Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 18, January 1-15, 2020
P. Sabanayagam, the veteran administrator, decided to publish his memoirs only in 2018, thirty eight years after he retired from the IAS because he felt that Governance today does not believe in truly serving people. By sharing his life story, he hopes to inspire the younger generation of administrators to learn about how he handled various challenges in his life as an administrator.
After a brief career in the defence services during World war II, Sabanayagam was selected to the first batch of the Indian Administrative Service at the dawn of Indian Independence. He witnessed and participated in the change of the old guard from the British regime to the birth of the fledgling India. He believed that good governance was sine qua non with good administration, a requisite foundation for nation building. His memoir titled Service to the Nation published by Notion Press, documents his contribution in various walks of government, spanning 33 years and is a ringside view revealing the working styles, political acumen, and political compulsions of many historical figures with whom he had the privilege of working closely.
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Though Sabanayagam was born on 7th June, 1922, in Chennai, his date of birth in official records is shown as 15th August,1922, a change made when he was admitted to Ewart School in Vepery a few years later. He lost his mother when he was just 3 years old and was brought up by his father, S. Panchanada Mudaliar, a lawyer by profession who later decided to confine his practice to matters concerning the Hindu Religious Endowment Board. He was a great influence on the young Sabanayagam.
After completing his schooling from Ewart school, he did his B.A degree from Madras Christian College in 1942 scoring the highest mark and winning the Ross Prize. Though he enrolled for his Masters, towards the end of the first year he applied for a commission in the Defence Service. In 1942, World War II was still going on and Britain was not doing too well. After his initial training at the Officers Training School MHOW (near Indore) he was sent to Deolali Artillery School for a six month course. In June 1944 he became 2nd Lieutenant at the 10th field regiment at Chindwara, near Jabalpur. Here he learnt the importance of looking after the physical welfare of the sepoys under him, which experience was to stand him in good stead in dealing with subordinate staff in later years. Within sixteen months after becoming a 2nd Lieutenant he was promoted as Captain, overlooking nearly eight seniors (six of them British) which was a record those days. There were protests. But his boss Col. Gurney’s response in his defence was ‘if anyone can fire a barrage within twenty minutes, having trained the crew and maintained the guns as efficiently as Sabanatyagam did, I will accept the protest.’
Towards the end of his stay in the army, ‘Sabu’, as he was popularly known among his army colleagues, became one of the two officers selected to undergo the Long Gunnery Staff Course for one year in UK on condition that he should accept the Regular Commission. Since he was keen to get into the ICS, as was his father’s wish, he declined the offer.
Sabanayagam was admitted to ICS in March, 1947. Patel who was then the Deputy PM in an interim government before Independence, felt that ICS was ‘neither Indian nor Civil nor service oriented’ and therefore renamed it as All India Administrative Service, AIAS which was later shortened to IAS. His training at Metcalfe House, where the ICS training was taking place, was cut short and he and other trainees were put in charge of handling refugees. It was a risky job in which a couple of his colleagues lost their lives. In December, 1947, he was sent to Madras to undergo a year’s district training.
His first job was as the Assistant Collector of Coimbatore District. The collector was F.W.A. Morris ICS, a senior officer, from whom he learned how to dispose of petitioners who have grievances, how to preside over meetings and later how to hear criminal appeals as the District Magistrate. During this period he was also trained as a Revenue Inspector in charge of a firka (about 15 villages) supervising the work of the Karnams and village Munsifs.
After working as Revenue Inspector for two months, he appeared for a junior level departmental examination at Madras which he passed and was posted as Sub-Collector, Pollachi sub-division. It was the beginning of his career as an administrator. Those were days when administrators combined the functions of both judiciary and executive.
As a Magistrate, he developed the art of always seeing or visualsing the pros and cons of every issue before coming to a decision. Sabanayagam believes that all ICS/IAS officers who had worked as magistrates in those early years had this experience which contributed to the sound decision-making process as they went up the ladder and manned the highest posts. Unfortunately, with the separation of judiciary and executive functions, the current officers do not have this opportunity and are poorer to that extent.
Out of the two important incidents when he was a sub-collector of Pollachi, the VKP paddy procurement case taught him the importance of taking a stand, vis-a-vis his superiors including ministers when he was convinced that he was administratively right and morally above reproach. In the stamp duty case he showed his firmness in upholding the duties of the court as a young Magistrate, when he refused to change the date of hearing to suit C. Subramanian, a leading lawyer of Coimbatore and an important politician who was a member of the Constituent Assembly which was drafting the Constitution of India. Both these cases brought Sabanayagam to the limelight in official circles and among the public and his reputation as an efficient and courageous officer who would stand up to challenges went up.
In 1952, the First General election was held in India – adult suffrage – every person, literate or not, was given the right to vote. Though the Congress lost the election in Madras , Rajaji with support from M.A Manickavelu Naicker, the leader of the Commonweal party with six MLAs, was persuaded to form the government and become the Chief Minister. Much against the wishes of the then Chief Secretary, Rajaji ensured that Sabanayagam became his Private Secretary. In this position Sabanayagam came in contact with leading politicians, industrialists, Secretaries to Government, heads of departments and others. He also had excellent working relationship with Rajaji in whom he found a wise statesman who was willing to reason even if it came from a level down below or accept a forthright dissent from even a junior officer so long as such dissent was bonafide and in public interest. Though he worked with him for only 18 months, Rajaji developed a liking for Sabanayagam. It was during this period that Sabanayagam married Savithri. Rajaji attended the wedding and blessed the couple.
During his brief stay in Salem as its Collector he opened a bridge across the Cauvery river near Namakkal which had been completed but was waiting to be inaugurated for several months by a Minister. The people on both sides of the river became so happy that when he built a guest house for non-gazetted staff of Salem district, they insisted that it should be named after him, a recommendation which K.Kamaraj, the then Chief Minister readily agreed to. The ‘Sabanayagam Building’ exists even today next to the Collector’s office.
After Salem, Sabanayagam was posted as Deputy Textile Commissioner, Handloom of India in mid 1955, his first posting in Central Government Service, with headquarters in Madras. His efforts to actively promote the Handloom sector resulted in his becoming the Chief Executive of Handloom Export Organisation (HEO) as a part of the State Trading Corporation. In trying to promote handloom products in USA, he was seen walking around the streets of New York, carrying bags containing samples and meeting the textile importers. This sight provoked V Balaraman, who was the correspondent of The Hindu newspaper in New York, to wonder, ‘How come an IAS officer who had been a District collector was walking up and down like an ordinary salesman!’ Sabanayagam’s devotion to his job was once again noticed by people who mattered. His promotion in USA of ‘Madras Checks’ or ‘Bleeding Madras’, produced only in the East coast of India, and how he fought the local competition selling fake products by getting the brand patented became a well-known case study.
Back home in Madras, Kamaraj who was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu (1955-63) wanted him to revert to State government in 1961. He was appointed as Director of Industries in mid 1961 when R.Venkatraman was the Minister of Industries in the State. During the three years that he was the Director, the department grew. More ITIs, Industrial co-operatives, Industrial estates and many other facilities were added. He was instrumental in putting up Ezhilagam – a modern building where the offices of the Department of Industries was shifted.
Once again it was time to shift back to Delhi. When he was offered the very important and prestigious position of the Chief Controller of Imports and Exports (CCI & E) he was reluctant to go because he felt that his old father whom he was looking after would not be able to go with him. Kamaraj was very keen that he should take up the position, for his own good and for the good of the State. As CCIE though he came to know Secretaries in Government of India, top industrialists, film producers, businessmen, heads of public sector companies, he always maintained social contacts only to the extent to know what people thought about government policies. When D.S. Patel a businessman from Bombay who was popular with bureaucrats in Bombay and Delhi shouted at his Controller using impolite words for not expediting an application pending in the department, he was firm with Patel that unless he apologised to the officer concerned, his application would not be processed. Sabanayagam believed that no one, however influential he may be, could browbeat or abuse his subordinates. When the whole office came to know of this episode, senior people were emboldened to take fair decisions without fear. When he found that Minister Manubhai Shah expressed lack of trust in him with reference to an issue concerning Rupee Trade Agreements, he preferred to resign from the position as CCIE. According to him, ‘No matter what position you hold, whatever the prestige be, if the person above does not trust or accept your bona fides and does not trust you, there is no point in working with such a person. Also if a person whom you trust wholeheartedly betrays your trust, there is no point in keeping him; part ways.’
After spending seven years in Delhi, including a stint with the Steel ministry, Sabanayagam shifted back to Chennai, on a special request from the then Chief Minister Karunanidhi. He was appointed the Chairman of the Tami Nadu Electricity Board with additional responsibility as First Member, Board of Revenue.
As the Chairman of TNEB, while his handling of the agitating Workers’ Union earned him the nickname ‘Saval Sabanayagam’, he was also in trouble with Minister Madhavan for taking a tough stand against Dharangadhara Chemicals, Tuticorin, challenging their claim for continuing of the concession of lower tariff for the electricity consumed by them on the ground it was a power intensive industry. In spite of the Minister’s warning he decided to investigate the matter and recommended only a partial concession. He also advised the Minister to place the matter before the Cabinet and take a decision, so that no one could doubt the integrity of the government. According to Sabanayagam ‘even in doing the right thing it is necessary to go through the procedures meticulously so that no one has a handle to criticise.’ In due course both the Minister and CM appreciated his advice. His good work earned him the next promotion in the service of the State government.
While on a visit to Delhi to follow up on some projects for the EB, he got the news that CM Karunanidhi, had passed orders removing Royappa and appointed him as the Chief Secretary, overlooking three other senior officers. The CM also made him the Vigilance Commissioner as well as Development Commissioner. With a team of dedicated subordinates to whom he delegated powers, Sabanayagam had no problem in managing not only the three prestigious positions in Government but also functioning as the Chairman of Southern Structurals Ltd. and the Dairy Board.
‘I continued my open door policy. Secretaries and Heads of departments could meet me easily. I would occasionally walk around the sections and see the clerks and peons in the Secretariat working as I used to early in my career as Under Secretary. Since I had been with Rajaji and close to Kamaraj and thought to be a relation of M.Bhaktavatsalalm, the DMK ministers could not but think that I was Congress aligned.’
Once at the airport when both Kamaraj and Karunanidhi were travelling to Delhi, he went up to Kamaraj, wished him and spoke to him. When his detractors tried to give a political colour to this incident it seems Karunanidhi remarked ‘Sabanayagam always remembers and is courteous to old friends.’ As Chief Secretary, he had an excellent rapport with former Chief Minister Karunanidhi and all ministers.
At Tamil Nadu Dairy Development Corporation when he wanted a brand name for the milk being sold by the Corporation, it was Karunanidhi who suggested the name ‘Aavin’. As Vigilance Commissioner, he was responsible for ordering the arrest of Mayor Munuswamy of the DMK in the famous ‘Muster Roll Scandal’ in the Corporation of Madras when he found that the Mayor was responsible for creating fictitious muster rolls and bills and appropriating money. When Karunanaidhi was upset with him for taking action against a party man without consulting him, he explained to the CM that he had taken the action only to save his name and reputation of the party and offered to resign if his decision was not acceptable to the CM. ‘This was the second time I offered to resign rather than give up my principles and morals.’
After a five year term as Chief Secretary, in 1976, he was posted as Secretary, Rehabilitation in Government of India, in charge of refugees. When Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister, he was shifted to Department of Education and Culture which also comprised sports, archeology, museums and technical education. Morarji Desai had a reputation of being harsh, dictatorial and vindictive. Sabanayagam differs. ‘Morarji Desai was sincere and honest in views. He had no time for inefficiency. If anyone had a reasonable argument and was prepared to put it forth strongly, he would listen.’
It was during his term in the Department of Education, that the Distance Education Programme was drawn up and Annamalai University in the South, became the first to implement it. When the Janata party was defeated in the General Election in January,1980 and Indira Gandhi again became the Prime Minister, an opportunity to become the much coveted Cabinet Secretary came up. Unfortunately Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi considered him a DMK man. Besides he refused to curry favours with the likes of R.K.Dhawan, the Private Secretary to Indira Gandhi. He lost the post to Grewal. Though he was disappointed, he took the rejection philosophically. Sabanayagam retired from the IAS on 30th August 1980 ending his official career in the service of the Government of India.
His advice to young officers is ‘As an officer you don’t have to always submit to the Minister’s orders, but can and should dissuade him in his own interest and in the public interest. If he still persists, then you have no alternative but record your objection and then carry out his orders. The danger that you will be transferred is one you should be prepared for, but not worry about. Never sell your conscience. Officers who have compromised have always been forced to face charges later in life.’
Former West Bengal Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, second from left, and former Attorney General of India K. Parasaran at the release of the book Service to the Nation written by retired IAS officer P. Sabanayagam.