That she was the first lady IAS officer of India seems no feat to 85-year-old Anna Rajam Malhotra. The laurel sits lightly on her aged, upright shoulders. Playing down her pioneering role, she calls it a “fluke”. In the city for a family visit, Anna went down memory lane, recalling her finest hours with villagers in rural India of the 50s to working alongside charismatic Prime Ministers.
Today's bureaucracy leaves her disappointed as she finds it getting mixed with politics. Her era was different and the women who succeeded her showed “high conduct.” Never a ‘Yes Minister' officer, Anna faced prejudices for being a woman in Public Administration.
Born in Ernakulam and schooled in Calicut and later Madras, Anna says that she took the Civil Services examination for a lark and did not even realise that she was the first woman in the service.
In 1951, she was discouraged from joining the service by the distinguished board which interviewed her. It comprised of four ICS officers, headed by R.N. Banerjee the Chairman of UPSC. Instead, the Foreign Service and Central Services were offered as “suitable for women.” But Anna argued her case, stood her ground, chose Madras cadre and picked up her rank.
The first Chief Minister under whom she worked was C. Rajgopalachari. “Rajaji was the old type, very stern. In principle he said he was against women entering public service and was not keen to post me in the field. He was convinced that I would be unable to handle law and order situation.”
But Anna who had undergone training in horse riding, rifle and revolver shooting and in using magisterial powers felt on par with her male counterparts. She argued that there were many men who were equally competent or otherwise and that she should be given a chance to prove herself. She was posted as sub collector, Hosur.
Later she learnt that Rajaji had given her a good confidential report and that at a public meeting in Trichanapalli had mentioned her as an example of progressive women!
Anna reasons that most men then were apprehensive of a woman's capability in taking decisions regarding public administration, using discretionary acumen in handling magisterial powers, of handling a lathi charge or police firing. Anna proved herself time and again and continued to stand up against gender prejudices. She does not hold this against the men but says it was a conservative mindset that made them react that way.
Gender remained an issue for some years for Anna. As a sub collector of Hosur, when she visited a village in the taluk on horseback, she was informed that the village women wanted to see her. “They just walked past me, looking at me and an old lady said, ‘she looks just like one of us.' Anna says she realised their disappointment and knew that people expected something different from a woman.
Once again the issue cropped up when the UPSC Chairman commended her performance and said that it was a reason for him to recruit more women into the service.
Anna argued against the bias saying that her performance should not be a criterion for recruiting women candidates. “Suppose I had failed then would you not give another woman her chance, she asked defiantly. They should be enrolled on merit and given a fair chance, was her demand.
Anna served under seven chief ministers. She worked closely with Rajiv Gandhi in the Asiad project and remembers that five five star hotels and several flyovers were built during that time, in 1982. With Indira Gandhi her tryst was brief but impressive. As in charge of agricultural inputs she had to accompany Ms. Gandhi on an eight-state tour, giving information about food production, which had dipped. Despite a fractured ankle she undertook the tour.
In the personnel section of the Home Department, she wrote a strongly worded letter against an officer requesting for a cadre change. The minister knew that Ms. Gandhi was interested in the case and wished to bypass her comments. “I nevertheless sent the letter and Ms. Gandhi accepted my views. Later I heard that the officer got his cadre changed!”
Early in her career Anna negotiated a sensitive issue with recalcitrant butchers in Hosur. Her love for elephants, coming from her Malayali roots, forbade her from issuing shooting orders for six elephants that had entered a village. “Use your head, Ms. Anna,” was an unhelpful senior's retort on requesting for advice.
“Plain common sense,” and a knowledge of pachyderms she cleverly manoeuvred the jumbos back to the forests!
Another notable contribution of Anna's was building India's first computerised port, Nhavasheva, in Mumbai. As chairman she recalls her interactions with the Minister of State for Surface Transport and says that he never interfered with her work and gave her a free hand. “It was a very clean project. There was not a single petition alleging corruption,” she says proudly.
Away from the line of duty, of files and GOs(Government Order) Anna bided time to finally marry her colleague and sweetheart, R. N. Malhotra who became the RBI governor in 1985. “It was worth waiting for,” she says with fondness about a man in whom she found “exceptional humane qualities”. In distant Washington, where he was serving, they had a simple wedding but not during ‘rahukalam' as her orthodox mother would have been very upset!
Her appointment order had these lines: “In the event of marriage your service will be terminated.” But after a couple of years, the rules had changed.
It was one G.O. that had changed life for this officer from the batch of 1951.