given the award when I became the collector of this district. It also makes the people proud of me. They feel the award was given to one who belongs here.
As told to A Ganesh Nadar