Book review: KS Ramachandran’s Ascent is rare work of a bureaucrat’s life, career; trainee IAS offic
Review of -- Ramachandran, K.S. (2019). “Ascent”. Chennai: Notion Press
Everyone has a story to tell. Some can tell. Very few tell, and those who tell don’t always spin their tales well, especially those who have served in government. It seems that serving in the government in India is usually cause for heartburn for the straight, honest and hardworking officer, and merely a gravy train for the unscrupulous, the corrupt, and the cunning. It also makes the bureaucrat mostly a taxonomist, drawing tables, organizing categories, using language shorn of descriptors, telling boring technical details in bureaucratic jargon. The corrupt and the cunning don’t want to reveal their skullduggery and their deceptions, and when it is the turn of the good, honest, hardworking bureaucrat who may have a halfway decent story to tell, he or she ends up with a litany of complaints about what all befell them in the course of their three or four decades of toil to make India that is Bharat a country to be proud of.
My father was a bureaucrat, a civil engineer who served the State of Karnataka for three decades and retired a deeply saddened man, having been deprived of his due, the promotion to the level of Chief Engineer. He suffered a heart attack at age 55, and whenever I used to ask him of his work, he would brush away my inquiries. My brother is an electrical engineer, and he too has served the State of Karnataka, and we tease him about his complaints of corrupt and incompetent colleagues, political meddling, and of people fifteen years his junior being made his bosses because of their jati category and their “reservation” status. It is in this context of my own family experience that I read the fascinating book by a bureaucrat of yore, an IAS officer from Chennai, then Madras, who was assigned to the Odisha cadre, and of the work he was able to do, against huge odds, many difficult odds. It was at a time when India was newly independent and was making much haste to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of infrastructure and industrial development, and IAS officers were the leaders who took up the gauntlet to make India shine.
Kadayam Sankara (K.S.) Ramachandran was born in 1927 into a well-to-do family in Chennai. His father practiced law in the chambers of the Madras High Court, and one of his uncles was the top Indian tennis players -- T. B. Balagopal -- who beat Cam Malfroy of New Zealand, who stopped in Madras on his way back to New Zealand having beaten Fred Perry at Wimbledon. Ramachandran’s maternal grandfather, T. R. Venkatarama Sastri, was an Advocate General of the Madras Presidency. His father was friends with the renowned Indian philosopher K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, and once had the esteemed professor visit his son, when he was still a raw, young IAS officer in Odisha to see whether he would recommend him continuing in the underdeveloped state or seek a change to somewhere more welcoming. Ramachandran’s sisters and cousins learned Carnatic music, and though he himself did not have formal lessons had enough talent to win the second prize in vocal music in a competition conducted by the Madras Music Academy. Ramachandran gives only a few of these details about his family life – his parents, siblings, wife, children -- and so the reader will have to read between the lines to connect some dots and be satisfied with the little he offers in this book that is devoted to his triumphs, trials, and tribulations working in the Odisha IAS Cadre from January 02, 1950 till he resigned on May 21, 1984. Those thirty-four years of service in the cause of development of one of the then most backward states of India is the tale that is told in this fascinating book.
Ramachandran did not have plans to write the IAS exams. He had earned a BA in Physics, earned a certificate in Wireless Telegraphy, and wanted to be an aircraft navigator. The Chief Instructor at the institute where he earned the telegraphy certificate refused to write a recommendation letter in support of Ramachandran’s application for the aircraft navigator’s job, and Ramachandran returned to Madras in September 1948 disappointed and not knowing what he would do next. His father suggested writing the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exams, and he had just three months to prepare for them. He did write the exams opting for physics as the main subject, and Indian and British history as optional subjects. He had the expert guidance of Prof. Nilakanta Sastri for the optional subjects. He did pass, and he did serve the country very well, especially his designated and adopted state of Orissa (now Odisha).
India is a land of maya and mischief. Indeed, it is because of the mischief of some of its people that this hoary nation has produced so many philosophers and sages over the many millennia of its storied history! India’s sages have pondered on the frailty and vanity of men, and women, of the seduction of power, of the quest for wealth, and of the challenges that those who walk the straight and narrow path face, and the curse that befalls the honest and the hardworking. But Lord Krishna exhorted Arjuna to just do his duty, and not bother about the fruits thereof. It is this approach to life that enables Ramachandran to do much good work and overcome the vicissitudes of life of an IAS officer.
For the outside world, the life of an IAS officer is that of the new Indian royalty. IAS officers form the elite corps of bureaucrats who head every major public institution and every major administrative body, get fancy bungalows to live in, servants and help in abundance, and get to bend the ears of the elected officials to do the administrator’s bidding. The reality, as is always the case, is much different. Yes, there are several perks that come with being an IAS officer, and they do get to wield both power and influence in shaping policy, from the lowest levels of administration at the village level to the fancy and plush environs of the Prime Minister’s Office. But the IAS officer is also buffeted by political changes, must deal with unsavory and thuggish political leaders, corrupt businesspeople, jealous colleagues, and the cussed and easily manipulated ordinary citizens. Ramachandran recounts his many such interactions with political leaders, foreign experts, helpful colleagues, jealous and scheming superiors, and does so without overwhelming the reader with minutiae. Yes, his deep love for the mining and mineral industry and his wonkish involvement with what the mineral-rich state of Odisha could be transformed into comes through clear and in much detail. Surely, his grounding in the sciences, a BA in physics and interest in telegraphy, stand in good stead as he wades into fields that he is not an expert in but becomes easily and happily comfortable with – from bauxite mining to ferrochrome plants, and from sponge iron manufacturing to ferrovanadium plants.
The first eight chapters of the book recounts Ramachandran’s life from that of a raw, young, IAS officer starting in Cuttack in August of 1950, when the Gandhian Chief Minister, Nabakrishna Choudhury, was at the helm of the state, then moving to Berhampur for further training in the labyrinthine ways of India’s bureaucratic “steel framework”, and on to Sambalpur, Balasore, and Koraput for more training and departmental exams, after which, in June of 1951 he was appointed as Special Assistant Agent for Koraput district, the second largest district in the entire country “with an area of 10,000 square miles” to becoming the Managing Director of the Orissa (Odisha) Mining Corporation.
These early chapters in the early life of this young officer makes for fascinating reading – with a whole variety of minor and major characters sketched in simple, precise, and careful detail: Enkaiah, his head peon; Ram Iyer, his cook; Ramu, the fleet-footed tribal who walked 70 miles in a day to deliver a letter and return (because all telephone lines and telegraph wires were down, Ramachandran’s car had broken, and the pigeon courier, yes they had pigeon couriers then, was out of commission), and many other such characters, straight out of a R. K. Narayan novel or a Manohar Mulgaonkar’s mystery thriller. Add to this the fact that Odisha, a region full of tribes, with deeply forested and hilly land, and with the great river Mahanadi flowing through it makes for a setting that is truly out of an exotic novel. Ramachandran’s lovely description of the tribal Gadaba women’s dance (p. 33) will be etched in my memory as his description of another tribal dance, later in 1962, by the women of the Poroja tribe.
Ramachandran writes of the remote locations through which he had to travel, the tiger and snake infested backyards of the official bungalows he lived in, the rising river of Mahanadi as it was dammed at Hirakud and how the animals and the people suffered. It reminded me of my own father and mother’s tales of their early life, and what they faced when my father was posted as an assistant engineer on the Manimuthar Dam project in Tirunelveli district in the Madras Presidency: the rising waters drove snakes, centipedes (inch wide and a foot long, as my mother remembered) and other dangerous creatures into their backyards and homes, and my father concocted a “security system” through which he and my mother could tuck the mosquito curtain with the light in their bedroom still on, so that they could check that their bedding was clear of dangerous insects and creepy, crawly creatures, and could switch the light off from within the canopy of the mosquito curtain. My mother still recounts those days when she, still a teenage mother, living in a big house, was scared during the day as my father went to work, and scared at night because of all the creatures inside the house and the sounds of animals outside the house. Yes, young engineers and young administrators did sacrifice a lot those days, and they were the ones who gave their blood, sweat and tears to put India on the path of becoming a modern, developed country.
Ramachandran’s recollection of his work during the building of the Hirakud Dam across the Mahanadi, the longest earthen dam in the country, and one of the great multipurpose dam projects, and which was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1957, is rich in both technical detail and personal observations of the strengths and idiosyncrasies of men – for example, the Chief Engineer, Tirumale Iyengar, one of the great engineers of modern India, who believed in and paid heed to Hindu astrological injunctions, and how Nehru pooh-poohed and deliberately scuttled Iyengar’s attempt to postpone the inauguration of the dam by an hour (because of the dreaded rahu kaalam). Tirumale Iyengar was also the Chief Engineer for the Tungabhadra multipurpose dam project, on which my father worked too, as a young engineer.
The second half of the book, from Chapter 9 through 20 is focused on Ramachandran’s work on mineral development and mining in Odisha, starting with his long stint in the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC) initially as the General Manager and Managing Director, and the pioneering work he undertook despite every kind of roadblock erected by corrupt ministers, scheming labor union leaders, and bureaucratic colleagues both at the state level and in New Delhi, and the heady days of hard work but lots of freedom to innovate during Biju Patnaik’s stint as Chief Minister between June 1961 and October 1963. The author’s reminiscences of his collaboration and relationship with Biju Patnaik over two decades is one of the highlights in this book, and he says that his seven-year stint in the OMC was the happiest and most productive part of his administrative career.
In 1964 he was promoted as Secretary (Industry) for the state, and because of political gamesmanship, his colleague S.K. Ghose was asked to resign as Chairman of OMC, and thus Ramachandran had to take on the role of Chairman, OMC, and then his designation changed to Secretary, Mining and Geology, after which he took over as Secretary, Irrigation and Power, in 1965, and as Land Reforms Commissioner in 1968. There is a treasure-trove of details about all these phases of his career in the book for the curious reader.
Honest officers do pay a price, and Ramachandran paid dearly, with a false case foisted on him, and he suffered under a cloud for ten long years before the courts cleared him of all the false allegations. To name names, the people who gave him the most trouble and sought to undermine his career were Deputy Chief Minister Pabitra Mohan Pradhan; Chief Minister Rajendra Narayan Singh Deo; and Prahallad Mallick, Deputy Minister, Irrigation and Power. It was only in April 1981 the case “The State vs. V.K.P. Sunkavalli and Others” was cleared and closed, and Ramachandran could pursue and enjoy the assignments suited to his experience and expertise. But there was one other character who was a bugbear when he was made Chairman and Managing Director of National Aluminium Company (NALCO), and that was the Additional Secretary (Mines) in New Delhi, R. Ganapati, who sought to put every kind of spoke in the wheel to delay and derail the good work that Ramachandran and his colleagues sought to do at NALCO. Ramachandran writes at the end of his 500-page tome: “In retrospect, my entire career followed the same pattern. It was an intimate mixture of the rapture of achievements, the thrill of expanding horizons of knowledge, and the torture inflicted by jealous colleagues and politicians in whose selfish wrongdoings I declined to collaborate” (p. 507).
A 500+ page book rich in detail, both technical and human, cannot be done justice in a short review. But those interested in the work of good bureaucrats and administrators will indeed find in this work the kinds of keen observation that will make this work compulsory reading for those who wish to know about aspects of India’s mega-projects and the kind of challenges government officials face, both in the technical cadre and the administrative cadre, in trying to hew the honest, straight, hard and narrow path.
Ramachandran’s work is commendable because of the richness of the detail of his recollection of more than three decades’ work in the IAS. He must have kept copious notes throughout his career, indicating the discipline and dedication he brought to bear on what he did. The book is made more enjoyable by the inclusion of a carefully curated set of photographs, and the lovely foreword by Prof. Richard Taub, the Paul Klapper Professor Emeritus in the Social Sciences of the University of Chicago, who first met Ramachandran when he visited Odisha to do some fieldwork in sociology/anthropology. If I were to have been asked for advice, I would have suggested that it could have been worth the while of the author/editors of the book if there was a subject index, a set of appendices that highlighted the details of the major works and projects Ramachandran was involved in, the timeline of his career, and some tables and graphs that could offer readers interested in technical details some highlights and comparisons of the major works and projects he was involved in.
“Ascent” is the kind of work that one wishes more Indian men and women administrators would write. So much of Indian history and experience is lost when these “old soldiers” just fade away without telling us their stories of struggle, success, and achievement.
Kadayam Sankara Ramchandran is that rare man whose life work he has made accessible for us to read, celebrate, and learn from. Young, trainee IAS officers would prosper from reading this work, but I will not expect the bureaucrats who assign reading for these trainee officers to officially recommend this work. Some names are named, and that, in hidebound offices, will not be acceptable. But you can pick this book up and discover that it is one of the rare and illustrative works of a bureaucrat’s life and career.