This article aims to revisit the life of an unusual member of the Indian Administrative Service, S.R. Sankaran by reflecting on his career, spanning across 1956 till his demise in 2010, through the lens of those who worked with him; his legacy and most importantly, his work to make the lives of socially backward communities better and the inspiration it holds for future administrators of India.
Widely known as ‘an ideal IAS / a people’s IAS officer’ for the proactive role he played in formulating pro-poor policies, Sankaran personified simple living, an embodiment of honesty- integrity, unassuming but strong; modest yet firm and affable; a diminutive civil servant and a role model.
— 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, he writes, 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 was 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.”
K.R Venugopal, IAS(Retd) – Former Secretary to the Prime Minister and Special Rapporteur, NHRC, Hyderabad, structurally categorizes Sankaran’s life 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 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 Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.
He graduated in Commerce from American College in Madurai, later joining as a lecturer.
He joined the Indian Administrative Service, and was allocated to the Andhra Pradesh cadre in 1956.
In 1959, he was allocated district training in Krishna district after his training at Metcalfe House in Delhi (the predecessor of the current Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie).
Subsequently, he was posted as Sub-Collector of in Kurnool district in 1959, where his work centered around the S.Cs and their elementary rights of house sites, land, protection from untouchability, in Nandyal division, began. He later, went on to serve as the District Collector of Adilabad, Khammam and Nellore of the then united Andhra Pradesh (1956-2014).
One of his lasting prints was 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.
This was furthered by his relentless efforts to put an end to the inhuman practise of manual scavenging. His association with the non-profit organization, Safai Karmachari Andolan had helped free a majority of the manual labourers(their numbers significantly fell from 13 lakh to 3 lakh) in undivided Andhra Pradesh from handling human excreta.
He was also instrumental in the process of the nationalization of the coal industry, paving way for introducing scientiﬁc practices in mining and bringing about a change in the working conditions of coal miners.
Welfare of the Marginalized:
In the sphere of Governance within the tribal areas, he facilitated establishment of 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. Through these, addressing issues such as religious conversions, atrocities against women and education for the Scheduled Castes; setting up dedicated schools and hostels for these marginalized sections of society people, later acquiring the form of model- Andhra Pradesh Social Welfare Residential Schools.
Bharat Bhushan, recalls, how Hyderabad Public School (HPS), was not having any reservation in admission for SC’s and ST’s. During his tenure as Secretary, Social Welfare, he got a representation from Hanumanthu, a IV class employee in Department of BC welfare, Anantapur. The response from Sankaran, was such that he 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.
He was instrumental in empowering Integrated Tribal Development Agency, ITDA as ‘nerve centres of administration’ in their respective areas, through initiating a series of development measures that covered education, health, agriculture, animal husbandry. This involved, setting up of Teachers’ Training Institutes for ensuring tribals as teachers, an impetus to education, invoking powers under the Fifth Schedule, to enforce maximum reservation for the tribals in appointments to the posts of teachers, as workers in the Girijan Cooperative Corporation(GCC) and in a few other departments operating in the tribal areas of the state.
This was possible, thanks to his vision, commitment and personal involvement, later also 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. On a personal level, he set aside a significant portion of his salary, and his pension after he retired, for education of marginalized children. Also, whenever he toured the districts, he used to stay in dalit bastis..
By January, 1990, he served as Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development. Here he along with P.S Krishnan, collaborated to introduce reservation for the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs in panchayats.
E.A.S Sarma the then District Collector recollects, in reference to the Bonded Labour issue in Medak District, 1980’s, how he toured the villages to inspire the villagers- organizing campaigns to make them aware of their rights and responsibilities under the various laws, so as to enable them to resist bonded labour, untouchability, usurious moneylending releasing them from generations of debt bondage; that they had the right to be free.
The resultant positive effect, apart from the morale of the agriculture workers of the camp was, that, for the ﬁrst time in the state, documentation was done of a fairly comprehensive register of village-wise instances of bondage. This was followed by the – release of several agricultural workers from bondage and their rehabilitation by providing them with assistance; Filing of cases against landlords, responsible for pushing the workers into forced bondage; against those who practiced untouchability, besides enforcing the minimum wage laws effectively. All of this, leading to the enforcement of the Abolition of Bonded Labour Act and Land Distribution Act in 1976.
Similarly, he toured extensively in the villages of Nellore (as Joint Collector, in the early 1960s and later as Collector) was distinguished for the scheduled castes, in particular towards Yenadi tribe. (popularly was called Yanadi and Yerukula Collector).
In his second tenure as Principal Secretary, Social Welfare, in addition to revisiting the issue of bonded labour, he took up the issue of atrocities against Dalits, which had assumed a menacing form. An important instance of this was his active intervention in the rehabilitation of the victims of the Karamchedu atrocities of 1985 in a new colony named Vijayanagar near Chirala in Andhra Pradesh. This was before the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, was passed.
Shanker, Secretary General of the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Caste Welfare Association, in 2010, remarked- ‘’he owned the Dalits and they in turn owned him’’.
Understanding his crusade against manual scavenging:
A firm believer in Constitution, Sankaran highlighted Ambedkar’s Private Members’ Bill in Mumbai Presidency that abolished levying a fee on manual scavengers for refusing to clean toilets.
Moved by a scene of women manually cleaning excreta with her bare hands, carrying it on her heads, he wrote 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. His sense of urgency was underlined by his flying from Hyderabad to Delhi, to sign those 600 letters drafted to be sent to Collectors across the country, with an instruction to post them immediately, 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.”
Another related remarkable incidence, was when few journalists were 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.” To that he defined in his composed wit, exclaiming-
“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 often 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.
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 also one of the seven IAS officers kidnapped by the then People’s War Group (presently Maoist Party) at Gurthedu in East Godavari.
This besides the fact that 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, when he undertook the daunting but frustrating responsibility of leading a serious dialogue, in a highly assiduous and constructive manner between the government and the Maoists during 1997-2002. He was appointed the chief negotiator in the peace talks between the Andhra Pradesh government and the People’s War group in Hyderabad in 2004.
The series of reports released on this dialogue by the Committee of Concerned Citizens (1997) provide invaluable insights into the problems of the Adivasis and the respective roles played by the state agencies and the Maoists in the ongoing struggle in the tribal areas. His initiative strove hard through mediatory efforts to find sustainable solution to social turmoil, through mediating 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’.
Likewise, he was equally unsparing in condemning the violence of the Naxalites, and their focus on ‘military actions rather than on the mobilization of people for social transformation’. He was convinced that this contributed to ‘further brutalize the society and lead to the shrinking of democratic space for mobilization and direct participation of the people, impairing the very process of transformation that the movements claim to stand for’.
Interestingly, before the East Godavari incident, Sankaran had been chosen to head the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie. However, after the incident, his appointment was, however, cancelled at the last moment, for reasons unknown;
His stint in 1980’s as Development Commissioner and as Chief Secretary of Tripura, was instrumental in resettling many daily wage construction workers in the southern part of the erstwhile Bihar, when he found that they had been forcibly transported to Tripura by unethical contractors and forced to work at low wages, under subhuman conditions.
On a fascinating note, when Sankaran arrived at the Agartala airport to assume his post, he gave a miss to the ‘lal-batti’ convoy that was there to welcome him. He quietly carried his luggage out himself and chose to travel by a cycle-rickshaw to the state secretariat. Only when the protocol officers found about this breach of action and requested him to take the car, did he step out of the rickshaw—but not before paying the fare to the rickshaw puller. He dismissed the pomp and paraphernalia of IAS officials.
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, provided the intent and will of its public servants.
His statue, by the State Government of Andhra Pradesh in 2011, at Hyderabad, and in 2019, at Vijayawada, makes it a one-of-its-kind memorial.
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 organization for disabled persons, saying it was too much for his needs.
During the 30-odd years that he served the State and Central Government, including Principal Secretary of Social Welfare in AP; Secretary, Union Ministry of Rural Development; Chief Secretary of Tripura, apart serving as Collector of many districts in United Andhra Pradesh, he transcended the rigid barriers of the civil services to reach out to the needy, the oppressed and the deprived.
When he was appointed as one of the Commissioners, by the Supreme Court in 2003, he argued that the State had the constitutional obligation to eliminate hunger and secure right to food to the people.
He was also regarded a pioneer in the sphere of Integrated Development Schemes and Agencies. Infact, he released 127 GOs (Government Orders) during his stint when he served as the Principal Secretary, Social Welfare, Andhra Pradesh.
His uprightness, sincerity and compassion for the poor disarmed politicians, inspired the subsequent generation of bureaucrats, and continues to inspire the present batches of civil servants alike, also paving hope to many voiceless segments of our society.
Indeed then, he was a civil servant with a difference. 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.
A book titled ‘Marginalisation, Development and Resistance: Essays in Tribute to SR Sankaran’ Volume-1 was released by C.H Hanumantha Rao, former member, Planning and Finance Commission and the Centre for Dalit Studies has been organizing the ‘SR Sankaran Memorial Lecture’ since 2011.
Vinod K Agrawal, Retd. IAS, 1983 batch, Telangana Cadre, who got an opportunity to work with him, during his first posting as Sub Collector Madanapalle fondly wrote:
”I learned from him the importance of inspection notes and follow up on them. Apart from a humanist, social scientist and social activist he was an administrator par excellence. His life and work teaches one much more than a whole Academy can.”
The life of S.R. Sankaran (1934-2010) continues to 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.