‘I’m a janata sheriff’

‘Lion’ Ashok Mehta, who was appointed Sheriff of Mumbai in January, is widely popular for his philanthropic work during the past many decades. But, as sheriff, his identity is almost unknown. In a tete-a-tete with ‘Ashokbhai’, HUBERT VAZ discovers that this incognito, low-lying sheriff is, in fact, doing a greater service than any of his predecessors.

IF one may ask ‘Who’s the current sheriff of Mumbai?’ you might probably have to think hard for an answer, even if you are an avid reader of daily newspapers. The fact is, that even journalists, celebrities, government officials and socialites fumble for the right name when asked this question.

Mr. Ashok Mehta, the chairman and managing director of Bell Burner Components Pvt. Ltd., the first sheriff of the new millennium, appears to be one of the most unsung sheriffs Mumbai has ever had. While Mumbai has had well known names, like Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Sunil Gavaskar, Bakul Patel, Nana Chudasama as well as lesser known personalities who, however, made their presence felt by taking up ambitious projects for the city, Mr. Mehta’s is one person who might be forgotten as the last sheriff even before his name clicks. His term ends on December 19, 2001.

Actually, ‘Ashokbhai’, as he is popularly known, has a string of feathers in his cap before even being appointed Sheriff of Mumbai. When we encountered him in his busy office at Khatau Mansion, off Napean Sea Road, even the security man in the compound did not know that the sheriff had his office in that building. “Yahan par koi sheriff-veriff nahin hain,” was the reply.

In fact, after the interview with Mr. Mehta, when we took him to a public park at Napean Sea Road, to click a photograph, the police personnel at the adjacent US Consulate took strong objection. They had no idea who the sheriff was and sent us (reporter and photographer) to the Gamdevi police station to register a complaint. The sheriff, however, arrived on the scene and made matters clear.

What took the cake was the fact that even the officer in charge of the station did not know him and had to be given an introduction. “When did you take over?” the officer asked only to be told by the sheriff that it was 10 months ago (in January). “This is how things are, and to think of it, that I live in his jurisdiction,” the sheriff later told us. He also disclosed that he often gets invitations addressed to the former sheriff (Mr. Augustine Pinto), that too, from government and police officials.

Why is it that nobody knows who the sheriff is? Why don’t you let people know what you are doing for the city, we asked him, only to see him lean back in his chair and dismiss it with a ready wave of his hands. “What is the point in announcing everything that you do. I am a janata sheriff. The people know what I do for them and they flock in large numbers everyday at my office, at the sheriff’s office, even at my residence 6 a.m. onwards,” was the prompt reply.

Ashokbhai, a Commerce graduate, who had served the engineering firm, Mukand, for 30 years, said he gave up a career of actively earning money way back in 1985 and has been devoting himself full-time to social work. “My day begins at 4 a.m.,” he says adding, that he works for at least 18 hours everyday for no remuneration at all. Being associated with various clubs like Lions, Giants, Rotary, etc. Lion Ashok Mehta is chairman emeritus of the Lion Tarachand Bappa Hospital & Research Centre, a multi-purpose diagnostic centre with a 70-bed hospital. He is also managing trustee of the popular Diwaliben Mohanlal Mehta Charitable Trust and founder secretary of the Mahavir Heart Research Foundation.

Besides this, Ashokbhai, who gets a string of visitors seeking guidance and financial aid for medical treatment everyday, is also founder chairman of the Lion Kartar Singh Hospital & Research Centre, Mumbai, and the Rural General Hospital at Chorwad, Gujarat. He is also associated with the Thane Metropolitan Gymkhana, the Gyan Vikas Mandal, M.P. Shah Women’s College, Jeevan Prakash which conducts mercy mission projects, Infant Jesus Education Trust, Pune, and the Senate of Mumbai University.

Ashokbhai, says he has always been associated with helping government agencies in rescue and rehabilitation work whenever calamity strikes. From the time of Partition, when refugee camps needed aid, till several other critical times like the Koyna quakes, Morbi floods, Latur earthquake, etc. Mr. Mehta has always been involved in rehabilitation work.

In February 1997, he was felicitated for his 50 years of distinguished social service and was presented a purse of Rs. 1 crore with which he set up the rural hospital at Chorwad. He has also attended 23 international conventions, 14 US-Canada forums, 25 Africa forums and three OSEAL forums. Lions International presidents have during the past 22 consecutive years presented him with the President’s medal for his outstanding contribution.

He also informed that his appointment as sheriff was an unanimous decision taken by chief minister, Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh, his deputy, Mr. Chhagan Bhujbal, BRCC chief, Mr. Murli Deora and NCP president, Mr. Sharad Pawar. But he told the CM not to make a “political appointment” and to offer him the post only if he deserved it.

When asked whether one year was enough for a sheriff’s term, Ashokbhai said “Yes, it’s more than enough. It is good to keep changing people otherwise they become stale.” He also mentioned that he has received immense cooperation from the government, especially the chief minister, Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh, chief secretary, Mr. V. Ranganathan, additional secretary (home), Mr. Satish Tripathi and a few others.

Ashokbhai, who came to Mumbai in 1948, says he loves everything about Mumbai, especially the tolerant and friendly people, who reach out to each other and get back to normal life despite many calamities. He lives with his wife, Kokila, at Matunga, and would like to always be an Indian citizen, though his daughter, Sheetal, is married and settled in the US.

So, if you’ve been doing so much for so many years, will the title of sheriff (ex-sheriff from January 2002) help in any way, we asked him as a parting shot. “Definitely. This title carries a lot of prestige and it will help in all my work in future years. After all, everybody does not get a chance to be sheriff...”