A lifetime of service

Print edition : March 04, 2016

S.R. Sankaran. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

S.R. Sankaran (second from right) arriving for talks between the government and the People’s War (PW) in Hyderabad in 2004. The other mediators are (from left) Potturi Venkateswara Rao, K.G. Kannabiran and Prof G. Haragopal. Photo: P. V. SIVAKUMAR

At a public meeting organised by the CPI (Maoist) in Andhra Pradesh on October 13, 2015, demanding that the State government drop its plans to mine for bauxite. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The book is a worthy tribute to a legendary IAS officer who devoted his life to the uplift of the poor and the marginalised in society.

IN the 1980s, undivided Andhra Pradesh, especially its Telangana region, was noted for what was generally known as Maoist agitations but treated by the state as terrorist activities. A small group of civil servants led by S.R. Sankaran consistently tried to enter into conversations with the Maoists to understand their position and to redress their grievances. On December 27, 1987, a group that claimed to be “People’s War dalam” abducted seven IAS [Indian Administrative Service] officers, including Sankaran. The event became one of the most sensational ones of that period. After serving in Andhra Pradesh and Tripura and at the Centre, Sankaran retired but his involvement with the problems of ordinary people, especially the weaker sections, continued. He passed away in 2010. In more ways than one he was a unique person who became a legend in own his lifetime. The present volume by his former colleagues and associates is in honour of and a tribute to Sankaran. It has a preface by Muchkund Dubey, president, Council for Social Development, which, in many ways, helped in the production of the book; a fairly long introduction by the two editors; and 18 essays by former colleagues and associates of Sankaran. The contributors include leading academics such as Amit Bhaduri, G. Haragopal, Pradip Prabhu and former civil servants (some of whom later became civil society activists) such as Harsh Mander, Aruna Roy, S.P. Shukla, K.R. Venugopal and B.N. Yugandhar.

Of the 18 essays, five are tributes to Sankaran, his life, vision, style of work, involvement with those among whom he worked and his unwavering commitment to the weaker sections. As a civil servant he totally committed himself to serving the people, mainly the largely neglected ones. He was a bachelor, lived a frugal life and devoted his salary to support the needy.

As a member of the IAS, which has a special commitment to the Constitution, Sankaran treated it as “a testament with a mission to secure for all its citizens social, economic and political justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, assuring dignity of the individual and unity and integrity of the nation” (in his own words, as quoted in the introduction). He set an example to his civil servant colleagues by insisting and demonstrating that service to the people, rather than personal achievements, should be their motto. He insisted that people’s protest, anger and frustration should not be treated as a threat to authority or an attempt to disturb the peace, but as wake-up calls to deal sensitively with grievances that had not been addressed. Not surprisingly, therefore, he devoted his attention mainly to the neglected sections of society—Dalits, tribal people, bonded labourers and manual scavengers.

The neglected formed his constituency whether he was Collector in a district, Secretary of Social Welfare in a State, Chief Secretary in another, or Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India. He tried to not only help them but also empower them. As Collector in a district in Andhra Pradesh, he was primarily responsible for releasing thousands of bonded labourers and providing them training and opportunities to enter into other occupations. His concern for the poor and the neglected brought him into conflict sometimes with his political bosses from the upper sections of society, but Sankaran always stood his ground.

Wherever possible, he also actively participated with civil society groups working to uplift the poor and the oppressed.

As one of the tributes states: “His convictions about principles made him push boundaries within the system, a pattern for many generations of committed officers to emulate and build upon.”

A close colleague of his remarked that he worked in his office from Monday morning to Friday evening, did field inspections on Saturday and Sunday, and was back in his office on Monday. Another colleague noted that Sankaran “demonstrated through his career that a difference can be made by an individual, without heroics or fanfare”.

No compromises

After retirement, Sankaran continued his work among the poor and the alienated. He also kept challenging both the bureaucracy and the public at large to view the concerns of the economically, politically and socially marginalised sections sympathetically. As one writer records: “[Sankaran] never made compromises for the sake of expediency, for personal gain, or under pressure from any quarter. However, he conducted himself in such a manner as not to cause offence or friction. That is why he was universally respected, admired and trusted.” The essays that deal with the crisis of development can be divided, somewhat arbitrarily, into two broad categories. The first set treats development essentially as economic development and its impact on different sections of the population.

A common theme that runs through them is that development has differential impacts—some become better off, in fact wealthy and affluent, while others are marginalisd and impoverished. This is true even when economic growth wipes out extreme poverty and reduces the number of people below the poverty line, as has been happening in India and most parts of the world. One of the essays demonstrates this by making a survey of over 15 Asian countries. It also points out that Asian countries have grown much faster than was thought possible in the early days of the development discourse. However, another chapter states that an increasing rate of growth generates increasing inequality as well. “Thus, at the heart of the growth process is a mutually reinforcing mechanism of positive feedback between increasing inequality and increasing growth, each feeding on the other to trace out a high growth trajectory which by its very nature must become more exclusive.” An aspect of high growth is increasing productivity, mainly in the industrial sector, thanks to a variety of technological improvements, but without an increase in wages.

This process introduces enormous strains on the social fabric, virtually marginalising and pauperising more and more people. Another paper goes into some details of this process. The growing disproportionality in the share of agriculture in national income and the share of the workforce dependent on agriculture is an illustration.

In 1950-51, when India was among the poorest countries in the world and with a negligible rate of growth, agriculture accounted for some 60 per cent of national income and engaged 70 per cent of the workforce. By 2004-05, when India could be counted among the high-growth countries of the world, the share of agriculture in national income had come down to 20 per cent but the workforce declined only to some 50 per cent. In the meanwhile, market forces reduced the availability of arable land, so the proportion of marginal farmers barely eking out a livelihood has increased. The suicide rate among farmers is also on the rise. The increasing rural-urban migration is another manifestation of the same process. Those who migrate from agriculture and the rural areas dwell in urban slums and become self-employed or contribute to further informalisation of the labour force even within the public sector. Schemes like the MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme) could have reduced the migration to urban areas, but it was taken up half-heartedly and implemented without much enthusiasm.

Development for whom?

A reiteration of these not-quite-unfamiliar aspects of development is welcome if only to remind us that what is now being celebrated as the national approach to development may just be a partial view beneficial primarily to a small segment, the corporate sector. The last three essays bring to the fore a different perspective on development, that of the marginalised sections, especially the tribal people. As “national” income and wealth were being claimed to be increasing at a rapid rate, the tribal people were being marginalised, dispossessed and their way of life threatened. Is the tribal uprising, variously described as naxalism, Maoism, and so on, a way of interrogating the widely accepted notions not only of development but even of the state and of democracy itself? If state-sponsored development is destroying the very fabric of the culture and livelihood patterns of a recognised community, how will or should it react to that?

A brief exposition of this theme may be helpful. “The tribal way of life,” one of the contributors writes, “revolves around a few non-negotiables, the first of which is the value placed on freedom and dignity of all persons, with personhood being conferred on all beings, natural, supernatural and humans.” Within such a culture persons are equal and bound to others in webs of complementarity of survival. What would development mean in such a milieu? Would cutting down of trees be development or destruction? And what would freedom mean —freedom of outsiders to loot resources? The outsiders were initially the colonial rulers; during the past six decades and more, they have been replaced by other “outsiders”. And what of “democracy”? Is it by the people, or by those who claim to represent them? And the “state”? Does it arise from a visible community or is it a distant authority?

Against these existential questions, is it surprising at all that the tribal people and their organisations question the very concept of democracy where power rests ultimately with the state and not the people? For tribal people, the most visible form of the state is the violence that its agents unleash to control, govern and maintain order. The violence in the name of law and order is for the tribal people the rock bottom of all political questions. And they view “development” as a conspiracy of the state and capital to ruin their way of life and they respond to it through resistance. Within such a context, it may be possible to understand, but not necessarily approve of, the Maoist agitation from a different perspective. In the concluding chapter, Haragopal, one of the editors and a man who played an important role in negotiations between the government and the Maoists, attempts such an interpretation of the Maoist position. Is the armed struggle of the Maoists a matter of principle or one of strategy, particularly a response to the many fake encounters, custodial deaths and disappearances of party activists? How can the abduction of Sankaran, who was a friend and benefactor of the tribal people, be explained? The answer was given by one of the Maoist leaders: “Our strength is not armed forces, the strength lies in the support of the people. We are fully aware that Sankaran is a good officer, but in a confrontation with the state, the good and bad are not the questions. In this case, Sankaran is part of the state.” It must be noted that the kidnapping of Sankaran and other IAS officers was a response to the capture and detention of a group of Maoists and that Sankaran and his colleagues in captivity were treated with respect, showing that the act should be seen as a bargaining strategy rather than one of violence.

Obviously, Sankaran himself was of that view because he continued to negotiate with the Maoists and did everything he could until the very end to persuade the powers that be to treat the issue essentially as a socio-economic one and not as a law and order problem.

The book is a worthy tribute to a man who lived a life working for the marginalised.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor