Road less travelled

Print edition : November 19, 2010

S.R. Sankaran. He took up the issues of bonded labour and atrocities against Dalits seriously.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

The life of S.R. Sankaran (1934-2010) should serve as an inspiration to all those who are committed to the cause of economic and social justice.

S.R. SANKARAN's demise on October 7, 2010, marks the end of a noble and socially valuable life and of a partnership of 51 years between us on the path of social justice with a focus on the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs), the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) and the Backward Classes (B.Cs). It is a great loss not only to his family, friends, colleagues and the large number of S.C. and S.T. people of Andhra Pradesh who have drawn support, encouragement and inspiration from him all these decades but also to the cause of social justice. The spontaneous outpouring of emotion by Dalits who gathered in large numbers on October 7 and 8 at his flat in Hyderabad and at the Panjagutta crematorium, where his body was taken in a procession and cremated in accordance with his beliefs, without any ritual, was overwhelming.

I first met Sankaran in 1959. At that time I was the Sub-Collector of Ongole in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh, and was reaching the end of a tumultuous tenure which lasted more than a year, from October 17, 1958, to November 18, 1959. Having carried with me the ideology of social and economic justice and equality from my teenage years, I have stood by the rights of the S.C., S.T. and B.C. people and the other poor sections right from my entry into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in 1956. It stemmed from the conviction that administration and state governance are primarily intended for the exploited, the deprived and the disadvantaged. The distribution of land and house sites to the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs, the eviction of rich landowners from their encroachments on government land and making such land and government-owned waste land available to the S.Cs and the other poor, the firm action I took against untouchability, and my practice of camping in S.C. bastis to resolve problems on the spot and to build up the morale of the people there naturally invited the ire of the landed gentry and certain powerful persons in political and higher administrative positions.

At that time, Sankaran was undergoing district training in neighbouring Krishna district after his days at the IAS Training School at Metcalfe House in Delhi (the predecessor of the current Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie). By coincidence, we had occupied the same room, No. 22, in Metcalfe House, me in 1956-1957 and Sankaran in 1957-1958. Mohammed Ibrahim was the bearer providing services for IAS probationers of that room. After I left Metcalfe House, I used to send some money to Mohammed Ibrahim for his children's education, and he was in regular correspondence with me. It was from him that I first heard about Sankaran and his personal human qualities.

Once, on my way to a village near Thimmasamudram, as usual whenever passing through Guntur I stepped into the residence of Ramesh Grover, Sankaran's batchmate and Assistant Collector under training in Guntur. When I asked for Ramesh, a compact-built person rose from his chair, extended his hand towards me, greeted me with the words Mr P.S. Krishnan, I presume? and introduced himself as S.R. Sankaran. We had heard about each other and though we were meeting for the first time we did so as kindred souls. When I told him I was going to a hamlet in connection with some problems of the S.Cs, he joined me readily in my ramshackle jeep. Years later, he wrote to me that it was the first time he had seen the official vehicle of a person in governmental authority entering an S.C. basti. From then on, we have trodden the same path together.

Sankaran was posted as Sub-Collector of Nandyal in Kurnool district in 1959. On my long-threatened transfer to Anantapur, to a punishment post out of mischief, as Assistant Settlement Officer, I halted at Nandyal and spent some time with him. He took me to the Collector, M. Bhootharaja Rao, who was then camping at Nandyal; he enquired about my experiences in Ongole. Meanwhile, Sankaran had started work, centring around the S.Cs and their elementary rights of house sites, land, protection from untouchability, and so on, in Nandyal division.

Sankaran rendered tremendous service to the S.Cs and the S.Ts, especially during his period as Joint Collector, Nellore, in the early 1960s and later as Collector there, and during his two tenures as Secretary/Principal Secretary of Social Welfare of Andhra Pradesh (in the late 1970s and the mid- and late 1980s) and, sandwiched between these two tenures, as Development Commissioner, and later as the Chief Secretary of Tripura (in the early 1980s).

One of the happy and fruitful complementarities between us occurred in his first tenure as Secretary, Social Welfare. Shortly before he returned from deputation at the Centre, the State government had organised the Andhra Pradesh State Harijan Conference, 1976 (the term Harijan was still in vogue until its use was stopped by the Union Home Ministry in 1980). Though posted in the Industries sector at that time, I was, on account of my personal involvement in the cause of social justice, nominated as the convener of its seminar subcommittee. In collaboration with S.C. and B.C. Ministers, social justice-sensitive officers, activists and scholars, I listed out the various measures required for the protection and development of the S.Cs under the heads of the Untouchability Act and the amendments required and its implementation; social disabilities and atrocities; improvement and expansion of reservation; land reforms, assignment and distribution; integrated development of S.C. lands; non-agricultural economic programmes; institutional finance; minimum wages for agricultural labour; removal of indebtedness and moratorium; bonded labour; educational programmes; housing; S.C. women's issues; the issue of S.C. converts to other religions, and so on. These action items were quickly converted into formal government orders (G.Os) and practical programmes and actions, thanks to Sankaran, who returned to Hyderabad and took over as Secretary, Social Welfare.

Unlike the common bureaucratic practice of trying to deal with people's problems by pushing files, he dealt with them directly. 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.

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, shortly after I took charge as Secretary, Ministry of Welfare. He retired from this post in 1992. In 1990, we collaborated in efforts to introduce reservation for the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs in panchayats.

S.R. Sankaran was appointed the chief negotiator in the talks between the Andhra Pradesh government and the naxalites in Hyderabad in 2004. Here, Potturi Venkateswara Rao, K.G. Kannabiran, Sankaran and G. Haragopal arrive for the talks at the MCR Human Resource Development Institute in Hyderabad on October 15, 2004.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Apart from engaging with multifarious issues of the S.Cs and the S.Ts, every day of his was marked by personal interventions on behalf of members of these communities who were in need of help for education, scholarship, hostel accommodation or protection against harassment in offices. It is these services that he rendered uninterruptedly from the time when he was Sub-Collector until his retirement and even after that which stirred the feelings of the large number of S.C. and S.T. people who attended his funeral.

Until his last breath, he continued his endeavours in the field of social justice. After retirement from service, he was chief patron of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a voluntary organisation. He was also appointed chief negotiator in the short-lived negotiations between the State government and the naxalites in Hyderabad in 2004. The talks failed, and he was heartbroken because he had hoped that with his credentials, prestige and stature, he would be able to bring around the State government to accept the substantive issues raised by the naxalites pertaining to equitable land distribution and other such matters affecting the oppressed and thereby persuade the naxalites to give up their methodology of violence based on the premise that the state would never fulfil the rights of the exploited. Despite this and a heart attack in 1995 which he survived narrowly, he continued to lend his support to every person in need, especially Dalits.

Life and work

I have seen the observations of R. Prabhakar Rao, former Director General of Police, Andhra Pradesh, that the government could not utilise the services of Sankaran fully. It is necessary to ask why this failure occurred; his field of activity is so important to the country, and persons with the right approach, based on human and constitutional values to the underprivileged, are not too many.

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. Why should this have been so?

On his death the State government honoured itself by arranging for his funeral with state honours, but can this occasion be used for introspection by those in whom power resides in particular the executive, both political and administrative so that the work Sankaran did can be continued without similar obstacles and hostility by others who share the same human and constitutional values? There are people still in the IAS, other public services, in academic and other institutions and among social workers and activists who try to tread the same path and want to continue the work to achieve social and economic justice for Dalits and other vast masses of people. It is necessary for the executive to identify proactively such individuals in government, other institutions, the voluntary sector and civil society, and help and encourage them and ensure that no obstacles are placed in the way of their constitutionally mandated work. This is essential for India's overall progress.

It is futile to imagine that India can become a superpower by merely stepping up the rate of growth of the GDP and increasing the number of billionaires while remaining home to an oppressive caste system and untouchability; the largest number of landless agricultural labourers; the largest number of people deprived of their meagre lands; the largest number of people self-employed in traditional sectors and steamrollered by the advancement of modern technology and entrepreneurship in which they have no share and to which they have no access; the largest number of malnourished, undernourished and underweight children; the largest number of people living below minimal essential income levels; and the largest number of people without food and nutritional security; and the country where the highest rates of infant mortality, child mortality, anaemia, and so on, prevail. In all these categories, the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs, including the B.Cs among the religious minorities, form a large bulk. The energies of all people within the government and outside it have to be mobilised to correct this situation.

Will the leaders in the government, administrative services, institutions and civil society resolve to rise up to this task? Will they, in the midst of power politics and career strategies, leave adequate space without disturbing those who want to work sincerely and selflessly for social and economic justice? A disturbing fact is that the obstacles in the way of Sankaran's work came not only from politically powerful quarters but also from certain higher administrative levels. I know a number of instances of this.

This is also an occasion for introspection for the personnel of the IAS, the Indian Police Service and the Indian Forest Service who come into direct contact with people. Members of these services must take a lesson from Sankaran's life and work and resolve to serve the interests of the S.Cs, the S.Ts, the B.Cs and the other poor, in accordance with the Constitution and thereby strengthen their confidence with the capacity of democracy to deliver social and economic justice, and equality of status and opportunity in all fields of life and work.

These measures of vital correction by the state, society, institutions and services will alone be a fitting tribute to Sankaran.

P.S. Krishnan is a former Secretary to the Government of India and has been active in the social justice field for nearly six decades.

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