Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXX No. 20, February 16-28, 2021
One of the joys of life is the reading of a bureaucrat’s biography and then reading a contrary view of the same person as given by a professional rival. The Indian Administrative Service is full of such instances, the most famous perhaps being the rivalry between K. Natwar Singh and Romesh Bhandari. While the preceding two editions of this magazine covered civil servant Pulla Reddy’s stints in Madras as recounted in his memoirs Autumn Leaves, this article takes a look at a not altogether rosy view of his tenure in the Madras Corporation as seen from the eyes of another civil servant, C. Narasimham, in his memoirs Me and My Times. For the record, Narasimham, drafted into the IAS, served as Commissioner of the Madras Corporation in the late 1940s and later became a Secretary in the newly founded state of Andhra.
According to Narasimham, Pulla Reddy was quite conscious of being an ICS officer and very proud of it. Narasimham having come up the ranks was equally conscious of his lack of status in the eyes of his superior. In his view, Pulla Reddy’s superciliousness came in the way of gaining active cooperation of the officers and staff of the Corporation. He was not encouraging enough of new schemes put up to him by the officers and would not readily sanction them, thereby dampening their enthusiasm. Narasimham was probably a victim himself. Pulla Reddy, says Narasimham, had a rather peculiar way of dealing with interpellations brought up by councillors. Instead of openly telling them the truth in the Council meetings, he would send for them and persuade them to withdraw their views and appoint their nominees in projects to mollify them. Narasimham adds that he was at times given to flattery and that a few councillors took advantage of this and curried favours from him.
The relationship between S. Satyamurti as Mayor and Pulla Reddy as Corporation Commissioner was far from cordial according to Narasimham. They were given to quarreling on petty issues. Pulla Reddy insisted that the invitation for civic addresses and receptions be sent out in his name as the Commissioner, something that Satyamurti strongly protested against. He insisted that they be sent out jointly in the names of The Mayor, The Deputy Mayor and the Councillors of Corporation, thereby establishing the order of precedence, and finally had his way. Narasimham states that the relationship was so bad that before his tenure as Mayor ended, Satyamurti saw to it that Pulla Reddy was transferred. C. Basudev, his successor as Mayor however got the transfer order cancelled and Pulla Reddy was back as Commissioner.
Narasimham writes that though the Government observed that the general and financial administration of the Corporation was fairly satisfactory, this in official language came under the head of being damned with praise. This was borne out by the fact that the finances had remained almost stagnant during the four years of Pulla Reddy’s tenure as Commissioner and the last year of his regime had in fact recorded a collection of only Rs 80.28 Lakhs as against the targeted Rs 100 Lakhs. The Government also constantly kept reminding the Corporation about large sums of money borrowed from it remaining unspent, though in Pulla Reddy’s defence Narasimham says that these reminders were despite the fact that it knew that the slow progress was on account of the war.
Narasimham however credits Pulla Reddy for the immense work done by him during the evacuation period. He states that Pulla Reddy was instrumental in constructing air raid shelters and water reservoirs for firefighting and also conducting several mock drills and training the staff in Air Raid Precautions. Pulla Reddy succeeded in keeping the morale of the Corporation staff high by taking care of their needs and by running common kitchens for them as their families had left the city. While crediting Satyamurti’s persistent efforts being instrumental in the Government taking up of the Poondi reservoir project, Narasimham states that Pulla Reddy played a significant role in bringing the long-contemplated project to fruition.
Summing up his reminiscences of Pulla Reddy’s tenure in the Corporation, Narasimham states that while Pulla Reddy was completely honest and hardworking, he was not suited for work in areas of rapid development. He says that Pulla Reddy’s failure to make a mark as a Commissioner was on account of multiple reasons, including the fact that he did not give his officers enough freedom and that he was often given to wasting his time on matters that did not merit much attention such as anonymous and pseudonymous petitions, offensive speeches made in the Council etc, while pushing important issues behind. All of this in Narasimham’s view resulted in Pulla Reddy being shunted off to Ramnad as Collector after his tenure as Corporation Commissioner ended. It was in ICS terms an “inchoate small district with its headquarters in Madurai outside the district”. Pulla Reddy was so incensed at this that he went on leave.
That departure from the Madras Corporation was not without its share of intrigue if Narasimham is to be believed. Having had two extensions as Commissioner, Pulla Reddy was quite fond of stating that he had had enough and would be glad to leave on some other posting. But in reality he was angling for a third extension and almost succeeded in getting it. It was for this reason that while overtly supporting the appointment of JPL Shenoy, ICS as his successor, he covertly resorted to delaying his departure, hoping that his extension would somehow come through in the interim. Shenoy however was no innocent when it came to such manipulations and short-circuited the matter by landing up on the appointed day to take charge. Narasimham must have been indulged in a private joke for it was he who ensured that the major land development in west Madras in the early 1950s was named Shenoy Nagar, with the main thoroughfare being named after Pulla Reddy. The two remain forever in uncomfortable proximity.
While recognising that Narasimham’s account could suffer from bias for whatever reason and could be perception-based, it reiterates the theory that history is often a tale of the victorious, suggesting that there exists a definite possibility for an alternative view of events of the past.