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Village official takes public oath against bribe

Reported on October 25, 2013 from Madurai, Tamil Nadu  ι Report #6

Even though Prithviraj is fighting a lone battle, he takes solace from the fact that people in general seem to be rooting for him.

While on a visit to Madurai in Tamil Nadu, I had a chance to meet with Prithviraj. He is a village administrative officer, the rung of officialdom, which is in constant touch with the citizen. Prithviraj is a very different kind of person. He can talk extempore before a rural audience for an hour on how to fight corruption yet be modest enough to say that he is not much of a public speaker.



Prithviraj, is amongst the few village administrative officers who go around taking a public oath against bribes and corruption. This might sound funny, that a government official needs to do this, but it is seen as a 'brave' and 'honest' act in rural Tamil Nadu. He was featured in the popular Tamil newspaper Dinamalar, along with a few other lower rung officials and it is then he became popular and anti-corruption organisations have begun calling him to give a talk on corruption in public services.



The audience is spell bound. A hearty round of applause follows him as he recounts the ways he helps citizens and how he goes around taking an oath against corruption. He is certainly a hero to an audience frustrated with bribes and corruption.



Prithviraj is a fiery speaker. He speaks with passion as he recounts his journey. " I was a normal student interested in films, and my father's death changed me. I was visiting him regularly in office and after he passed away I saw the difference in the way people related to me'. I was shocked. 'I did not want to be like them. I wanted to be different"



"I was given an opportunity to join government service, and my mother asked me for a promise that i would not take a bribe. I had promised to her and now I strive to keep up the promise". One might wonder, how a personal promise could be the basis for interaction with citizens. But that is the way it is.



He works at Tiruchili, a small village in Virudhunagar district in Tamil Nadu and is popular as the birth place of the saint, Ramana Maharishi. He mentions it often in his speeches, and reveres the saint and his teachings.



Prithviraj adds "Every time I watch the news on television, I am terrified".  Most of the corruption cases in the news relate to village administrative officers and some of them are caught red handed. "I only wish that a VAO is not caught for the day, and when nothing is reported, I am relieved."



Prithviraj says that people come from long distances to meet him, and in some cases only to see him, as a 'honest' official has become such a rarity. It gives him the strength to campaign against bribery and corruption.



VAO's are the cutting edge of the administration in the rural areas and manage the issue of birth certificates, death certificates, caste certificates and village property records. they also are the first listening post for the administration and without their knowledge and endorsement, nothing much moves in the village.



Records show that the maximum amount of retail corruption happens at the level of the VAO's, but not much action is taken against them. Unless something is reported repeatedly, and there is a lot of pressure on senior officials to act, VAO's are generally left to their own devices.



Prithviraj is fighting a lone battle, but takes solace from the fact that people in general seem to be rooting for him.   



-By Venkatesh Kannaiah


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