In conversation with Santha Sheela Nair: 50 years shaping public policy in India

15 October 2023
SERIES Voices of change in Asia 5 items

Welcome to our interview series featuring changemakers across Asia, where we delve into policy and change processes that are shaping the region. 

In this edition, Annapoorna Ravichander, Executive Director of the Public Affairs Foundation in Bangalore, India, engages in a conversation with Santha Sheela Nair, a former official of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). 

Santha was appointed as the first woman District Collector of Trichy in Tamil Nadu and retired as a secretary to the Government of India. After retiring, she was asked to work in the Chief Minister’s office and as the Vice Chairman of the State Planning Commission.

Question: Please introduce yourself!

I don’t know how to introduce myself. I’m just one of those countless boring bureaucrats who are not very popular in today’s world. If you want to call somebody by a name, you call him a ‘babu’ [a term of respect] or ‘bureaucrat’, and you know then you have said it all. I’m just one of them and one of the many and that’s all I can say. 

I went through a lot of interesting assignments, some very good, some not so good. I started life in 1973 as a young professional in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy Of Administration (LBSNAA) in Mussourie. I then went on to Madurai district where I was assigned the Tamil Nadu cadre. 

I went to Madurai district as an Assistant Collector under training, then was Sub Collector in Dindigul, which was very eventful. It was the time of the Emergency +, and I had the opportunity to work as an escort to the then Prime Minister.  

So right from a very early age we were rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty. But we were very small people at that time. And, though it was almost 20 years after Mrs Anna Malhotra, the first woman IAS officer, came into service, there was still a lot of apprehension about women being officers. There are still some misgivings but relatively it’s far better these days. 

I was Secretary Government of India in the Ministry of Rural Development, Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation. I was mostly in the water supply sector at the functional level as an executive and at the policy for the state and national levels. So that is an area where I developed some amount of expertise, so to say, all only as administrative expertise.

Q: Tell us about some of the achievements you’re proudest of during your years of service.

I don’t know one significant achievement. The achievements, depending on the context, are so different that not one can stand out. 

The one thing that everybody likes to talk about, and you know that I am known for, is having introduced rainwater harvesting as a legislation. Making it compulsory and making it successful for the first time, probably in the world, in the State of Tamil Nadu.

It became a model for other states to implement. We went beyond just having official orders and brought specific legislation for it. Of course I was supported completely by the Government, I persuaded them to make sure that the election manifesto promise was taken up seriously.

I was pursuing rainwater harvesting on my own as a bureaucrat at many levels earlier. But I couldn’t achieve state-wide success without the political support from the leadership. And that was a fantastic achievement.  

In fact, the NITI Aayog had predicted that Chennai would be dry by 2022. And I had refuted it in the press. Today, Chennai has ground water five-20 feet in most places.  

Since we were the first government who pioneered rain water harvesting at state level we did not have any role model. We just went by common sense. I used to say it wasn’t rocket science, you just needed to get the water into the ground or collect it. It was done for centuries in this country, in many parts of India, including Tamil Nadu and more particularly in desert areas like Rajasthan and Gujarat. 

Q: What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman during your work?

When I was posted as one of the first women collectors in Tamil Nadu, there were many men who said they didn’t want to work under me. They said, how can we serve a woman? The police officer didn’t want to salute me; they said, we have never saluted a woman. 

There is this thing about being a woman, and I’m talking about 40 or 50 years ago when there weren’t so many women in public life or in positions of authority, in administration and so on. There were a lot of apprehensions but you get over that pretty soon. If you are not all the time conscious that you’re a woman and you just get on with your work, everybody sees that, and then you build a reputation.

Whether you are a man or a woman you build a certain reputation in your career and that is what’s ultimately important.  

I have always felt that sometimes this big disadvantage was an advantage. I have more eyeballs in the sense that people sat up and took notice of me because I was a woman. So my colleagues used to say what is it that you are doing differently that you get all this admiration and fan following while we are doing the same thing. I realised people start with a lot of misgivings, but they also give you extra appreciation when you do something good which your male colleagues may not get.

We always talk of gender discrimination but in the context of women there are other types pf discrimination too. When I first worked in Delhi I was referred to as a Madrasi (a person from Madras) and my looks and manners did not quite fit into their stereotype of a Madrasi and I had to negotiate my way through these myths.  

Q: How did you go about mobilising resources and securing political support for your initiatives?

When you start an initiative and there is appreciation from ordinary people and the media it is very important. The politician sees mileage in it and takes ownership of it because it is good for him to say that all this is being done under his direction. 

If you are low key and let the appreciation go to the leadership, then by and large I think it can work. 

I would like to talk of another instance when I was posted as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Government of India, New Delhi. I was the first IAS Officer posted as Horticulture Commissioner, as before that it was always headed by an agriculture scientist.

At that time, in 1991, our five-year plan budget was Rs. 25 crores, of which we were able to spend only Rs. 17 crores. I had the opportunity to revise the budget from 25 crores to Rs. 1000 crores for the five-year period. This was a huge milestone in the resources available for the horticulture sector nation-wide and I had the opportunity to work on horticulture projects from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Such an opportunity you can get only in the civil services.

I often said that the job of Horticulture Commissioner of India was like a romance for me, I was so smitten and devoted to the sector. My junior colleagues joked at my farewell party that “Madam enjoyed the romance but the baby now is left with us.” 

I was hugely supported by my colleagues and bosses – the officials and political leaders. The friendships forged then have lasted to this day as we all shared a common goal and achievement. 

Q: From your experience, what can you tell us about how evidence is used in decision-making within the Indian Administrative Service?

A lot is dependent on the individuals, some are very rule bound and won’t stray even a bit, and that’s mostly the old school. But more and more now it is evidence-based administration or data-based administration. 

It has good points and bad points in a sense, because some evidence may not be applicable universally, it cannot be standardised. Superimposing that as a framework for something across the state or across the country may not be the right thing to do. 

So you know, you have to choose the type of evidence and fit in appropriate parameters for flexibility, for its development, for it to take its own form or shape. That is very important and sometimes, the evidence will be faulty and other times evidence may not have been gathered at all. 

Today a lot of bureaucrats are much better, but in our time we never thought of recording anything, never thought of documenting anything. So a lot of it is lost, we said let the work speak for itself. Some of the negative experiences were never documented and the lessons from that were lost forever.

And there’s another thing in the civil service, I’m sure it’s in the corporate sector also, that your successor always thinks that he has to do better than you and as a result charts new plans. So the evidence and work that you have done in the past may simply go out of the window, because it’s not part of the system, especially when a government changes.  

Q: Are there any other insights from your life and work that you would like to share with our readers?

The only thing I can say about the Indian Civil Service is what a great opportunity it is. I don’t think there’s any civil service anywhere in the world quite like it in the sense of the opportunity that it gives. 

Today, we have the legacy that our predecessors protected and we benefit from it. Today, the armed forces, and to some extent the judiciary, are looked upon with respect and trust for doing the right thing. The civil service should also try to build up such a reputation that the country can rely on them. 

A lot of things will change. In the system there will be some people out there who will safeguard whatever is valuable and safeguard the ethics of the system. When I think that my own experience, I feel that there are many messages we can give to ordinary people, even being babus and bureaucrats and faceless, nameless people.

You are at the cutting edge very often. You deal directly with the citizen and at that time it is your individual personality and values system that will deliver justice and fair play. I think we shouldn’t forget that and I hope we don’t.