This article aims to revisit the life of an unusual member of the Indian Administrative Service, S.R. Sankaran by reflecting on his virtuous career (1956-2010), remembering him through the lens of those who worked with him; his legacy – through the statue, memorial talk, books and most importantly, his work to make the lives of socially backward communities better and what it holds for future administrators of India.
Widely known as ‘an ideal IAS officer’ for the proactive role he played in formulating pro-poor policies, Sankaran was the personification of simple living, honesty and integrity, unassuming but strong, modest yet firm and affable, the diminutive civil servant and a role model who showed what an IAS officer could do for the marginalised sections of society.
— T.L Sankar, IAS(Retd) remembers Sankaran in the following manner:
“ I first met SR when on the very first day in college, Loyola College Madras in 1949. By 1954 it was customary that all Loyola College Students would make an attempt to get in IAS. Sankaran continued in Loyola as an Honours Student in Commerce.
‘SR told me later with an impish glint in his eyes that in interview he was told that he was puny to be an Engineer and advised to go for a liberal arts programme.
In the IAS training school, as it was called at that time, in Metcalf House on the banks of Jamuna in Delhi. SR was always thoughtful and reticent!
Within first two year of year of our joining service, it became obvious that SR was a civil servant of a special kind- his reputation for efficiency, honesty and genuine compassion for the weak and the deprived, came to be recognized in many quarters including politicians and the Senior Civil Servants. Sankaran was a man of enormous patience while being a part of a discussion.
I always admired his enormous and growing knowledge of politics and social development. His action were not borne out of the desire to emulate some role model, but based on a growing inner feeling towards the marginalized sections whether they were old farm workers or very young child labourers.
As per, K.R Venugopal, IAS(Retd) – Former Secretary to the Prime Minister and Special Rapporteur, NHRC, Hyderabad, Sankaran’s life can be divided into six phases:
- Joint Collector and later Collector of Nellore district in the 1960’s;
- When he was Special Assistant to Mohan Kumaramangalam, Union Minister of Steel and Coal when coal mines were nationalized and when he was Secretary, Social Welfare, Government of Andhra Pradesh for the first time in 1970’s.
- The third phase was when he was Principal Secretary Social Welfare, Government of Andhra Pradesh a second time. And the Gurtedu incident (in 1980’s).
- Fourth Phase was he was Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, GoI, in early 1990’s.
- The fifth phase 1997-2005 when he was Convener of the Committee of Concerned Citizens
- And his final years, 2006 onwards till his death on October 7th, 2010.
Serukalathur Ramanathan Sankaran was born on October 22, 1934, in the temple town of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. He was a Commerce graduate from American College in Madurai, which he later joined as a lecturer. It was around this time that he joined the Indian Administrative Service and was allocated to the Andhra Pradesh cadre in 1956.
He is remembered for his diligent efforts in bringing landmark policies like the ‘Abolition of Bonded Labour Act’ and the ‘Land Distribution Act’ to the fore, Tribal Sub-Plan and Special Component Plan, to compel governments to set aside significant proportions of the state budgets for the welfare of Scheduled Castes and Tribes and earmarking resources for weaker sections in the rural development programmes.
However, foremost from amongst all his contributions to society is his relentless efforts to put an end to the inhuman practise of manual scavenging. His association with the non-profit organisation, Safai Karmachari Andolan had helped free a majority of the manual labourers in undivided Andhra Pradesh from handling human excreta. Thanks to his efforts, their numbers significantly fell from 13 lakh to 3 lakh.
He became the main force behind pushing through the nationalisation of the coal industry, which ultimately paved the way for introducing scientiﬁc practices in mining and bringing about a sea change in the working conditions of coal miners.
Sankaran’s contribution to governance in the tribal areas of the state was phenomenal. He established Integrated Tribal Development Agencies for single-line administration of tribal areas and introduced Special Component Plan and Tribal Sub Plans to ensure adequate provision of budgetary resources for the financially weaker sections of the society.
Under these schemes, he addressed issues such as religious conversions, atrocities against women and education for the Scheduled Castes; he set up dedicated schools and hostels for these marginalized sections of society people eventually developed into the Andhra Pradesh Social Welfare Residential Schools.
Sankaran’s commitment and personal involvement in all this acted as the single most important motivational factor to energise the administration of the tribal areas. He also played an important role as the Commissioner for Tribal Welfare in the state and was a member of the state government’s committee on the rights of tribal people.
Sankaran was a pioneer in opening residential schools in Andhra Pradesh and was of the strong opinion that the children of marginalised classes could gain if provided with a congenial atmosphere to grow in. Sankaran set aside a significant portion of his salary, and his pension after he retired, to educate Dalit children.
Bharat Bhushan, recalls, how Hyderabad Public School(HPS), was not having any reservation in admission for SC’s and St’s. When Sankaran was Secretary, Social Welfare, Sri Hanumanthu, a IV class employee in Dept of BC welfare, Ananthapur represented to him that only children of higher level officers are studying in this Public School depriving opportunity to other SC/ST . On hearing this Sri Sankaran, flew to Delhi and got the notification issued from Ministry of Social Justice and paved the way for SC/ST poor children to get admission into HPS.
The Bonded Labour issue in Medak District – 1980’s, E.A.S Sarma the then District Collector recollects, how he toured the villages to inspire the villagers to break free from bondage and contributed to the enforcement of the Abolition of Bonded Labour Act and Land Distribution Act in 1976. In his first tenure as Secretary, he took up the issue of bonded labour seriously. He organised campaigns to release bonded workers from generations of debt bondage, went from village to village, held meetings with the poorest people, declaring that they had the right to be free, and mobilised them to rebel against a lifetime of bondage.
Shanker, Secretary General of the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Caste Welfare Association, in 2010, remarked- ‘’he owned the Dalits and they in turn owned him’’. He toured extensively in the villages of Nellore and his work was distinguished for its dedication to the cause of poor, mainly scheduled castes and Yenadi tribe. (popularly was called Yanadi and Yerukula Collector)
Understanding his crusade against manual scavenging:
Unlike many, who think that it was Gandhi who was the face of the upliftment of manual scavengers, it was Sankaran who highlighted Ambedkar’s Private Members’ Bill in Mumbai Presidency that abolished levying a fee on manual scavengers for refusing to clean toilets. He firmly believed that Ambedkar’s Constitution was our greatest weapon to bring about a revolution.
Sankaran was moved by a scene of women manually cleaning excreta with their bare hands and carrying it on their heads. His actions spoke louder than words. It was his idea to write Departmental Orders, or DO letters, to every single Collector in India, making them aware of manual scavenging and asking for their intervention to break down dry latrines. He flew from Hyderabad to Delhi, to sign 600 letters drafted to be sent to Collectors across the country, with an instruction to post them immediately.
This urgency was in order to not waste time, so much so that he did not waste time in using glue to seal the envelopes and instead just stapled them. To his astonished subordinates, he remarked, “You must understand, for my signature, even if a letter gets delayed by a minute, liberation for a manual scavenger will be delayed by a minute. I cannot commit that crime.” Sankaran would say, “You said it. You do it”, thereby asking people to act responsibly and use the power that was vested in them by statute.
There was this famous incidence, where once there were journalists coming to meet Narayanamma, a woman, who did scavenging for 38 years in Anantapur. The then District Collector remarked to him “I have to go to Anantapur because Narayanamma cannot explain her situation properly.” Sankaran looked surprised. “If Narayanamma cannot explain her problem, I don’t think anybody else in the world can. You cannot be a voiceover. Don’t ever for a moment think they are powerless,” he said. That was a defining moment.
Post-retirement, his role with the Safai Karmchari Andolan let to an exceptional campaign for ending manual scavenging as he regarded this to be the most dreadful manifestation of untouchability and caste. A decade of Sankaran’s leadership of the Andolan led to the substantial decimation of this centuries-old evil in many parts of India.
Negotiations with Naxals
Sankaran was one of the seven IAS officers kidnapped by the then People’s War Group (presently Maoist Party) at Gurthedu in East Godavari, later they were all set free primarily because Sankaran himself was one of them. While he understood the concerns of the Adivasis better than many others, he was not in favour of any kind of violence, whether it was committed by an extremist group, apparently espousing the cause of the Adivasis, or by the State itself, ostensibly in the name of maintaining “law and order”.
Perhaps this was at the back of his mind after his retirement from the government when he undertook the daunting but frustrating responsibility of leading a serious dialogue between the government and the Maoists during 1997-2002. He took part in the negotiation process in a highly assiduous and constructive manner. He attempted to mediate with the government to talk about the allegation of human rights violations in its military-like offensive against the armed rebels and that of ‘encounter’ killings of Naxalites, which he condemned as ‘targeted extra-legal executions’.
But Sankaran was equally unsparing in condemning the violence of the Naxalites, and their focus on ‘military actions rather than on the mobilisation of people for social transformation’. He was convinced that this contributed to ‘further brutalise the society and lead to the shrinking of democratic space for mobilisation and direct participation of the people, impairing the very process of transformation that the movements claim to stand for’.
Legacy: Man of integrity
S R Sankaran set standards of integrity and service to the most disadvantaged, for a whole generation of public officials. He firmly believed lifelong that the foremost duty of the State was to uphold the dignity, rights and freedoms of India’s most oppressed people, and his life’s work demonstrated what a democratic government could indeed accomplish if it included persons like him.
The statue is of an upright civil servant, whose service and dutiful nature earned him the sobriquet of “people’s IAS officer.”
This is possibly the only statue in India which honours an Indian bureaucrat, making it a one-of-its-kind memorial. Such was the legacy he left behind that the state government of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh decided to honour him in 2011 with a life-size statue.
So, why was this man bestowed with such a great honour?
In his personal life, Sankaran was an unassuming man who had little inclination towards material wealth or higher posts and lived a very simple life. The frail, short-statured man was known for his extremely sober dressing style that would often lead people to assume that he was a school teacher, instead of a bureaucrat!
He dismissed the pomp and paraphernalia that some associated with IAS officers. When Sankaran was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2005, he politely declined to accept it and is quoted as having stated that he would take no award for doing something that was his duty. When the Pay Commission was revised, he got some arrears but didn’t want any of it. He distributed the money to street children’s homes, and an organisation for disabled persons, saying it was too much for his needs.
During the 30-odd years that he served the state and the centre as a civil servant in various capacities, he transcended the rigid barriers of the civil services to reach out to the needy, the oppressed and the deprived. His uprightness, sincerity and compassion for the poor disarmed politicians, inspired young civil servants and provided hope and succour to millions of voiceless people.
He was a civil servant with a difference. Sankaran’s life and work illuminated the lives of literally millions of India’s most dispossessed people with dignity, justice and hope. His compassion, simplicity and a lifetime of public service will continue to light the way, both for those who work within government, and others who choose to aid in the aims of a welfare state. His enduring legacy will be to demonstrate what true and authentic goodness in public and personal life can accomplish, to make this world a better, kinder place.
In many ways P.S Krishnan(1956 batch IAS) and Sankaran looked upon themselves as the vanguard of a new movement in governance.
The life of S.R. Sankaran (1934-2010) should serve as an inspiration to all those who are committed to the cause of economic and social justice.
Simplicity Extraordinaire: S.R. Sankaran (1934-2010) by D. Bandyopadhyay, Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 44, October 23, 2010.