Vishwas Mehta talks about the four M's to Kerala's success
On July 22, when Vishwas Mehta, chief secretary of the Kerala State Government, was returning home after a hard day’s work at the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, he realised it was the birthday of the playback singer Mukesh (1923-76). Vishwas had been an intense fan for many years.
He remembers the day Mukesh died on August 27, 1976, as if it had happened yesterday. The singer had been performing with Lata Mangeshkar at a concert in Detroit, USA when he collapsed due to heart attack. “I was 16 years old then,” says Vishwas. “His songs are so melancholy. I don’t know why I was attracted to him.”
Vishwas was devastated when he heard the news. He stepped out of his home at Chandigarh, went to a nearby park and cried for a long time. Then Vishwas prayed to God, “Please give me the voice of Mukesh.” Vishwas also prayed to Mukesh with a similar plea.
At his home in Thiruvananthapuram, Vishwas has a mike and a sound system. That night, in the presence of his wife Preeti, and a family friend, through karaoke, he sang ‘Kahin door jab din dhal jaye’ from the 1971 film, ‘Anand’ and other songs. Another version of him singing ‘Kahin door’ can be seen on YouTube. It would seem as if God has granted his wish. He sounds like Mukesh. And he has sung in many public concerts.
In his official career, Vishwas has been steadily moving upwards — Sub Collector, District Collector, Secretary, Principal Secretary, and Additional Chief Secretary. On May 31, Vishwas became the Chief Secretary in place of the incumbent Tom Jose who had retired. And he has gone straight into the hurricane as COVID-19 is now spreading all over Kerala through community transmission.
“These are busy and stressful days,” he says. “The most important task at hand is to find as many places to convert into first-line COVID treatment hospitals. Every day there is planning and coordination with the different departments so that things move forward smoothly.”
What is interesting to know is that Vishwas is a Rajasthani who has now spent 34 years in Kerala. Asked his view about the state, Vishwas says, “Kerala is 15 years ahead of other states in terms of health and education. It is on par with Europe.”
And he has a clear idea of how this has happened. “There are four ‘M's’ behind Kerala’s success,” he says.
The first M is missionaries. They came over a hundred years ago and set up schools and hospitals.
The second M was the prevalence of the matriarchal society. It brought empowerment to women. They got educated and owned property. As a result, they developed independent thinking.
The third M is the monarchs. The kings never fought a war with anybody, but they built many schools, colleges, hospitals and public infrastructure like the Secretariat. There was not much consolidation of wealth and power within the royal families. “In Rajasthan, the rulers were engaged in wars all the time,” says Vishwas. “They were fighting the Mughals or the British. So, they needed to make forts and castles to defend themselves. In Kerala, you will not find forts or castles, except maybe, the Bekal Fort.”
The fourth M was the first Marxist Government in the world which came to power in Kerala in 1957 through the ballot box. Chief Minister EMS Namboodiripad started education and land reforms. There was a limit to the number of acres an individual could own. Excess land was distributed to the landless.
“This was missing in other parts of India where many people do not own land even now and have to work directly or indirectly for a landlord,” says Vishwas. “These four ‘M’s have brought about the transformation that we see today.”
But it is not all perfect. “If the people had been aware of their duties also, instead of only their rights, Kerala could have become an island of prosperity,” he says. “There also would not have been this demand for labour from other states.” This now numbers five lakh.
And despite having 22 lakh people in West Asia, there is hardly any manufacturing industry, nor do Keralites generate economic wealth. “All they do is make houses, buy cars and jewellery,” says Vishwas.
But it does not mean Vishwas does not enjoy himself. He had the best time of his career when he spent four-and-a-half years as Sub-Collector and Collector of Wayanad. He would travel to the most remote hamlet to meet the tribals, like the Panniyan, Kattuniakkan, and the Kurichyan, and try to address their problems.
“They will say a road needs to be repaired, or a well needs to be dug deeper as there is no water, or the doctor does not come to the primary health centre or they are not getting their weekly rations,” says Vishwas.
He knew that a lot of officers and politicians who visited them had not resolved their problems. Vishwas wanted to restore their faith in the administration. “I tried to fulfill at least one or two of the demands immediately,” he says. “In the collectorate, I would chase the departments to ensure implementation.”
There were unusual moments too. One day, 30 tribal women led by an elderly woman named Ponamma came to the Collectorate. They said they wanted to see the Collector and visit the collectorate. So Vishwas led them around and showed them the different departments. For them, it was an eye-opener. At the end of the walk-around, he chatted with them as they sipped tea.
He asked the Bishops of the local churches to give him all the donations in kind, like clothes, oil, and rice grains. He would put the materials in the boot of his car and donated it directly to the villagers. He was aware if he gave it to the officials, many things might be pilfered away.
After two years, when it was announced that he was being transferred, he was invited to Sulthan Bathery for a farewell. While there, in front of a church, over 500 tribals had assembled. Since he did not want a formal meeting, they surrounded the Collector and started talking to him.
At the edge of the crowd, Vishwas noticed a 70-year-old tribal lady. She looked familiar, yet he was not sure. A few minutes later, he suddenly realised it was Ponamma.
He said, “How come you are here?”
She replied, “I just came to meet you. We are very sad that you are leaving.”
When Vishwas was leaving, she caught hold of his hand and put something in it. As the car left, he opened his palm and saw that it was a chocolate eclair.
“This was her gift, and it was from her heart,” he says. “It made me cry. It was one of the best gifts I received.”
Vishwas, who was born in Dungarpur in Rajasthan, is the son of a geology professor who taught in Punjab University. So, he grew up in Chandigarh. An exemplary student throughout his school years, he did his MSc in geology. After initial stints in geology research and as a management trainee at the Steel Authority of India Limited, Vishwas got a job as an executive officer at the Oil and Natural Gas Commission. But all along, his father urged him to sit for the civil services examination.
To please his father he sat for the exams. In his first attempt he got a rank of 186 and was inducted into the Indian Police Service in 1985. His batch mates included Rishiraj Singh and Lokanath Behera. While Rishiraj is the Director-General of Prisons and Correctional Services, Kerala, Lokanath is the state’s Director General of Police. But Vishwas wanted to join the Indian Administrative Service. So he sat for the exams the next year and got the ninth rank. However, through random selection, he was inducted into the Kerala cadre.
Before he embarked to Kerala, all his colleagues sympathised with him. “Kerala is rock bottom in terms of facilities for government servants and the people do not give much respect,” says Vishwas. “Nobody wanted to come to the South.”
In North India, the officers lived in palatial bungalows, with many servants at their beck and call. “You are treated like a demigod,” says Vishwas. “But that is not the case in Kerala.”
In fact, Vishwas remembers a Class Four staffer telling him one day when he was posted to Mananthavady, “Sir, the only difference between you and me is that you sat for an exam and passed it. I did not have the resources nor the education to do so.”
Vishwas was taken aback. “Lakhs of aspirants take the exam,” he says. “It is not easy to get through. But he was unwilling to show that respect.”
Vishwas spent one year, from August 1987, in training at Kollam under the collector CV Ananda Bose. Like any first-timer, it was difficult for Vishwas to adjust to the rice-based diet (he preferred chapatis), people, culture and language. But within a year, he got married to Preeti, a homemaker, so his family life became settled soon.
In the office, at Mananthavady, he had a clerk to translate Malayalam words into English. “I realised that whether you speak right or wrong does not matter,” he says. “What matters is to keep speaking in Malayalam.”
It took Vishwas about five years to gain some measure of fluency.
“I am still learning,” he says. “People have shown their appreciation because they know I was from Rajasthan. They never made fun of me. That was very nice of Malayalis.”
In his personal life, Vishwas has two married sons, Ekalavya (San Jose, USA) and Dhruv (Noida). Both are in the IT industry.
Meanwhile, Vishwas remains focused on his work. “My aim is to do good for society and try to make a difference,” he says. “Only when you give back are you honoured and respected.”