R. Sankaran was a senior IAS officer, widely known as ‘an ideal people’s IAS officer’ for the proactive role he played in formulating pro-poor policies. He was a bachelor who devoted his life for the welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
A personification of simple living, honesty and integrity, unassuming but strong, modest yet firm and affable, the diminutive civil servant was a role model who showed what an IAS officer could do for the marginalised sections of society.
Simplicity at its peak
This is a little long story but I bet you’ll be thrilled to read it…
An Indian Airlines flight arrived at the Agartala Airport one late afternoon. It was a full flight. All the passengers scrambled down to pick up their baggage and leave for home. Among them was a short-statured, frail, middle-aged person wearing an ordinary bush shirt and slightly crumpled trousers. The only remarkable feature was his thick crop of well-parted shining black hair. He saw some flamboyant busybodies briskly moving up and down in search of somebody. The gentleman quietly passed by them totally unnoticed. He went to the baggage-claim belt, collected a small suitcase, unobtrusively went out of the building and walked towards the cycle-rickshaw stand. As he was coming out, he noticed some activity around a couple of red-lighted cars and a posse of police constables, smartly uniformed, eagerly waiting for somebody. At the rickshaw-stand he started enquiring in his broken, heavily-accented Hindi about the Circuit House. A rickshaw-puller came forward and agreed to take him after telling him the fare. The rickshaw-puller took the suitcase from him and helped him to get onto the seat.
A policeman was idly watching the proceedings. He heard the word “Circuit House” a couple of times. He knew that a new Chief Secretary was due to arrive and he was posted at the rickshaw-stand to control the movement of rickshaws till the new Chief Secretary’s convoy passed. He had a suspicion. He ran back to the building and informed his officer-in-charge that perhaps the new Chief Secretary had boarded a rickshaw to go the Circuit House.
All hell broke loose thereafter. Everyone started running towards the rickshaw-stand and the constable pointed to a smiling gentleman quietly sitting on a rickshaw awaiting the departure of the official cavalcade of red-light cars. The Deputy Secretary, Protocol, very apologetically enquired whether the gentleman was S.R. Sankaran. He politely nodded. Then started furious activity in search of his “missing” luggage. The gentleman calmly told the officials present that he had no “missing” luggage. The small suitcase at the footboard was his only piece of luggage. He was requested to get off the rickshaw and get into the official car waiting at the VIP gate. He quickly pulled out his money bag, took out the money he had agreed to pay to the rickshaw-puller and offered him the money before he got down.
All the officials protested. He looked at them and said it was a contract between the rickshaw-puller and him. Because of him the rickshaw-puller had missed other passengers. Hence he had to be compensated for the lost fare. He paid him his fare.
Now the rickshaw-puller returned him half the fare telling him that as he did not take him to the Circuit House he could not accept the contracted fare and that he would get passengers from amongst the persons who had come to see- off the Calcutta-bound passengers.
In his first tenure as Secretary, he took up the issue of bonded labour seriously. Though the abolition of bonded labour and rehabilitation of bonded labourers was part of the first 20-Point programme of Indira Gandhi, and though the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, (first as ordinance) was in place, some of those in the political leadership were averse to taking it seriously. This was because they were either directly masters of bonded labourers or were beholden to the masters of bonded labourers for political support. This brought him into direct clash with successive Chief Ministers, but he bravely and righteously stood his ground.
Nationalisation of coal industry
Before his first tenure in Social Welfare, Sankaran was, in the early 1970s, Special Assistant to Mohan Kumaramangalam, Union Minister for Steel and Mines. The idealist constantly reminded the ideologue about the promise and need to nationalise the coal industry, and it was because of the Kumaramangalam-Sankaran duo that this significant measure went through with the support of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
In his second tenure as Principal Secretary, Social Welfare, in addition to revisiting the issue of bonded labour – of pressing urgency for him and the victims, most of whom were Dalits – 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.
These measures again brought him into conflict with the Chief Ministers, which left him without any post for several months until he came to the Centre as Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, in January 1990.
Facing the opposition
Sankaran had to face obstacles and hostility continuously from some powerful persons in politics and the administration though all the work undertaken by him was not only in accordance with the Constitution but mandated by the Constitution upon the state. The oft-mentioned “civil society”, with a few exceptions, was largely indifferent and in some instances hostile to his valuable endeavours.
Spent his pension on education of dalit students
After retirement in 1992, he shifted to a modest apartment in busy Punjagutta area and continued to fight for the rights of the poor, sharing his pension with SC/ ST students.
It became his lifetime mission to demystify the left-wing ideology and try and bring about a meeting point. His initiative, Committee of the Concerned Citizens strove hard through mediatory efforts to find sustainable solution to social turmoil.
Book on Sankaran
A book titled ‘Marginalisation, Development and Resistance: Essays in Tribute to SR Sankaran’ Volume-1 was released by CH Hanumantha Rao, former member, Planning and Finance Commission.
He passed away on 7th October 2010.