The pivot to a transforming Odisha: VK Pandian

VK Pandian, then a young Collector of Ganjam came up with an unanticipated, out-of-the-box suggestion to the reticent Patnaik.

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Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik first noticed him during a Collectors’ Conference in 2006. VK Pandian, then a young Collector of Ganjam came up with an unanticipated, out-of-the-box suggestion to the reticent Patnaik. The Ganjam collector insisted on the allocation of more funds from the state for the sportspersons. He pointed out that that the sportspersons in Odisha were paid lesser allowances than what was provisioned by the Sports Authority of India. The CM took kindly to the suggestion. He averred that his government could manage with one fewer bridge but athletes should be paid well.

That idea was possibly the sapling of a tree that’s grown today. From no footprint on the country’s sports map to a force to reckon with- the nation’s sports capital- Bhubaneswar has arrived astonishingly. It’s the culmination of Pandian’s vision and his unwavering belief. Else, how could Odisha host the Athletics Championship and gear up the Kalinga Stadium in less than 90 days? That happened when other states took to hands-off posturing and paraded their helplessness in staging the event. More pearls bedecked Odisha’s sports crown when the state-sponsored the Men’s and Women’s Hockey teams. Come January, Odisha will host the grandest spectacle in Hockey- the World Cup! Thanks to Pandian’s unflagging sports passion, Odisha today owns a Football Club, rivalling the neighbouring West Bengal and a rugby team too. This multifaceted sports ownership was unthinkable without Pandian’s ideation and his tireless efforts towards implementation. Small wonder then that the progressive bureaucrat was feted with the FIH President’s Award, honouring his contribution to the development and promotion of hockey.

One swallow does not make a summer. The enviable reputation that Pandian has built is no flash in the pan. During his stint as the Ganjam collector, he laid the foundational premise of good governance. Ganjam was notorious for its steep exodus of migrant labour. Pandian reversed the trend with seamless and efficient implementation of the MGNREGA scheme. His foresight and administrative acumen lead to the creation of jobs galore. And it significantly checkmated the export of human labour. The suave and incomparably efficient Pandian also led the turnaround of Ganjam on many social and human development indicators.

His impeccable and sterling performance in Ganjam became a passport to the coveted Chief Minister’s Office. He was drafted to the Third Floor of Odisha bureaucracy as Private Secretary to CM. Since then, there’s no turning back. Today, Pandian is the 5T Secretary. True, 5T is no administrative department. It’s much beyond. 5T (Technology, Transformation, Team Work, Transparency & Time) is the epitome of hands-on, people-centric governance. It’s a peerless governance paradigm that’s worked like a magic wand to transform the face of governance in Odisha. Yet, the man anchoring this laudable initiative knows the sweat and toil to make a success out of it. You have 5T coupled with Mo Sarkar (or My Government) and a game-changing alliance is cemented. Mo Sarkar consolidates the pillar of participative democracy. It restores power with the aam aadmi who elect their representatives. Under Mo Sarkar, the senior bureaucrats, ministers and even the Chief Minister himself make random calls to the people who visit government establishments like hospitals, police stations etc. The motive is to gauge the feedback of citizens on their interaction with officials on duty. This interactive, automated feedback looping system has induced behavioural change among the officers. It has changed their temperament from reactive to proactive in tackling people’s grievances. Their responsiveness is a part of their performance appraisal. Plus, there are punitive provisions. Officers can be suspended too.

5T is anything but building castles in the air. Achieving this vision needs profuse efforts on the ground. And Pandian is pulling all stops to create a transformative impact. He steps out in the wee hours of the day for a surprise reconnaissance of the development works. There have been news reports of the CM’s Private Secretary doing a recce of the Lingraj Temple renovation work or the planned redevelopment of the SCB Medical College during unearthly hours. This has kept the putatively slack officers on their toes. More importantly, it has set in a culture of accountable governance.

It’s a popular notion with the masses and political observers that Naveen banks on his officers to keep the governance engine humming. His coterie of officials calls the shots while ministers play the second fiddle. Viewing this from a positive lens has weaved a narrative of transformation that few could contest. From starvation deaths to food security and being at the mercy of inclement Nature to setting benchmarks in disaster management, from penury to self-sufficiency, the Odisha transformation story is unmistakable. The landscape is changing, and officers of the calibre of Pandian have played a stellar role in it.

Pandian is Chief Minister’s closest aide, and doubtless, his supreme confidante. If he has been sensitive to the people’s needs at the grassroots, equally adept he is at wooing investors. He accompanied the CM in all the roadshows in the run-up to the Make in Odisha conclave planned in December this year. He is conspicuous by his witty presence at all important business meetings at the Odisha Secretariat. He usually does the talking while his boss is the taciturn participant.

The force is with Pandian. Despite enjoying untrammelled powers, he has his feet clung firmly to the ground. His innings in transformative governance have lessons aplenty for the aspirational officers. Wait, there’s a lot more to come.

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