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M Sivasankar: Bureaucrat who plugged Kerala into digital world

Earlier this week, Sivasankar was removed from the posts of principal secretary to CM and Information Technology secretary after news reports of his association with Swapna Suresh, charged by the National Investigation Agency in the smuggling racket.

Written by Vishnu Varma | Kochi | Updated: July 11, 2020 2:42:52 pm
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Once an important member of the close ring of advisors to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, since the Left government was voted to power in May 2016, M Sivasankar is now at the centre of a major controversy involving a gold smuggling racket that’s threatening to tarnish the image of the state government.

Earlier this week, Sivasankar was removed from the posts of principal secretary to CM and Information Technology (IT) secretary after news reports of his association with Swapna Suresh, charged by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in the smuggling racket. Sivasankar was shunted out hours after Suresh was fired from her contractual position as a business development manager with Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITIL). KSITIL is an entity that works under the government’s IT department.

“There are no legal allegations against Sivasankar. But, in the public domain, there are a number of remarks against him in connection with a woman. Therefore, it’s not right that such a person continues to sit in the chief minister’s office… the state government is not burdened to protect any culprit,” the chief minister said during his press briefing.

Sivasankar’s fall from grace has been a major talking point in the state’s bureaucratic circles especially because he wielded immense clout in the chief minister’s office and helped shape the government’s vision in attracting investments. A 1995-batch IAS officer and an SFI leader back in college, Sivasankar has been instrumental in re-branding the outlook of a communist government by bridging the gap between the administration and investors and pitching the state as an ideal destination for startups and IT entrepreneurs. Industry leaders have always seen him as a no-nonsense bureaucrat, extremely hands-on and quick to resolving bottlenecks in paperwork. From a coalition that looked at industry and technology with indifference, the CPM and its allies have indeed come a long way, thanks to Sivasankar at the helm of the government’s IT department.

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The IAS officer has been key to some of the government’s flagship projects like Kerala Fibre Optic Network (KFON) which aims to provide high-speed internet connectivity to 20 lakh indigent households by December this year. Or the Kerala Startup Mission which took off during the previous Congress-led government and has since been strengthened with more financial resources, capacity-building and avenues for startups like regular hackathon summits. The entry of industry giants like Nissan setting up its global digital hub in Thiruvananthapuram has also been recorded with Sivasankar at the helm of IT affairs.

But in April this year, Sivasankar had his first major brush with controversy when Congress leader of opposition Ramesh Chennithala pointed fingers at him and the government over the alleged breach of privacy by handing over health data of 1.75 lakh people under quarantine to a US-based firm called Sprinklr.

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That the deal was purportedly signed off by the IT department in a hush-hush manner without taking due clearances from finance and law departments or putting out a global tender for the same put the bureaucrat at the centre of the storm. The government responded by saying that Sprinklr’s analytical tool was offered free-of-cost without any financial favours being exchanged. Even when the CPI, the second-largest party in the coalition, expressed its unhappiness with Sivasankar’s conduct during the Sprinklr deal, the chief minister sought to shield Sivasankar as the Opposition bayed for his blood. It reflected his trust in the officer.

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However, the recent revelations in the smuggling of gold through diplomatic baggage, which has national and international repercussions, are too hard-hitting for the CM to ignore. On the first day that the case hit headlines, when reporters grilled the CM about the appointment of Swapna Suresh in a key project of the state government despite her criminal antecedents, he responded saying that he was not aware how she was hired, casting aspersions on the goings-on at the IT department which comes directly under the control of the chief minister.

The next day, Sivasankar was out, first as the CM’s principal secretary and a few hours later, as the IT secretary, marking an abrupt end to the bureaucrat’s hold on the most powerful office in the state.

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