Late SV Ramamurty: A Civil Servant Less Ordinary

During my school going days, I used to listen to my father standing behind the door when he was taking about a political leader or an administrator or a doctor in all reverence to someone sitting with him in our veranda. On one such occasion I heard him talking about one gentleman, Sonti Ramamurty, ICS very highly. He praised his administrative acumen and the concern for the common good of the people in so many words.

“If only such collectors and secretaries—who could stand up against even British officers of Colonial India for a right cause—are there today, the condition of farming community would have been different”, said my father. He declared: “Why, if he had succeeded in his [Ramamurty] endeavour to build Ramapadasagar dam, there would have been no floods in Godavari delta and no flood victim [of the extraordinary Godavari floods of 1953] would have come to our doorsteps seeking biksha (alms). Our ministers are today more interested in things that are of no relevance to commoners like us.”

Excited by it, I felt like hearing a little more about him. Of course, I had no courage then to go to my father and ask him to elaborate on what he said.

After about 60 years of this incident, a couple of days back, I had a chance occasion to flip through the autobiography of Sri Ramamurty—the same Sonti Ramamurty of the Godavari delta of Andhra province—published in 1964 by Popular Prakashan, Bombay. I wish to present here a few excerpts from the book that well speak about this civil servant of yore who had immensely empathized with the commoner and his well-being. That aside, reading such life experiences of our predecessors certainly gives a newfound strength to be different… to be brave-enough to pursue what we believe right and needs to work for….

He had an irrepressible love for developmental projects and pursued them so diligently to their logical conclusion untiringly—should I say doggedly—as could be seen from the following arduous journey….

“It was Sri L. Venkatakrishan Iyer who first told me [Ramamurty] of the possibility of a dam near Polavaram below the gorge through the Papikonda hills being built on the Godavary. …

It gives a maximum of irrigation in the plains below. It gives as much power as we can reasonably expect to use. It avoids damage to the Singareni coal fields … It gives enough of head to let a navigation canal reach the Visakhapatnam harbour and another to reach the Krishna and go even beyond into Guntur…

In 1946 … I told Lord Wavell of the large irrigation scheme that I had prepared which would make South India largely self-sufficient for rice. He was interested. He took me to the map and asked me to show the site. … He wrote down the name to my dictation. The next day he told Sri V. P. Menon, his Special Secretary to sanction the Ramapadasagar scheme …

… He actually showed me the typewritten order sanctioning the scheme for Rs. 60 crores … but told me that as the Resident of Hyderabad was in Delhi he would show the order to him for courtesy’s sake. Lothian, the Resident, however, said that the Ramapadasagar Project might damage the Singareni Coal Fields that no order should be issued unless the Hyderabad Government was consulted.

In the U.S.A. I visited the Bureau of Reclamation at Denver, where the Ramapadasagar Project was finalized under the supervision of Savage, the foremost of the American experts on dams. The special feature of the proposed dam was that it had to go down 200 feet to the bed of the river but this was considered feasible by the engineers. …

When I came back from the U.S.A. … I found that the matter was still pending with the Hyderabad Government. … I was again to go to the U.S.A. … On the way I went to Hyderabad with the Minister for Agriculture in Madras: Sri Bhaktavachalam and called on the Diwan of Hyderabad, Sir Mirza Ismail for a discussion. I found Sri Ali Nawaz Jung the Consulting Engineer of the Hyderabad Government with a large number of Engineers … I told the Diwan that I came without my Engineers and none of the Engineers in Hyderabad should, therefore, take part in our discussion. The Diwan however asked to make an exception for Ali Nawaz Jung. After an hour or two of discussion when I pointed out that the floor of the Singareni Coal Fields was higher than the top level of Ramapadasagar and that the Ramapadasagar Project could not therefore harm the coal fields, Sir Mirza agreed with me but Ali Nawaz Jung did not…

The Diwan gave us dinner and after the dinner we again took up the discussion till nearly midnight and the discussion went on mainly between myself and Ali Nawaz Jung. For every point that I was able to meet of Ali Nawaz Jung, he used to promptly raise another point. At a quarter to twelve I rose up and said it was a waste of time for me to discuss the matter further. Ali Nawaz Jung said I was rude to him. I replied that he had been rude to me all the evening and it was permissible for me to be rude to him once. Everybody laughed and Sir Mirza drafted a resolution that Hyderabad had no objection to the Ramapadasagar on account of the damage feared for the Singareni Coal Fields. …

The next morning I got the resolution signed by Sri Bhaktavachalam for Madras and Sir Mirza for Hyderabad. …When I returned [from the US] expecting to find progress made in the sanction… I was told that a specially intelligent officer in Delhi had stated that agreements between Governments should be signed by Secretaries to Government and not by members of the Government. On this technical point the proposal was sent back to Hyderabad.

When I returned to Madras, Govindaraj Ayyangar told me that he wanted to consult a Construction Engineer, Harper in London regarding the difficulties of construction. I said it was late in the day for such further consultation and that delay might kill this scheme. Govindaraj Ayyangar promised to finish the consultation in 2 months. I reluctantly agreed. Harper’s Committee in London reported that although there were undoubtedly difficulties the scheme was definitely feasible.

By the time Govindaraj Ayyangar returned from London, I acted as Governor of Bombay and did not revert then as Chief Secretary to Government of Madras to deal further with the Ramapadasagar Project. Next I found that owing to the doubling of the index figure of prices, Govindaraj Ayyangar, a very conscientious official, had doubled the cost of the Ramapadasagar Project and made it Rs. 120 crores in place of the previous Rs. 60 crores…

When I was Prime Minister, Udaipur, I attended a conference in Delhi with Sri Gadgil, Member for Public Works in the Central Government where it was stated that the Bhakra-Nangal Project cost only about Rs. 50 crores while Ramapadasagar Project cost Rs. 120 crores. I asked if the former had also been upgraded in cost owing to the rise of prices and said that either both should have the revision in cost or neither. …

While in Delhi, I wished to explain the Ramapadasagar Project to Pandit Nehru in order to put some of my faith in Ramapadasagar into him. I was able to see the Prime Minister at about 1 p.m. when I explained the Project to him. I showed him the picture of Ramapadasagar as depicted by an artist of Savage, the American expert of dams. Pandit Nehru was very impressed by the picture and exclaimed with pleasure, “what a wonderful sight!”…

A meeting of the Central Cabinet was held that afternoon. Pandit Nehru asked me for a note on the Ramapadasagar Project which I sent him by 3 p.m. By 5 p.m. the Cabinet decided that the Project be proceeded with. There was next a Committee of the Central Government presided over by the late N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar to allot funds for river valley schemes. I learnt from him that Ramapadasagar Project was not allotted any funds because the Government of Madras had replied to the Committee that the scheme was not O.K. …

The opinion of Harper’s Committee was recast by the Madras Government in the form “although the scheme was feasible, there were undoubted difficulties” and a commentary was written thereon, expatiating on the difficulties in supplying the steel and cement needed. Gopalaswami Ayyangar said that his committee would have given some money for Ramapadasagar Project but could not do so as the State Government had not supported it….

I told him that it was not for politicians to say whether an engineering scheme was sound or not, that I consulted Savage the best known expert on dams and if the Government of India wanted to consult experts further they might do so.

I saw the Finance Minister: Sri John Mathai, the Home Minister: Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and the Prime Minister. They all agreed that the matter should be further examined. Savage was asked to see the Prime Minister to satisfy him and the Finance Minister: Sri Mathai and he satisfied them that the scheme was sound. Gopalaswami Ayyangar also hear from the Central Water and Power Commission that the scheme was sound but by that time all the available funds had been allotted and there was no money left to be allotted for the Ramapadasagar Project. This Project has thus been languishing since….” (pages: 88- 94).

That’s how even the best efforts of a diligent civil servant could be turned unfruitful by the inept governance… [?] Or, should I say, the governance of the specially intelligent people?

Somewhere in the autobiography I remember to have read him saying that whenever an administrator gets trapped in a conflicting zone while making a decision, he should follow the dictates of his mind. For, that ensures good results, though initially one might encounter some opposition. We come across some such real-life situations of him in his narration, which at times makes us wonder: How forthright he is in airing personal beliefs…! Here is one such interesting submission of Sri Ramamurthy, ICS, to Pandit Nehru, the then Prime Minister. It’s of course a different matter that it didn’t succeed in delivering the intended result….

Andhra Province was among the first attempts at applying the linguistic principle to provinces. It is a good principle when applied with restraint. When the Andhra Province was in the offing, I opposed a proposal to have the Province without the capital being at Madras city, jointly with the Madras Province. I did not want the Province anyhow but only in a good form. I had an interview with the Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru and explained my view to him. After hearing me, he asked what Sri Prakasam’s view was. I replied that Sri Prakasam was a politician who could not refuse a Province offered anyhow. I said I was not a politician. We asked for bread. If he could give us bread, he might do so. But if he could not, I asked him not to give us a stone” (page -151).

What a courage! And of course, history tells us that Nehru gave what Sri Ramamurty precisely asked him not to give. But what is worth noticing here is, his ability to foresee the consequences of such political decisions that do not stand to any test of rationality, as the later events proved: the then secretariat of newly formed Andhra province was said to have functioned from military tents….for quite long …

While reading his administrative experiences form the autobiography, we come across challenging circumstances, in which an apt question often stares at the administrator: Should a Civil servant stand still and do nothing when what is called for is action? Here is one such occasion, which perhaps tested the wits of this ICS officer…or, his courage… or, both ….

In 1940, I found that military authorities in Madras … were obsessed by the idea that the public should not clutter the roads to the detriment of army movements. I found them, therefore, insisting on a “stay-put” policy for the public if there was any invasion of South India. I felt that with the stories given out by Sir Anthony Eden after the fall of Nanking as to how the Japanese converted half of it as brothel, it would be inadvisable for the Indian government to support the “stay-put” demanded by the obsessive military commanders. One of my colleagues as Adviser said he agreed with me but said he could not do anything against it. I said that such a position must not be tolerated. As Chief Secretary I went to Delhi and got the Defence Secretary and Chief of Staff to agree with me that the “stay-put” policy must not be allowed to stand and that a corridor from Madras to the West must be allowed to the public who should be given as early notice as possible of an impending invasion. After instructions were received from the Chief of Staff, the local military commanders no longer demanded the “stay-put” policy (page: 73-74).

The take away from this episode is: “…One of my colleagues as Adviser said he agreed with me but said he could not do anything against it. I said that such a position must not be tolerated.”

After putting down his biography, many questions swarmed over my mind. And I am sure you could as well guess them, for you also must have ended up so after reading these excerpts. Nevertheless, let us read it with intent to see if it really matters ….


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

Top | People

Views: 3638      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.