Obituary | National

Remembering B.N. Yugandhar

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh presenting a copy of 'Manual for Integrated District Planning' to B.N. Yugandhar (right). Member, Planning Commission, at the National conference of Chairpersons of District Planning Committees, in New Delhi on January 16, 2009.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh presenting a copy of 'Manual for Integrated District Planning' to B.N. Yugandhar (right). Member, Planning Commission, at the National conference of Chairpersons of District Planning Committees, in New Delhi on January 16, 2009.   | Photo Credit: V.V.Krishnan

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With the passing of a pioneer in the field of rural development in India, generations of officers must surely feel a deep loss, a sadness accompanied by a profound melancholy and a nostalgia for the world he moved in and the values he represented

“You know, looking back, you will not remember who the Cabinet Secretary was when you were a young officer, but you will always remember who your Director was at the Academy”.

As I wake up to the sad news that B. N. Yugandhar is no more, I see the truth in his words, born out of his two long stints in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, where he had the responsibility of training hundreds of probationers and preparing them for the challenges that lay ahead.

Referring to his two stints, first as Deputy Director and then as Director of the Academy, he would say: “The ‘72 batch and the ‘92 batch officers are my boys.” Generations of officers must surely feel a deep sadness, a sadness accompanied by a profound melancholy and a nostalgia for the world he moved in and the values he represented.

For me, as for many who had the good fortune to work under or alongside him, the loss feels very personal. I consider myself to be twice blessed, as I was able to work with him as a young officer, when he was Secretary Rural Development, and then shortly thereafter in the Prime Ministers Office (PMO), with him as Secretary to two PMs, P.V. Narasimha Rao and H.D. Deve Gowda. Working with him on a daily basis, observing him, and being a part of his team, was an incredible privilege and a great learning experience. I have often thought of myself as being one of the luckiest officers for having been mentored by him. After all, a mentor is not just a boss in service, he is a teacher, a role model who moulds you by setting an example, who watches over your career, and actively promotes you.

Those were the glory days of the Rural Development programmes. All our talk was about self and wage employment, watershed development, JRY, JRY Innovative, Minimum Needs, Million Wells Scheme, and rural housing, as Mr. Yugandhar went about building upon and improving the basic architecture of poverty-alleviation initiatives.

Focus on the marginalised, poor, dispossessed

In the Ministry of Rural Development, there was an atmosphere of great energy and intellectual excitement. Looking back, I don’t think there was a single significant developmental initiative in the 1990s, related to rural livelihoods, food security, wage employment, social assistance, disability rights, that Mr. Yugandhar was not directly associated with.

His focus, whether in the MORD or later in the PMO, was always on the marginalised, the poor, the dispossessed, the voiceless people. It was a life of inveterate do-gooding, and being in a position of great power in the PMO meant that he could push these initiatives faster and further. To this end, he selected his foot-soldiers well, young officers who were eager to learn and to deliver outcomes.

In MORD he selected not one, not two, but seven of us from the 1982 batch of the Indian Administrative Service. “My ’82 Mafia”, he called us.

Mr. Yugandhar could be a demanding boss. I remember my first day in the PMO. He fixed his penetrating gaze at me and said: “Here we expect zero-error notes. After all, these are briefing notes for the PM. They help him make his decision. The staff is only there to physically hand over the related papers. You initiate the note, you do the research, you talk to the Ministries. It’s all about the drafting. Remember: a zero-error note”.

Acerbic wit

While being the most considerate of bosses, he did not suffer fools lightly. He was sharp witted and often impatient. His default way of talking was often acerbic, laced with sarcasm and humour. While a believer in simple living, he was a sharpish dresser, fond of his Arrow shirts. He enjoyed his chilled beers at the IIC. About his heavy smoking, he would cough, rasp, and then chuckle as he said: “My doctor says that given my life-long smoking, I am statistically dead!”

Highly urbane and sophisticated, equally at home in discussions in multilateral institutions as in thatch-roofed panchayat ghars in the tribal areas, Mr. Yugandhar was a great reader. In his library at his government house in Delhi, he had too many books to be conventionally stored in bookcases along the walls. Instead, he put them in open steel racks, and these were arranged in rows all across the room. The effect was that of open racks in a public library, but it was a functional solution to the problem of overflowing books.

P. Sainath, Editor-Rural Affairs, The Hindu in a lighter vein with B.N. Yugandhar, Planning Commission member at a seminar on the crisis in agriculture, in Hyderabad on December 16, 2007.

P. Sainath, Editor-Rural Affairs, The Hindu in a lighter vein with B.N. Yugandhar, Planning Commission member at a seminar on the crisis in agriculture, in Hyderabad on December 16, 2007.   | Photo Credit: H. Satish

 

His taste in books was eclectic. In the PMO, he kept a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on his desk and read a few pages in between meetings and after disposing off a bundle of files. He waxed lyrical about Gopinath Mohanty’sParaja and advised me to read this haunting story of the decline in fortune of a tribesman of the Paraja tribe in the hills of Orissa.

You might wonder how a lowly Director with a mere 14 years in the service could have this kind of access to an officer of his seniority and stature. It was because he was fundamentally unconcerned about status, rank, seniority. He had no time for these things. He was a man of blunt opinions, and he appreciated this in others. In my dealings with him, I found him to be determinedly anti-hierarchical.

Unflagging supporter of NGOs

Watching him operate was an education in itself. He believed that to be effective, you must draw upon all kinds of resources, not only within government but also outside it. He was an unflagging supporter of civil society institutions and of NGO activists in the field. He taught us to be open and sensitive to the role of NGOs, to accept that government cannot do it all by itself. Grassroots activists had unhindered access to him. He said one of the great benefits of being MORD secretary was that he could travel to the remotest areas of the country, to tribal and hilly areas and see for himself the reality of their daily lives. The field was central; the field was sacrosanct; you were shaped as an administrator in the field; we were all expected to travel extensively in the rural areas and file long reports on our return. He looked forward to reading these.

A morning with him in his PMO office might see him make an impassioned phone call to the late Javid Abidi regarding the proposed Persons with Disability Act (PWD Act); followed by a call to M.K. Pandhe, Politburo member and titan of the Trade Union movement, a friendly argument with anyone of his Directors, and then a brainstorming session on the need to reform the Public Distribution System.

Many may not know that the National Social Assistance Programme launched in 1995 as India’s umbrella programme for National Old Age Pensions, Widow and Disability Pensions in addition to other benefits, was very much Mr. Yugandhar’s idea and initiative. While making a passionate case for protective social security for the poor, he would quote from the late Mr. S. Guhan, doyen of development studies in India: “For old-age pensions, I challenge anyone of you to give me an alternative. Can we do without pensions? Can we prevent old age?”

Mr. Yugandhar often said, how can India not have a national programme of social assistance? Let the States add on what they want to, we cannot escape our responsibility. The first NSAP document was written by Mr. Guhan. Incidentally, there were only two people for whom Mr. Yugandhar always affixed the adjective “great”. It was always the “great Mr. Sankaran” (S. Sankaran of the Andhra Pradesh cadre) and the “great Mr. Guhan”. He worshipped their life-long commitment to the poor, their capacity for abnegation, their unorthodoxy.

A deeply sensitive man

Mr. Yugandhar had an acute understanding of the many aspects of deprivation. Once, when we were decrying the small amounts of old-age pensions given by this or that State, he said: “You all don’t understand what that hundred rupees in the hands of the old destitute woman means to her. It gives her an entitlement to be taken care of by her family. As long as she has this pension in her hands, she won’t be thrown out of the house.”

A deeply sensitive man, he once told me with infinite regret: “As a young officer, I was poor and couldn’t do much for my parents. When I came back from my ESCAP posting (in Bangkok), I felt like a rich man. I wanted to buy things, buy curtains for my father’s house. But by that time, he was too old. These things meant nothing to him. The moment had passed.”

In 1994, while he was serving in the MORD, I asked him about his son. He replied in an off-hand way: “Oh him, he is one of Bill Gates’ boys”. Twenty years later, in 2014, as the news broke of his son’s elevation as CEO of Microsoft [Satya Nadella], I wrote to congratulate him, and he responded with a brief thanks. Nothing further was said.

So, it is goodbye to the man, but also to the times we all worked in. There is a distinct fin de siècle air to my memories, an acknowledgement that with the passing of Mr. Yugandhar and others like him who are sometimes disparagingly called “the Rural Development types”, it is in many ways the end of an era.

Malovika Pawar is part of the 1982 batch of the IAS Rajasthan cadre

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Printable version | Nov 22, 2019 1:25:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/remembering-bn-yugandhar/article29597235.ece

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