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K C Sivaramakrishnan: God’s own civil servant


K.C. Sivaramakrishnan, IAS, chairman of the Centre for Policy Research, passed away on May 28. His life surpassed all measures of excellence, achievement and character. A conventional biography would be impressive enough: An IAS officer who exemplified the best that the service was meant to be, in knowledge, dedication and integrity. He served in various positions: chief executive, Calcutta Metropolitan Authority, secretary in the ministries of commerce and urban affairs. After retirement, he embarked on a career as a scholar, publishing a dozen significant books and reports, mainly on urbanisation, which would be the envy of any scholar. But this biography does not do justice to his achievement.

KCS, as he was known, was the kind of individual indispensable to the foundations of modern India. His integrity and thoroughness as a civil servant were exemplary. But unlike the encrusted reputation of civil servants (which he made fun of in a characteristically humorous and self-deprecating book, The Enduring Babu), his conduct as a civil servant was to facilitate and enable, rather than block and slow down things. In a disposition that he carried over to scholarly life, he never presumed to know and always insisted on learning more. But, most importantly, it is hard to think of a modern scholar or civil servant whose career was so insistently bound up with the fundamental architecture of Indian democracy; an architecture we have waylaid at our peril.

In his work and life, that architecture of democracy had four pillars. The first, unusual among civil servants, was an unremitting faith in the primacy of representative democracy. He did probably the most laborious and outstanding work on delimitation, to ensure that the idea of equal representation was not lost. The second pillar was a farsighted belief in the power of decentralisation and the role of local bodies. He was one of the architects of the 73rd and 74th Amendments, and his passion for local government informed almost everything he did. He published numerous books on the subject including, most recently, Courts, Panchayats and Nagarpalikas, which examined the ways in which courts have shaped the architecture of local governance. In his most recent work on mega-city governance, he candidly acknowledged the ways in which a moth-eaten 74th Amendment had stymied the future of urban governance. He argued for democracy over bureaucracy, participation over exclusion, and the fitness of administrative structures to the task at hand with rare depth, knowledge and precision.

The third pillar of a democratic future was cities. He was one of the earliest articulators of a vision for city governance, beginning with his work in developing industrial townships like Durgapur and Asansol, through to his work in rehabilitating refugees during the 1971 war in Calcutta.

Although his work focused much on the legal forms and administrative structures of cities, every single report and book of his is informed by a profound sense of the dynamism of cities and their complex social and economic structures. His most recent work on mega cities (including chairing the commission for a new capital for Andhra Pradesh) highlighted the complex dynamic unfolding in the relations between regions and cities, and was prescient in recognising the kinds of tensions brewing around our cities.

The fourth pillar of his work on democracy was profoundly infused with his personality. Behind his baritone voice and towering presence was a truly democratic personality, infused with the lightness, joy and diversity only a democratic personality could conjure. He had a killer sense of humour that had the power to dissolve conflict rather than exacerbate it. He was fiercely independent, deferring to no authority or threat, and nurtured that quality in institutions he shepherded. He had strong views. But he never imposed them, and often nurtured a kind of agonal difference. He cared about everyone he encountered. He combined in his persona the dream liberal arts sensibility we talk about but rarely achieve — the knowledge of several languages, a deep and cultured interest in art and music, a passion for knowledge ranging from law to economics, a sense of civic duty and dialogue across generations. Democracy for him was the affirmation of life.

He may also have been the last of the great Nehruvians. He chided Nehru for ignoring local government. But he had a commitment to building a modern state, a deep interest in institutions, an interest in modernity, made richer by a sense of the past, a sense of India above region, religion and caste, and a concern for a civilisational linkage that could perhaps one day, again, transcend the barriers Partition created. He left too soon. And the only explanation can be that God needed an exemplary civil servant for himself, since modern India seems to no longer have any use for this kind.

– Pratap Bhanu Mehta, writing in the Indian Express on 29 May 2015