FOR Sudha Pillai, the former Member Secretary of the Planning Commission, the inspiration to join the civil services came quite early in life-in fact, when she was not even ten years of age.
Sudha Khanna (Pillai after marriage) met Sarla Grewal, India’s second woman IAS officer, when she was barely eight-year-old. Grewal, then Director of Public Instruction (commonly known as DPI), had come for an annual day function in her Senior Modern School, Chandigarh. She handed over the prize-The Hungry Strones, a book by Rabindranath Tagore-to her.
With the prize, it seems, Grewal also gave Sudha Khanna inspiration to be a civil servant. “There I decided to be an IAS,” she recollects, with the incident still etched in her memory.
For the daughter of civil servant and author Rattan Lal Khanna and Vidya Khanna, Vice-Principal of Portmore School, Shimla, there were no second thoughts. Sudha nursed her dream through the school and the college where, more often than not, she either got the first rank, or was a gold medalist, or got double promotions. She topped the Punjab University, first in BA (Honours) in 1968 and then in MA (Psychology) two years later and was a recipient of gold medal on both occasions.
Since the Shimla girl was yet to be of 21 years (she was born on May 1, 1950, in Shimla; family migrated to Chandigarh when she was a kid), the requisite age for appearing in the civil services, she taught for a while in the Government College for Women, Chandigarh, where she had earned her graduation from.
In 1971, she appeared for the civil services and bagged second position all over India when the result was announced next year. The result was a kind of birthday gift for her. “While casually listening to news at 9 pm on radio on my 22nd birthday, I heard my name among the toppers as the candidate who stood second in the batch. I honestly thought it was a namesake. Getting a rank in IAS was beyond my wildest dreams as my subjects were not very scoring as such. But my family disagreed and listened to the news in every language,” she recalls. On July 15, 1972, she entered the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, and was allotted the Punjab cadre.
A year later, when still at the academy, Sudha Khanna married her batchmate, Kerala cadre officer Gopal Krishna Pillai. Since the two came from two different areas of India-she from Chandigarh and he from Kerala-her father had apprehensions about the match. “Since he came from a far-off place, father was apprehensive and came to Mussoorie to meet him,” she reminisces. They came down to Dehradun to tie the knot. Only one of their batchmates, PK Shivanandan, attended the marriage. They went back to studies immediately after the wedding.
In 1974, she got her cadre shifted from Punjab to Kerala. In the same year, she got her first posting as Sub Collector in Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram). The memories of the day are still fresh in her mind as if it was yesterday. She felt like a five-year-old.
“My father-in-law (VK Balakrishna Pillai) drove me to the Collectorate after checking the auspicious time for joining and we walked up to the Collector’s chamber,” she remembers. It was a day so full of events that by the end of it, she felt like she had grown double ‘my age’.
“The events of the day were abnormal, to the say the least-a Maoist storming of the palace grounds where the erstwhile Maharaja of Travancore resided, students’ unrest in a college 20 kms away and death of a young man in police custody,” she recounts. This was the first time that she had seen a body. She was asked to conduct in an inquest into the death. She completed the inquest form on the same day.
BUT the next day, Kumaran Ansari, a clerk in the SDM’s court, realised that the inquest did not have signatures of panchayatdars, what she calls a procedural nicety of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) and the Evidence Act. This was an important learning. “Ansari was a big teacher. None of my court cases got overturned,” she recollects, expressing her debt to the court clerk.
In Trivandrum, she later served as a District Collector also. Here she exhibited great moral courage in banning granite blasting near an ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) station, a decision which angered many people and resonated in the entire State. She was cleared after the then State Revenue Minister conducted an on-the-spot inspection of the site to see whether the banning was warranted.“Sometime around July, I was informed that granite blasting was going on in Thumba, very close to where the rocket fuel was stored and that a major disaster was almost a certainty. A large number of workers were on the site-breaking large rocks obtained through blasting, into small pieces. Their lives were in danger. I inspected the site and prohibited blasting. The very next day, a crowd collected outside the Collectorate, noisily protesting the decision. I met delegations and tried to convince them. Finally, the matter went up to the Revenue Minister, who decided to conduct a site inspection. I accompanied the Minister but hung back in the group so as not to influence his thinking. At the end of the inspection, the Revenue Minister supported my order. Demonstrations and slogans ceased and we saw to it that those rendered jobless were adjusted at other less dangerous sites by other employers,” she recalls.
In March 1977, she got to a meet C Achutha Menon, the communist stalwart who served as Kerala Chief Minister twice. She was asked to place before Menon a speech of the Governor she had drafted for the inaugural session of the State assembly. She draws a parallel between Menon and BN Yugandhar, the head of the LBSNAA, during her probation period. “If in the Academy, we were influenced by the idealism of Mr BN Yugandhar, in the Kerala cadre we had the good fortune to have a CM of the moral and administrative statue of Achutha Menon,” she says.
A decade later, when Pillai was serving as Collector in Trivandrum, she had to take on prominent communist leader, Varkala Radhakrishna, who was also the Kerala assembly speaker then. It so happened that on account of two successive draughts in the city, there was extreme pressure on water supply. She got to know Radhakrishna’s followers were hijacking water tankers. She stopped sending more tankers there. Radhakrishna, she recounts, was nice and understood her position.
In 1991, when PV Narasimha Rao government launched the great liberalisation drive, Pillai came to Delhi. She made a large contribution to amendments to the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act (1968) as Joint Secretary (Industry). The amendment, she claims, ‘by an Ordinance in August 1991…removed the suffocating business environment for the best of our corporates who could not expand capacity or diversify without ‘MRTP Clearance’ from the Department of Company Affairs. She terms the two years she spent in the Industry and Company Affairs as the best years of her career. “The heady excitement of processing this game-changing amendment to the MRTP law and the intellectual joy of examining about 800 recommendations and interacting with brilliant people for modernising corporate law made the latter half of 1991 and 1992 among the best years of my professional life,” she says.
SHE claims she never succumbed to ‘requests, orders and even veiled threats’ after returning to home cadre in 1993 due to the value system of her early years, blunt and clear advice of the Law Secretary and the unequivocal support of Chief Secretary K Rabindran Nair and Chief Minister K Karunakaran. During this period, to her embarrassment, she once overheard her praise in the legislative assembly from the very minister “who wanted me to take steps which were illegal and dangerous”. From 2001 to 2004, she was Principal Secretary (Finance) in the State.
Subsequently, she once again got transferred to Delhi on deputation as Additional Secretary (Panchayati Raj). In later years, she played a significant role in enactment of Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Law, 2008, implementation of Bundelkhand package announced by Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government and implementation of Integrated Action Plan for naxal-affected districts in 2010-2012. During this central stint, she was part of a committee which inquired into the oil-for-food scam where former Union Minister Natwar Singh’s name had propped up.
She had a major role in the introduction of the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) which entailed assured sum of Rs 30,000 to a poor family on the payment of Rs 30 annually. The scheme is in the process of being redrawn presently.
At the age of 35, Sudha Pillai completed her Masters degree in Public Administration from Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in the United States of America. She credits the fellowship for having taught her that those ‘who need you are not able to come to you’.
In 2009, Pillai was a contender for becoming the first woman cabinet secretary of India, but then incumbent KM Chandrasekhar was given an extension. She instead was appointed Member Secretary in the Planning Commission. She does not hide her disappointment on having missed the top administrative post. “It would have been nice (had I become the CS),” she signs off.
As told to Narendra Kaushik