Uttar Pradesh is a very big State. In my opinion, the State needs to be divided into more manageable areas of administration-Western UP, Eastern UP or Bundelkhand, so that people can focus more on implementation of policies,” says Ashok Chandra, a 1959-batch UP cadre IAS officer. He should know because he served at various levels in the Uttar Pradesh government for close to 15 years before moving to the Centre for 11 years with a five-year stint as adviser to the Afghan government in between.
A science graduate and mathematics topper in BSc and MSc from Allahabad University, Chandra is candid as he recalls why he joined the IAS. “I did not want to become an engineer or doctor… Ours was a large family. My father, who served as chief engineer and secretary to the government of Assam, did not have any property. Hence, everyone in the family had to think of some profession or the other….One of my cousins had joined the railways’ traffic and transportation department. My elder brother became an engineer, another brother joined the railways’ audits and accounts service, so I appeared for the IAS and was selected,” he says.
In nearly 15 years in the UP cadre, he did several stints as SDM and DM before taking over as Secretary, Department of Industries and Chairman, UP Jal Nigam.
He liked the tenure as DC Almora so much that he was willing to forego a promotion in case the government allowed him to continue. But that is not the way the administrative machinery functions, so he found himself being moved to Kanpur as Additional Director of Industries.
One rank he never got in UP was that of a Commissioner because he was sent to Afghanistan as part of the Indian Technology and Economic Cooperation Mission. For close to five years-over 1975-80-he was an adviser to the Afghan government. During those days Indian bureaucrats helped different Afghan ministries plan and implement road and hydroelectric projects. Chandra’s role in the planning department was to look after implementation of these plans.
“Afghanistan was a different kind of country those days… very friendly to Indians… The experience in Kabul was unique… to be cherished. It brought out the ties of friendship between Afghans and Indians,” he says. After coming back to India, he worked as Joint Secretary in the Banking Division, Additional Secretary in the Department of Company Affairs, Secretary, Food Processing, Secretary, Petroleum, and Secretary, I&B, before finally retiring as Secretary, Department of Heavy Industry.
“Life at the Centre is distinct from the States where the actual implementation of programmes and projects takes place at the ground level. In UP, I was involved in implementation of projects at the grassroots level whereas at the Centre the work is more in terms of long-term planning for what should happen in different States… for the benefit of the people and poverty eradication,“ he says.
The year 1992 was a watershed in his life when, in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, the Kalyan Singh government was dismissed and B Satya Narayan Reddy took over as UP Governor. Being a UP cadre IAS officer, Chandra was posted as adviser to the UP Governor in Lucknow. It was not an easy task, considering the fact that the State was burning and communal polarisation made the situation worse.
“My job was to advise the Governor and counsel him on how to administer the State and control the damage in the post-Babri Masjid demolition phase. We had to be in live contact with the district authorities to ensure that there was communal peace in the districts. You could not allow a State to burn… I think we did extremely well, except in Kanpur where a lot of disturbances took place. We were able to control all other districts of the State effectively,” he reminiscences.
One can say that one thing Chandra dealt with most in his life was crisis. It all started when, at the height of Naxal disturbance, the UP Government send him to the terror-torn areas to convince industrialists to invest in UP. When he was Secretary, Petroleum & Natural Gas, the availability of foreign exchange was particularly low. The Iran-Iraq war had just started. The biggest challenge was how and from where to import oil in order to keep the country going. At one point, a proposal to ration the use of oil was also considered. But, luckily, India was able to get oil from the Gulf and Iran and there was no need to ration. Similarly, when he was Secretary, Department of Heavy Industries, apart from BHEL and Maruti, a large number of units needed to be shut because they could not serve the purpose they were set up for. But, above all, the biggest stumbling block he faced was when his wife passed away 24 years ago. It was a great challenge, but he managed to settle both his daughters. His elder daughter, a doctor, is married to an IAS officer of the Sikkim cadre, while his younger daughter is a filmmaker.
“In retrospect, I am satisfied…when one revisits the past there is a tendency to say one could have done more… every assignment gave me a different experience and learning,” he says. There can be occasions when there is a difference of opinion between the IAS officer and the concerned minister on various issues, but it should not lead to a collission course, he suggests. “It is a matter of give and take. You discuss with the minister and ultimately it’s discussions that lead to final formulation of policy,” he adds.
Even after retirement, Chandra has not lost his administrative acumen. For the last nearly two decades, he has been Chairman of the Delhi Public School Society and Chairman of the Sir Ganga Ram Trust which runs the Ganga Ram Hospital. Dharma Vira, the first chairperson of the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital Trust, and husband of Dayavati Ganga Ram, was a relative of Chandra’s late wife.