THANKS to his height, Naresh Chandra Saxena, born in Bareilly, got a head start in school. When his father, Krishan Swaroop Saxena, a Class III State government employee, took Naresh for admission in a school, a primary teacher asked him to solve some simple math puzzles. “I was six year old. The teacher asked me to do some sums, which I did successfully. Then looking at my height, he told me to go and sit in class five,” Saxena (75 and about 6 feet 3 inches tall) recalls, disclosing how he never had to do first four primary classes.
Owing to the skip, he did his first masters in physics from Allahabad University when he was still in his teens. Since he was not yet eligible for either appearing in an exam or applying for a job, he utilised the time for doing a second masters (in mathematics).
Saxena’s first inclination was to get into academics. Therefore, he started teaching in the university. However, he did not quite like the atmosphere. He says there was rampant ‘groupism’, ‘casteism’ and ‘dirty politics’ in teaching. Dejected with this, he appeared in Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) examination in 1963. He says his English and General Knowledge were poor and interview did not go off that well.
On April 4, 1964, the day the UPSC result was to be announced, he went to a theatre in Allahabad to watch an English comedy, Knock on Wood. When he returned from the movie, his senior in the neighborhood, RS Gupta, called him to his house and told him to touch his feet. He told him that he had topped in the IAS examination at all India level and his name had been announced on All India Radio (in those days names of top ten of the civil services examination were announced on the radio). He visited office of Amrit Bazar Patrika, a local newspaper, to confirm the news.
Saxena joined Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration as a probationer on June 25, 1964. He observed his 22nd birthday over a month later in the academy and was youngest in his 1964 batch.
However, the academic in him never left. For formulation of a good policy, he believed, good domain knowledge was a must. Continuation of studies and busy postings made his first 15 years in the IAS very exciting. During this period, he served as City Magistrate in Kanpur and District Magistrate in Aligarh and Agra. However, once busy postings gave way to ‘an-hour-of-work’ positions, things started changing for the worse.
To top it all, he soon realised that networking was not in his nature and he loved calling a spade a spade and throwing ideas through papers published in research journals and newspapers.
In 1980 after he became Secretary, Land Reforms Department, in Uttar Pradesh, he issued a circular to all district magistrates, proposing that the government should acquire agricultural land of people earning more than Rs 10,000 a year from other sources. “Rs 10,000 in those days was a big sum,” he recollects. However, his idea was shot down contemptuously by the higher ups in the State bureaucracy and politics.
At the same time, he wanted women to be given rights over land in families and was against allocation of tribal land in Udham Singh Nagar and surrounding areas to Punjabis. The then Chief Minister, Narain Dutt Tiwari, did not like any of these ideas. Saxena remembers having been told upfront by Tiwari, “Saxena sahib, you only stick to writing your (research) papers.”
SUBSEQUENTLY, in September 1982, when riots broke out in Meerut and PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary), a State paramilitary force, was given orders to shoot at rioters, he criticised the handling of the situation. The result was that the then Union Home Secretary was extremely upset with him, gave him a warning after asking him how dare he wrote against the government.
His research on backwardness of minorities and Muslims in particular in India threw startling results in 1983 during his short stint in minorities’ commission. “I came to a conclusion that essential conditions for minorities’ uplift do not exist. Firstly, all political parties should have same outlook towards minorities the way they have towards scheduled castes. Secondly, there should be no tinkering with the balance—Ram temple was unlocked when the government wanted to please Hindus and then Shah Bano verdict was overturned to please Muslims. This kind of tinkering will lead to more polarisation. Thirdly, there is no consensus—political and social—on how minorities should be treated,” he claims. He felt there were high degree of prejudices among Hindus against Muslims, some formed by real events and some by biases. His paper got a lot of angry reactions. As a punishment for all these, he got posted in Indian Embassy in Afghanistan as a rural development expert from 1983 to 1985. He says since the rural areas were under Russian control, he got to visit a village much later in his tenure.
In 1985, he did a paper for Mainstream magazine on which castes lost and gained lands during less than four decades after Independence. From 1985 to 1987, he was Joint Secretary in Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Saxena did a doctorate on agro-forestry in India from Oxford University in Britain between 1989 and 1992.
IN 1997, when Saxena was Secretary, Union Ministry of Rural Development, he got to know that district collectors and District Rural Development (DRDA) Agency officials in Uttar Pradesh were auctioning public funds meant for Employment Assurance Scheme (the scheme patterned on MNREGS promised 100 days of assured employment to rural poor). He wrote a stinging letter to the then state Chief Secretary, RS Mathur, demanding an inquiry.
“There is an informal bidding among the departments, and whichever department is able to offer the highest amount of bribe to the Collector is able to get the EAS funds.” His letter alleged that 50 to 60 per cent of the funds were “thus spent on bribes, and the real benefit to the people is thus reduced by at least 50 per cent”. The communication led to an institution of an inquiry and suspension of a number of soil conservation officers.
During this two-year stint in the Rural Development Ministry, he also got on the wrong side of top bureaucracy and political class in Bihar. He wrote to then Bihar Chief Secretary, BP Verma, that the State bureaucrats were corrupt like politicians and spent only 2 per cent of the budget in rural areas. He was warned not to visit Bihar or be prepared to get his legs broken.
From 1999 to 2002, Saxena was Secretary, Planning Commission. Here he incurred the displeasure of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with a critical report on the mid-term evaluation of the ninth five-year plan. “Vajpayee asked me to make a presentation on tribal issues. The presentation talked about alienation, indebtedness, non-implementation of PESA—Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996—forest policy and displacement of tribals,” he remembers.
During the presentation, Vajpayee seemed to have closed his eyes. Saxena thought the Prime Minister was tired and feeling drowsy. Later, he heard from NK Singh in the PMO that the Prime Minister did not approve of his report. The report was subsequently placed before the National Integration Council (NIC) and accepted.
In a report on October 8, 2000, The Economist said that the report read like a ‘criminal chargesheet’. On the positive side, the report led to creation of Tribal Affairs Ministry in the Union Cabinet. Saxena retired as Secretary, Planning Commission, on July 31, 2002.
In 2004, he was appointed member of Sonia Gandhi-chaired National Advisory Council (NAC). He served there for eight years (2004-2008 and 2010-2014). Here he successfully pushed for land rights for women and pro-tribal forests act. The NAC proved a catalyst in legislation of Right to Information Act (RTI), Right to Education Act, Employment Guarantee Act, Food Security Bill and Land Acquisition Act.
HOWEVER, the council failed to push through a controversial communal violence bill. Saxena is critical of the Right to Education Act, Land Acquisition Act and the communal violence bill. He says, Land Acquisition Act creates too many committees and will only benefit civil society and the bureaucrats.
He finds the Right to Education Act and the communal violence bill discriminatory against private schools and majority community, respectively. He is of the view that the former will place an additional burden on Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA).
Saxena is extremely critical of the role of the civil society and believes that civil society activists work with their hearts and not with their brains. In an article published on January 2, 2013 in Indian Express, he wrote that the NGO activists ‘are populists and cater to a constituency of habitual seminar participants….and believe in development being a zero-sum game where the poor can benefit only when the rich are losing out’.
Saxena is arguably the only civil servant who has done over 100 research papers on governance, forestry, fiscal policy, poverty, nutrition, rural development and minorities.
He lives in South Delhi with his Muslim wife, Naomi, and daughter, Jhilmil Breckenridge, who is married to an American Christian.
As told to Narendra Kaushik