Dr Jacob Thomas IPS is a DGP ranked officer in the Kerala Police Department. He is currently the Chairman and Managing Director of the Kerala Police Housing and Construction Corporation (KPHCC).
He came to limelight while he was posted as Additional DGP in Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB) and was handling the Bar Bribery scam involving the then Finance Minister, KM Mani.
His tenure at the VACB led to cases being registered against even top officers for corruption, including the suspension of an IPS officer for allegedly taking bribes.
He was promoted as DGP and had to leave VACB to head the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) Department. While at FRS, his stand against apartment builders’ over safety standards had led to his removal from the post.
In this candid conversation with Raghul Sudheesh, he speaks about his childhood, being in the civil services, winning Manorama News Maker award, Police Department, his new anti corruption movement – Excel Kerala and much more.
Please take us through your childhood memories
My childhood was like any other typical childhood of a person who grew up in rural agricultural area of Kerala. My area was a transition between the midland and the highland of Kerala.
The place is called Teekoy and is near Erattupetta in Kottayam district. This geographical area has a lot of relevance to my childhood and has influenced me a lot. It was the reason I stressed on it.
The earliest memories I have of my childhood is about swimming and playing in the river, both morning and evening. I along with friends, used to play in the river till our eyes got red and was frequently scolded by my father for that. It was like this for all the 365 days in the year.
Life was linked to river, river banks, trees and nature; and I have got an emotional connect with them. I used to study by sitting on top of a cashew tree in my school days. Even when I came to do graduation in College of Agriculture, Vellayani, I found a cashew tree to climb, sit and study.
My parents still stay in the house where I grew up and now when I go to the same place, it has changed a lot. There is no water in the river.
Only during few months in the rainy season, water is there and it is not good as it’s almost filled with dirt. River stopped being an attraction in my place. The place has changed in its entirety.
Even the climate has changed from what it used to be during my childhood. Tea was the main cultivation during our childhood days. We had three tea factories in the neighbourhood. Now the cultivation is rubber and tea cannot be grown there anymore.
It’s debatable whether the rubber that replaced tea destroyed the climate, brought heat and mosquitoes, polluted the water; or whether because of lack of water or because of the heat, tea cultivation gave way to rubber.
However, I remember it was the very low price of tea and therefore the hand to mouth existence of families coupled with the attraction of subsidy from the Rubber Board, which forced us to uproot and plant rubber. I firmly believe that the incentive given for rubber promotion by the Government; destroyed the nature, climate and the rivers there.
So when I think of my childhood, the tea, the coolness of nature, lack of electricity, perennial rivers and playing in the water, are the things that come to my mind. There were no computers, television, refrigerator or radio and therefore it was a healthy growing up.
Now I understand why you came to the Agricultural College. So can you take us through the transition from an agricultural student to a civil servant?
I studied at the College of Agriculture, Vellayani in Thiruvananthapuram and Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi.
While pursuing doctoral studies in agronomy thoughts on writing the civil service examinations came by accident. It was not a deliberate decision.
I would say it was my ignorance about the Government and civil services, which led to this decision. If I were knowledgeable about the civil services, I would have never come.
I am saying so because I had three other career paths to choose at that time, as if in a four road big junction and not knowing much about any of those four paths.
My doctoral research and findings as an agricultural student were useful to a German company and they had offered me a position as MD of their Asia Pacific region at Hong Kong.
It was and is a MNC and also the biggest chemical company in the world. It was an irresistible offer. I could have continued with my research also. If I had accepted their offer at that young age, in one year I would have made money which I am yet to make in thirty year of civil service.
The second option was to pursue research with scholarship in the United States and I had offers from University of California, Cornell University and University of Michigan.
Particularly, a professor in the University of Michigan, Dr. James Tiedje, flew to New Delhi to persuade me to come to the United States. Thirdly, I had secured first rank in the Agricultural Research Service of ICAR and could have pursued a career as a scientist.
Rejecting all these three offers, I decided to pursue a career in the civil services and it was only because of my ignorance about the actual operational aspects of civil services, even though externally civil services appears irresistible to some students. One learns eventually that politics triumphs.
Do you regret being in the civil services?
The answer to that is both a yes and no. In civil service, after sometime you will realise that you can never become bosses and your bosses are less educated people having their own agendas which are entirely different from what you or your organisation wants to do.
My organisation is the Government. The purpose of the Government is good governance and the mission of governance is to enhance the quality of life of people you serve. Then there is a vision also. The vision of governance is to enhance overall sustainable development of the State you serve. In that mission and vision, you become a nobody, unlike in a career at an MNC or as a scientist.
Unlike in private sector, you will not be able to take the most significant decisions for the growth or development of the organisation.
In Government, you often become so alienated, so disempowered and so helpless, if that civil servant stands for all the 10 principles of good governance and adheres passionately to the values of sustainable development.
If that civil servant does not stand for good governance and acts like a fool without thinking about good governance and the impact of their decisions on common people and ecosystem, then you will be happy. Otherwise, you will feel frustrated, alienated and helpless.
My service period has offered me several happy moments also, that even a person in a jail may also experience.
You have worn caps of MD at various institutions more than that of Kerala Police? Do you consider this as a blackout from the police department?
I would answer that with the input of 2012 Nobel laureate Alvin Roth, a professor of Economics at Stanford University. One of his books which I purchased last year is about match – making.
I was ejected or pushed out of the [Police Department] sub culture as I am perceived as a misfit in their current sub culture.
One example is the recent Perumbavoor incident. Today morning one person was speaking to me about the flaws in the investigation of the brutal murder and rape of this young girl.
Here, we have to look at the officers in charge. They were retained in key positions, because they are corrupt. Corruption here means abuse of functions.
When I was in the Vigilance, we tried our best to dislodge some of the most corrupt in Kerala. Why such persons are kept in key posts? The Perumbavoor area is full of rice mills, quarries, plywood factories, pipe factories and a river.
Sand mining is very prevalent there. Often corrupt people will get posting there. Who makes these postings? We should think about those people posting these officers.
Even after seven days, there is no progress in the case, since the first few hours and days after the incident was a playing down phase.
The officers are trained in investigation but they are not doing that as true professionals in real service of the poor, and marginalised people of our society.
It is because investigation done in a very truthful and diligent manner may bring trouble or harassment. Even if they are negligent to the core, they think that nothing can be done to them because of the different types of patronage, they have.
How do you feel about winning the Manorma News Maker award? You were competing with Nivin Pauly.
I was competing with Nivin Pauly, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and Vellapally Nadesan in the final round. All these three people had their own set of following.
Probably I was the odd one out there. Even the IPS officers association said that this person is an outcast. They have a feeling that I do not belong to them. I was the person without any formal support base or a fan following.
I was selected for the contest, only because of my one single stand against corruption and stand for good governance. That gave me a hope. I realised that the people of Kerala want governance without corruption, in its various forms.
You have seven publications to your credit. How do you remain academic oriented?
I have a continuous learning and Research orientation, which led to the publications. Early in my career, my understanding of the job or my understanding of the cultural setting in which I have to perform my job, made me realise that I should have other avenues of career.
I realised that I should have attitude of quitting the civil service at any day. It’s called quit money and quit career. When I was promoted as Superintendent of Police in 1989 and for two years, I was with the Crime Branch unit in Kannur and it was the worst posting a young IPS officer could get at that time.
After that, I was not given due posting for a while to do real policing. The decision making was done by my bosses and the yardstick for that were pliability, flexibility and practicability.
I feel uncomfortable doing anything which is against the common man, or the values of good governance. Then that person is no pliable, flexible and practical.
Sometime you may have to do something for fifty builders disregarding the life safety of ten thousand people who may occupy the builders’ apartments.
So the early realisation made me quit the desire for money and career, also made me think of other career options. That gives me courage to be firm, to stand for good governance and to stand against corruption.
Can you tell us about the happiest and saddest moment in your career?
I was working as the Additional Director General of Police at Kerala Lok Ayakutha, which was housed in the annexe to the Kerala Legislative Assembly.
I was once stopped at the gate of the Kerala Legislative Assembly for coming without any official car and another ADGP, who was junior to me, was allowed to go without being checked.
This was one of the most saddening moments in my career. I was treated like a second rate IPS officer. I was not given any official vehicle while other IPS officers were having at least two vehicles. I had to explain to security and plead to go to my own office.
The happiest moments in my career have been when I was working with the Kerala Horticulture Development programme. I had established Nadukkara Agro processing plant and seed processing plant for vegetables at Alathur.
Walking through the farmers small fields and interacting with them in their situation were really a fulfilling experience. It was a dream to develop a replicable model of development to assure high and stable income to small farmers.
What do you think about ‘Janamaithri’ (people friendly) Police’?
Civil police, unlike paramilitary police or military/Navy police should be people friendly and friends of people. There is no need of renaming it as ‘Janamaithri’.
People conduct inaugurations, conferences and parties under this name, as if it is a discovery. Unlike military/paramilitary, Police was supposed to be close to the people, and not treating them as enemies.
Now when you call Police as ‘Janamaithri’ or people friendly, it means that it was not so earlier. Has the police organisation thought of conducting a research on the impact of the closing of the 700 odd bars where people sit and drink while standing and drinking is permitted after buying from a Beverage outlet?
This eventually is likely to lead to more use of ganja and other psychotropic substances, that in turn is likely to numb the intelligence of a normal person in distinguishing a 7 year old girl, a girl student and a 70 year old women.
Is it Janamaithri police?
Is the Kerala State Police Complaints Authority an effective machinery?
I was suggesting recently on reducing the overall administrative costs of Kerala to 10% in phases. Primary Stake holders and common man should receive more government funds.
Here 70% of income goes as salary and pension, leaving very little for others in Kerala. This is because of the most ineffective governance system we have.
It has become so because, when an institution becomes dysfunctional, our system creates another institution instead of rectifying the issues.
As time passes, the new institution also meets the same fate of the institution which it was supposed to replace. This is what happened with the Police Department and that was why the Police Complaints Authority was created.
Main function of Policing happens in the Police Station and the offices up to the District Police Chief’s office. There is a long hierarchy above as supervisory and monitoring officers.
It is because the supervisory mechanism failed, Police Complaints Authority was needed. If this Authority has to become effective, people heading it should be having a vision for good governance.
In this era of e-governance and social media, separate authority just to receive and address complaints (which is a feedback about performance) is superfluous.
I have heard that the Visakha judgment delivered by the Supreme Court dealing with prevention of sexual harassment at work place was implemented for the first time in India by you, while you were heading Kochi City Police. Can you explain that to us?
Yes, it was so and the scenario was very interesting. When the judgment came in 1997, I was working as Commissioner of Police in Ernakulum. A lady came and complained about sexual harassment by her employer.
She was asked to accompany the employer to Bangalore. Though she did not want to go, she also did not want to lose the job. If I use the usual policing measures, this lady will lose the job.
I was clueless as to what to do and it was at that juncture, a High Court advocate told me about this new judgment. He gave me the copy of the judgment and I found it really helpful.
As per the judgment, there was a need for a Complaints Committee in all work places. It was also required that the Complaints Committee should be headed by a woman and not less than half of its members should be women.
The judgment further required, which was its best part to prevent the possibility of any pressure or influence from senior levels, such Complaints Committee should involve a third party, either NGO or other body who is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment.
So I decided to write to the employer mentioning about the new law and asking to constitute the Complaints Committee. I wrote to more than 220 organisations in Kochi requesting the same, so that this particular employer does not understand, this was pursuant to the lady’s complaint.
This particular employer came and met me and I asked him to ensure the compliance with the judgment. He asked me to refer a third party for the Complaints Committee and I referred a trained women’s activist, as the third party in the committee.
Pursuant to this, the employer stopped troubling the lady and she was saved from any sort of harassment. During the process, partnering with Rajagiri Institute of Social Sciences and Institute of Management in Government, a research on sexual harassment was conducted; a training module was preferred and organisedd several training and women empowering programmes in Kochi city.
During that time, I transferred the learning and experience on this, to other states also.
Can you tell us about your anti corruption initiative, Vigilant Kerala, while you served at Vigilance and Anti Corruption Bureau? Was this scheme a failure?
The core concept of Vigilant Kerala goes back to the period of Horticulture development programme in 1992-1996. For the first time in Kerala, Self Help Groups (SHG) were formed.
When I was shunted out of Horticulture development programme, the Horticulture revolution which I wanted to bring in Kerala did not materialise. I had a mission of high and stable income for farmers. It was primarily because of derailment and politicisation. Politicisation and the resultant bad governance spoiled the dream.
When I came to Vigilance in 2014, I realized that the traditional way of reacting to corruption did not bring down corruption. I thought, instead of pursuing corrupt people, I thought of pursuing the honest people.
This was one of the highlight of the Vigilant Kerala programme. We thought of rewarding and encouraging honest people. The idea was to increase the number of honest and competent officers (HCOs) beyond a threshold.
When governance space is filled by honest people, corruption will come down. This may sound utopian, even though it was proved doable in the 44 Panchayat in eight districts, where it was implemented as a pilot project.
Everything will sound like a failure in the middle unless someone takes it forward. When I left Vigilance, nobody was there to nurture this infant or take forward Vigilant Kerala and this led to a natural death of the programme due to lack of care and attention.
Did the failure of Vigilant Kerala led to the birth of Excel Kerala and who are the people behind Excel Kerala?
Excel Kerala is out of two realisations. One is of the Self Help Groups (SHGs) of Horticultural Kerala programme of 1992-96 and the other is about pursuing honest people under Vigilant Kerala programme of 2014.
Vigilant Kerala was never nurtured after I left the Vigilance Department.
I realised, an anti corruption programme within the Government has its constraints to grow and flourish. Therefore necessarily it has to be outside the government space. These are the two learning that led to Excel Kerala.
You take the case of Justice Santhosh Hegde in Karnataka. He was successful to make the Karnataka Lokayukta mechanism an effective one.
When he made it effective, there started the demise of that institution. Today it is not effective as it was under Justice Hegde.
An anti corruption programme within the Government can succeed in Norway, Sweden or Denmark where the level of corruption is less. Where the level corruption is high, it will not succeed. They will kill it. You know whom!
This was why Excel Kerala was born. Excel Kerala will be a corrective force, cultural force and positive force for sustainable development of our state through good governance.
To ensure this, we will work towards implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as provided by the United Nations, in 2015 as the vision.
Whoever subscribes to this vision and whoever believes that sustainable development can be achieved through good governance are the natural partners of Excel Kerala.
Would you consider quitting civil service for Excel Kerala? Is there any conflict of interest in serving in civil service and being part of Excel Kerala?
If you ask me, will you quit Kerala for Excel Kerala, what would be my answer. It’s my birthplace and why should I quit anything. I wrote the civil service exams and it was not given to me by anybody. I was appointed by the Government of India and they asked me to serve in this State and sent me here. I was never appointed by the mercy or charity of anyone.
There is no conflict of interest and perhaps it’s the same. As a citizen of this country it is my duty to work for the sustainable development of the State and also to implement the good governance principles. Government of Kerala’s, Institute of Management in Government gives training on the same principles of good governance. I am doing the same thing in Excel Kerala. I am promoting the Kerala Government’s principles of good governance for the people of Kerala, whom I serve.
Will Excel Kerala ever take a political turn like Arvind Kejriwal’s movement against corruption? Can you change the system without being a part of it?
We will never take a political turn and I told you it’s a positive force, cultural force and corrective force, pursuing the United Nation’s objective. Regarding changing the system, Karl Marx changed the system in Russia though being a German who lived in the United Kingdom.
He never knew Russian language or travelled to Russia. He never knew the people there. Still he changed the system there. Karl Marx was just a writer. So in my case, Excel Kerala is just a website with some writings! Writings not on the walls.
How is Excel Kerala funded?
I told you about Self Help Groups as one of the core ideas behind Excel Kerala. Partners will do activities and actions which they themselves can do. Any activity which they cannot do individually or with the help of their organisations cannot be undertaken. We will not go around begging.
Who are members and partners to Excel Kerala verified?
We believe a self selection or match making will happen. Secondly, we ask them to give a declaration when they become a partner online.
Every Keralite who wishes to have good governance and sustainable development in Kerala is potentially a partner of Excel Kerala and we do not want to exclude anyone.
We are chasing and pursuing honest people. After sometime in Excel Kerala when more partners commit to anti corruption beyond a threshold; the space for corruption will come down.
It’s heard you are a Yoga practitioner and has passed with first rank and distinction in Yoga and Meditation course of the University of Kerala? Tell us about this experience.
I started practicing Yoga seeing my father standing upside down. I did not know at that time, if it was Yoga. I also wanted to do the same for some relaxation.
I started learning Yoga formally, while I was a graduate student. Later I turned to Karate practice and stopped practicing Yoga. I was interested in martial arts.
I went to Model Town in Delhi to practice Karate. I asked the master there to come to our college area to start classes. He asked to arrange twenty people for the class and he would come.
Later he left for a job in Dubai and I took over the classes and had a stint as Karate Master there. Then I joined the civil services and could not practice much.
I tried practicing Karate while I was posted at Kannur but that was also not continued. I turned back to Yoga from Karate for not only relaxation but also being attracted by the philosophy of Yoga, as exemplified in Bhagavat Gita.
Now I practice Yoga as a philosophy in practice and it is one of my interests.
Any message to the people of the Kerala?
All of us in Kerala should realise that each one of us are the owners of Kerala as shareholders. Many of us think that the land alone we hold is Kerala.
The assets we own are: the air above us – which is ours, the waters here is ours, the forests here are ours, and the climate we enjoy is ours; the landscape is ours, rivers are ours, lakes and public land are ours.
In this Kerala, which we individually and collectively own, we should work and desire towards making this a better place than when we came into this world, an excellent Kerala.
These are the humble thoughts I wish to share with my co-owners of Kerala.