A challenging and fulfilling life

R. Poornalingam. Photo: Shaju John  

"The spirit of public service is yet to creep in among the police"

Some months ago at a function near Chennai, Electricity Minister N. Veerasamy recalled how the State Electricity Board devised and implemented several customer-friendly measures during his tenure as Power Minister (1996-2001).

His compliments for the work done went to R. Poornalingam, who was Chairman of the Electricity Board during 1999-2001. Not many former chairpersons of the Board receive such accolades. "It [the stint in the EB] was more challenging," acknowledges the 61-year-old in an hour-long chat with T. Ramakrishnan at his Indira Nagar residence.

Looking relaxed, Mr. Poornalingam, who retired from the Indian Administrative Service in November 2005 and who is now the chairperson of the Third Police Commission, discusses a wide range of topics from his interest in fisheries ("I do not eat fish") to the public image of the police to motivation levels among members of his fraternity to the need for improving Chennai's public health.

On a late evening in February last year, it was quite revealing to some of Mr. Poornalingam's friends and well-wishers at a party hosted in his honour to listen to his explaining of how difficult it was to handle a mobile phone.This was because Mr. Poornalingam, be it in the Health department or at the EB, was credited with the introduction of high technology for effective functioning of government agencies.

In the mid-1990s when not much was known about e-governance, Mr. Poornalingam, as the Health Secretary, laid the foundation for a computer-based monitoring system of stock position of drugs in different parts of the State. Though he held numerous positions in his 35-year-long career, he regards his assignment in the Health department as the most fulfilling. "The reason was simple. You can contribute directly to the poor and save lives," says the former civil servant, who belonged to the 1970 batch of IAS officers.

Recounting his days as the Special Officer in the Chennai Corporation (1992-94), he says he had an excellent team of officers who included K. Allaudin (then the Commissioner of the civic body and now the State Highways Secretary). "Now, public health is the priority area. Emphasis should be given to hygiene, cleanliness and disease prevention," he says, appreciating the civic body for having made the city greener.

As for toning up the working of the police force, Mr. Poornaligam, who held the post of the Home Secretary for about two years in the 1990s, says: "the spirit of public service is yet to creep in [among them]." He says people's expectations from the police are simple. They want to be treated well when they go to police stations to file complaints. They promptly also want a copy of the FIR.

Mr. Poornalingam strongly believes that the civil service still draws talented youth and "despite salary disparity (compared with the corporate sector), there is no dearth of talent." It was not that Mr. Poornalingam did not see downs in his career. "I converted such occasions into opportunities." One such opportunity enabled him to author a book on managing public utilities.