Coimbatore industrialist shrugs off some controversial labels he wears, and focuses on helping needy students.

I walk into the office of O. Arumugasamy, Chairman of the Senthil group of companies, in Coimbatore, fully aware of the very powerful and controversial titles he wears… such as the sand mafia boss of Tamil Nadu, the only businessman who has managed to stay on the right side of both the Dravidian regimes ruling Tamil Nadu in rhythmic pendulum swings since 1991.

But the man who has been accused of “manal kollai” or sand dacoity (interestingly, he tells me this himself with a huge smile), is also making waves in this southern city with something totally unconnected. Giving grants… not loans... worth a whopping Rs 74.09 crore to students this year alone. Next year, the plan is to step this up to Rs 100 crore. As I walk in, it is impossible to miss a couple, clearly from a poor background, seated before him.

To say they are “seated” would be an exaggeration — the two are literally on the edge of their seats, hands folded in supplication and heads bowed. They walk out with a smile from his durbar… oh yes! it’s a durbar alright, where you have to leave your footwear outside.

No holds barred!

At the outset, Arumugasamy startles me a little by saying: “Ask me whatever you want”. I begin by commenting, in my limited Tamil, which makes him beam, “Rs 74 crore in grants this year; wow! The sand business must be awfully profitable.”

Arumugasamy grins: “You people in the media know everything; you ask questions to which you already know answers.”

We then begin with his background: He hails from an agricultural family which owned 100 acres. Having no interest in either studies or farming, as a teenager, “I told my father, if I take up a job I will get Rs 250... I am not interested”.

At 22 he became the gram panchayat president of Aanur, about 30 km from Coimbatore. “In 1975 I joined the DMK, contested the 1977 Assembly election from the Mettupalayam constituency and lost; and in 1989 I thought politics was not for me and left the DMK.”

Before I can hold myself back, the words tumble out: “Today you can have 100 politicians in your pocket.”

He guffaws and I am relieved… that he did not take offence. He next tells me some juicy stories, off the record of course, about how some people — including media persons and politicians — write adverse articles and file public interest litigations after failing to get favours from him.

He reiterates, with a huge smile, that he is only an “advisor/consultant” to those dealing in sand. It is another matter that he is supposed to own 1,100 lorries and 450 excavators. “They belong to my relatives and friends,” he says with a straight face.

The money his “consultancy” brings, coupled with the yearly Rs 6 crore rental he gets from SIV (South India Viscose) Towers, where it is said he once worked, and profits from other businesses of the Senthil group of companies, go to fund the scholarships and a school he runs.

His businesses include a lucrative cinema complex — Senthil Kumaran Theatre — in Coimbatore, which yields a monthly income of Rs 13 lakh that goes mainly to fund a school that provides free education to 2,000 children.

According to his Finance Manager, Karthikeyan, Arumugasamy’s other business ventures include “a biotechnology company that exports papaya enzyme to many countries”. Then there are the Saradha Papers and Boards, Senthil Infrastructure, Continental Packaging, and others.

And the money flowed in

There is a crowd of young boys and girls outside his office, waiting for their applications to be accepted. We turn the conversation to the scholarships he gives. In 1989, Arumugasamy set up the Shree Vijayalakshmi Charitable Trust, named after his wife. “Look, I am 70 years old now. When I turned 60, I called my children and said: ‘Till now I have given you 100 times what I had inherited from my father. Henceforth whatever I earn will go for charity.’ Believe me, after that day the money started flowing in,” he says, with a rare serious expression on his face.

In the coming years he hopes to spend more time, and money, on education. “During the admission time of the year, my doors are open from 11.30 a.m. to 8.30 p.m.” The criteria for the scholarship programme, given to students from four districts in Tamil Nadu — Coimbatore, Nilgiris, Erode and Tirupur — are well defined, with the cut-off marks fixed, and his administrative staff handle the bulk of applications. Plus 1 and 2 students get a grant of Rs 5,000 a year, Rs 10,000–12,500 for undergrad course and Rs 25,000 a year for professional courses such as engineering and medicine.

Messiah for the poorest of poor

But the really poor students, whose parents can’t afford to bear the remaining expenditure, including money for books and hostel fees, come knocking on his door to get the rules relaxed. “I wish you had come yesterday. I had here this girl, S. Booma Devi and her parents, who are daily wage labourers, from a village in Tirupur.”

This student has scored 1,160 (out of 1,200) marks and got a seat in Aeronautics Engineering in Anna University. “She is so bright and said very confidently: ‘After completing the course I will join ISRO.’ But Rs 25,000, which we normally give to engineering students every year, will not be enough, because her parents cannot contribute anything.”

So not only Booma, but also Selvakumar, the son of labourers from Erode district, who has scored 1,183 marks and secured a seat in the MIT campus of Anna University for Electronics and Communications Engineering, will get the entire expenditure for their course — over Rs 1 lakh a year — from the Vijayalakshmi Trust.

His next dream, says Arumugasamy, is to start a university with arts, engineering and medical colleges that will provide quality education free to about 10,000 deserving students. “For this I need Rs 2,000 crore; I’d say I’m halfway there already,” he says.

As I walk out of his office, a line from Azad, a Dilip Kumar movie I had seen as a child, floats through my head: “Amiro ko lootneywala aur garibo ko bachaneywala, mera naam hei Azad.” (I loot the rich and help the poor.)

But before I get carried away too much, I think of the Dilip charisma, then and now! But there is no denying a Robin Hood-ish fit though…

(This article was published on August 9, 2012)
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