Hey call her the ‘Manal Athikari’ (sand officer). Sounds deceptive but B. Jothi Nirmala has given sleepless nights to the sand mafia in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district.
Her latest intrepid act is taking on the mighty “landlords” in her district to retrieve a stretch of salt-pan to build a housing colony for the poor.
Recently, Nirmala made bureaucratic history when she was named the first woman IAS officer to be conferred a bravery award. The award has been instituted in the memory of the late Indian-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla.
People in the district recount how she busted the drug network and cracked down on illegal sand mining and illegal arrack. This despite mafia threats to disfigure her face with acid. Or kill her.
Nirmala, who entered the state government service in 1991, said of her people: “Their love and affection has helped me come this far.”
But none of this was possible without her family behind her. Nirmala’s husband Muniyaswamy, has a horticulture farm. The couple have two school-going children — a son and a daughter.
You can do it
Nirmala grew up in a middle class family in the small, dusty port town of Tuticorin, Her parents brought her up with the “you-can-do-it mantra”. As a student of History, she was a “keen observer of people”.
But her inspiration came from Tamil poet, Subrahmanya Bharathi, who passionately advocated a new grammatology for the ‘brave new women of modern India’. Also Tagore’s ageless lines: even if the path is full of obstacles, the will knows no end.
Her colleagues describe her as one who mined the sand from under the Kuluthurai riverbed that threatened to change the very course of the river itself.
Pressing Vallams (country boats) into operation, the mafia would “engage people to dive down to the bottom of the river, scoop up the sand on to the vallams that would take them to the bank where trucks would be loaded and moved onward to Kerala”, Nirmala said explaining their modus operandi.
There were risks involved. But she was hell bent on ending the illegal and ecologically disastrous sand-mining. At all costs.
“As early as 3 am, I would lead a team to conduct raids” On a boat herself, Nirmala with the help of efficient divers, would seize their boats. “We would drag them out, parade them on the streets and finally dump them at the nearest police station or an office of the revenue department” Nirmala told HT.
Once, she personally broke and burnt some boats used by illegal miners.
Courage under fire
Her response to threats? Planning a raid the very next day in the area from where the threat call came. Those targeted hurled bombs at her, according to her colleagues.
The police advised restraint but she didn’t stop. This encouraged her officers to back her till illegal sand mining in Kanniyakumari District “completely stopped”.
During a raid at a place called Athur, a lorry was set upon their jeep as they waited on a bridge.
“That was a miraculous escape,” Nirmala recalls. Evidently, there’s no stopping this woman.