By Dr. George Jacob
Kochi, August 11, 2019: Sriram Venkitaraman is son of career guru, who gained popularity among those seeking ‘career guidance’ through a popular radio program.
Sriram graduated as a medical doctor from Kerala’s prestigious Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram. He later went for MD in Cuttack, Odisha. He passed the prestigious Indian Civil Service Examination in 2012. In the process, this bright doctor took on the garbs of a ‘babu’, (a person who cracks the difficult IAS examination and later takes to administration as a collector or chairperson of an official body and other positions as a ‘public servant’, is popularly known as).
He also has Masters in Public Health from Harvard University. This highly qualified ‘babu’ joined as sub-collector in Devikulam Taluk in idukki District in Kerala, the tiny state in South India.
In his capacity as Sub-Collector, he oversaw massive demolition of 92 illegally constructed buildings in Munnar. Munnar is a much sought-after tourist destination among travel and nature buffs. The place’s reputation soared when it figured among the list of ‘must see places before you die’ in the prestigious National Geographic.
As tourists flocked to Munnar, the inevitable followed. People sought precious land in Munnar in vantage locations to build resorts and flashy boarding places viz; hotels, dormitories, home stays and restaurants.
Legal land was hard to get in the picturesque tourist town. Land prices soared- an ideal hunting ground for the money-avaricious land sharks, who saw a fortune in the town’s tourism potential, operating in connivance with local governing bodies and politicians, whose hands were ‘greased’ adequately. A typical corruption-laden builder-politician-babu nexus took root.
That is when Sriram Venkitaraman, a bike-borne erudite young public servant with determination to break the back of this nexus rode into Devikulam as Sub-Collector-filmy style. Apart from tearing down illegally constructed structures, he served notices to around 100 resorts and unauthorized constructions in ecologically sensitive Devikulam village.
Typically, the political outfits saw red and Sriram locked horns with many of them, especially Kerala’s leftist outfit, the CPM. The young IAS officer was removed as sub-collector of Devikulam- filmy style.
The sacrificial lamb in the hands of corrupt villains-the politicians, a class of self-styled ‘public servants’ who people always abhor, thanks to corruption that reach unendurable limits, became an instant hero.
Sriram turned an icon especially among the youth, who saw an idol and erudite officer in him. An infuriated Sriram never known to take the raw deal meted out to him by Kerala’s infamous corrupt politicians lying down, left to pursue higher studies abroad. The ‘hero’ returned to the state which had banished him as a Fullbright fellow. He was promptly appointed Director for Surveys and Land Records by the Kerala State Cabinet, which, paradoxically was headed by the CPM. He celebrated the turn of events as any 33-year old would in Kerala. He took to the bottle.
Then came the shocker, mainly to the youth.
The hero celebrated one evening by drinking in a club in a posh area in Thiruvananthapuram. One cannot find fault with him for that. That was entirely his personal life. It was then that indiscretion took the better of him, probably inebriated to realize the gravity of what he was about to do.
Accompanied by his model-friend, Wafa Firoz, he drove her luxury car rashly, as reported by eyewitnesses through the streets of the capital city. Being accompanied by a woman friend too ought not to rest against him, as the press attempted to, as that too entirely involves his personal life and choice, unlike the decision to get behind the wheels while under the influence of alcohol. That cannot be included under the list of his ‘personal choices and preferences’.
That act was unlawful. A person who’s supposed to be a watchdog of a civil society which runs on well-laid down rules and laws and their observance simply broke an important rule. An icon of many a youth of a state who looked up to him as a model government official broke a basic rule- one which prohibits a person who is under the influence of alcohol from driving.
The car that sped along the streets that early morning knocked down a two-wheeler-borne fellow commuter who was jammed between the speeding car and the wall by the road side. The man riding the bike- K Mohammed Basheer, a 35-year-old journalist working with Siraj as its Bureau Chief — died on the spot. The time was 1 am.
Kerala’s hero of yesterday was reduced to a zero, the instant he murdered a youth by inebriated. That was something that cannot be forgiven or condoned by any stretch of imagination.
Apart from the murder, he let down numerous youth of Kerala who almost worshipped him for the principles he stood by and displayed as a sub-collector shooting at the heels of lawbreakers. That person himself had broken a very important law, killing a fellow citizen most brazenly.
Following the ‘accident’, onlookers gathered at the spot. They ‘found Sriram to be drunk’. According to eye-witnesses he lifted the well-built, but dead Basheer to the car, and drove to a hospital to have him attended to, oblivious that the victim was no more, after ensuring his woman companion left for home in an online taxi. The police, for some reason dragged their foot to initiate necessary legalities, while the killer who suffered injuries got himself admitted to a corporate hospital in Thiruvananthapuram.
All hell broke loose when the visual media flashed the news with gory visuals the next morning. People of Kerala who had applauded the smart sub-collector of Devikulam now bayed for his blood. They, unable to come to terms with the identity of the drunken murderer wanted him punished appropriately and expeditiously.
The police under duress moved swiftly now. He was arrested under Section 279 and 304 under Indian Penal Code for rash driving on a public road and culpable homicide not amounting to murder (which would fetch him 10 years behind bars) respectively.
The state government too was quick to act under public pressure. The Chief Secretary issued orders suspending him from service with immediate effect under rule 3 (3) of All India Services (discipline and appeal) rules, 1969.
The erudite officer who once stood with head held high on a pedestal of moral propriety, now stood with his head bowed in shame and guilt of having let down an entire generation of Kerala’s youth through a moment’s indiscretion, which he couldn’t afford to, and shouldn’t have committed.
That blood tests failed to find amounts of alcohol that would invite punishment, probably because of the police’s delay in collecting the blood sample, and his woman companion’s deposition with the police that Sriram was indeed drunk and that he insisted on driving rashly despite her offer to drive herself are for law to examine and derive conclusions from during investigations.
Irrespective of the outcome of investigations, a stark reality remains that an erudite and bright officer, with a promising career and future to himself and to the state, once known for lofty standards of morality and courage to stick to principles while discharging his duties as a government official fell to a moment’s indiscretion which he ought to have put his foot down on.
As investigations proceed, he left us a few lessons along the way:
• Never drive a vehicle after having consumed alcohol, irrespective of the quality and quantity consumed.
• Guardians of rules and society’s civility must themselves set examples worthy of emulation by being uncompromising guardians themselves.
• Having set an enviable track record of exemplary service backed by lofty academic credentials, officials occupying high offices of the land have added responsibility to live up to, including the faith citizens of the land repose on them, and not to turn bad examples to future, impressionable generations.