Who is Alphons Kannanthanam, the New Tourism Minister?
The bureaucrat turned politician was sworn-in as the Minister of State for Tourism and IT on September 3.
The headmaster at the Malayalam medium school warned Alphons Kannanthanam’s parents that he would not pass his Class 10 Board examinations. And then, the newly sworn-in minister says, the first miracle of his life happened.
I was a dumb child in school: I was the dumbest. I never won a prize in school. I scored a brilliant 42 percent for my matriculation. Everybody said I was good for nothing.– Preface of Alphons Kannanthanam’s book “Making a Difference”.
Alphons Kannanthanam was born in August 1953 in Manimala – a non-electrified village in Kerala’s Kottayam district. His father was a World War II veteran who took to teaching after retirement. He grew up with nine siblings, later eleven, after his parents adopted two more from the orphanage.
From Scraping Through to Topper
In July 1979, Alphons Kannanthanam emerged as one of the toppers of the IAS examinations. After a three year training at the National Academy of Administrations in Mussorie, he was assigned to Devicolam, Kerala as a sub-collector.
100 Days, 100% Literacy
As District Collector of Kottayam in 1989, Alphons Kannanthanam pioneered the ‘100 days. 100% literacy’ movement in Kottayam. A survey carried out by the National Service Scheme of the Kottayam-based Mahatma Gandhi University had found that 2200 city residents were illiterate. The volunteer-based program was aimed at teaching them the written word within 100 days.
Although a people-led movement, it was helmed by Alphons Kannanthanam who also went on to launch around eighteen other programs like ‘plan more trees’, ‘clean city’ and ‘quit alcohol’ along with the literacy drive.
In fact, the movement brought a lot of national and international attention towards the country’s first 100% literate town.
Later, as Commissioner for Entrance Examinations, Kerala, he got them to declare the results of the entrance examinations in 5 days, instead of 3 months.
The No-Nonsense Bureaucrat
In 1992, Alphons was transferred at least twice for refusing to tow the political line. An India Today report says:
Alphons was booted out as a civil supplies director after he refused to transfer 128 taluk supply officers in the state despite orders from the food minister.
The same year, he was shifted out of Kerala for putting a dissenting note in the 1992 Palmolein oil deal involving the then Chief Minister K Karunakaran. His government was accused of importing palm oil from a Malaysian company at a price higher than what the open market offered.
In a December 2014 story on the unholy nexus between Indian politicians, corporates and bureaucrats, The Tehelka described Alphonse as an officer who had “earned a reputation for not being a doormat for the politician.”
An Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, now retired, received a peculiar instruction from a minister when he returned to his state cadre after a deputation at the Centre.
The minister wanted the official to substitute the income certificate submitted by a student, who wanted to appear for an entrance examination, with another one so that the boy could claim the benefit of a quota for backward minorities and easily secure admission in a medical college
“Only you and I would know,” the minister told the officer, reassuring the latter that their secret would be safe with him. The officer, who had by then earned a reputation for not being a doormat for the politician, refused; needless to say, he was promptly transferred.
Among other projects, Alphons Kannanthanam also floated an organization called Jan Shakti to “cleanse public life”. The NGO helps “get the citizens to believe in their ability to make the government accountable to the people”. His website says the NGO now has over 265 branches in Kerala. But it was met with stiff resistance and was among the factors believed to have led to his transfer out of the state.
He also built a cancer center in Kottayam and helped the district achieve a health index better than that of the United States of America.
Consequently, in 1995, he was among 100 young global leaders recognized by the Time Magazine.
Delhi’s Demolition Man
In October 1995, as Commissioner of the Delhi Development Authority, the IAS officer launched a drive against illegal constructions which earned him the moniker ‘Demolition Man’. Within three and a half years, he demolished 13,800 illegal structures, reclaimed 1500 acres of prime land commercially valued at Rs 10,000 crore.
Some of the buildings he brought down belonged to relatives of politicians like HKL Bhagat, Buta Singh and businessmen like Lalit Suri.
An October 1995 report in India Today quoted him as as saying:
I know I will be eased out of Delhi too, but I will not move out without a fight.
Sure enough, he was transferred to DDA’s systems and training office. But, nothing, not even the 24,000 pending cases against him at the time, seemed to rattle him.
In 2006, about eight years prior to his retirement, Alphons Kannanthanam resigned from the Indian Administrative Service. Thirty two days after his resignation, he contested and won as an independent from the Kanjirappally constituency. He claims to have spent only Rs 10 lakh on campaigning.
In 2011, he resigned from his assembly seat and a few hours later, joined the BJP in the presence of Nitin Gadkari. He was quoted as having said:
I have great faith in the ability of India.... I see BJP on the path of development.
Shortly after taking oath, he told a news channel that Kerala had to be part of Modi’s agenda, otherwise the state is going to miss out.
The BJP is hoping to break into the state’s two-party system dominated by the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The BJP won its first assembly seat in Kerala last year, but is aware that it cannot strengthen its presence in the state without appealing to the minority community. 18% of the state’s population is Christian, 27% is Muslim.
By appointing a Malayalee speaking Syrian Catholic with an incorruptible image to his Cabinet, Prime Minister Modi is hoping to get his message right.
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