An unsuitable Boy from Calcutta

Gourisankar Ghosh IAS


We arrived Dehradun by Howrah-Doon Express in June 1967. We were possibly the largest group from Calcutta ever joining the IAS and other allied services! Next morning with many stories of the strictness of legendary Director Pimputkar, we started our journey to Mussoorie. We entered the Academy gate and stood in the queue looking nervously around and all on a sudden found a mustachioed and breeches clad person looking at us in front of the Directors office. We presumed him to be Mr. Pimputkar but he ended to be another legend Mr. Nawal Singh, the riding instructor! We remember him very fondly, a kind-hearted person but as our morning nemesis. Both Mr. Pimputkar and Nawal Singhji were special in our memories of Academy. Both contributed a lot to our shaping up for the future in many ways.


My first posting in the state of Gujarat was in the famous Godhra in district Panchmahals. Coming straight from the academy under the directorship of Mr. Pimputkar the linkage was very strong. He was the District Collector and Magistrate of Godhra in the year 1947. The other legendary figure was Sri Morarjibhai Desai who resigned as the Deputy Collector of Godhra sub division in May 1930 when he differed with the British Collector over handling of the riot in Godhra. It was a drought period and the Collector Mr. H K Khan made me in charge of Kalol Taluka and allowed me to manage the drought schemes there. I applied my knowledge of Geology and planned several water-harvesting structures, Check dams and percolation tanks.


My first regular posting was in Rajkot district as the Assistant Collector. The major problem there was land for poor Harijans. The problem of one village came to my notice where the Harijans are trying to get the lands allocated as per the government policy but they were being threatened by Harijans who are rich and work in Ahmedabad or even run business there. The public lottery would take place as usual but the numbers in the papers would only bear the numbers of the poor landless villagers and not of those rich people. The lottery took place successfully drawn by a little girl of the village and at the end with a slight of the hand all the papers went to the pocket of the head Clerk. I felt satisfied with my magic!


My transfer order from district Jamnagar to Ahmedabad as the Director of Mining and Geology came all on a sudden. It was a sweet surprise for me as I did my Master’s research thesis in Kutch in 1965 followed by detailed study of Girnar Ultrabasic in Junagadh district in 1966 of the same state. It offered me a golden opportunity to use my academic and practical knowledge to restructure the department.


I took over as the Deputy Secretary, Dept. of Mines in GOI exactly on the day I completed my nine years of service in 1976 and was given the charge of GSI, IBM and MEC. I was responsible for its reorganization as the member Secretary of GSI Reorganization Committee. On our recommendation, the post of DG, GSI was equated with that of a Secretary to GOI and enormous freedom was given to the Geo scientists. I was Managing Director of Gujarat Dairy Development Corporation when the worst water crisis hit the state in 1985. Rajkot and Jamnagar cities were threatened to be without their water supply by mid-summer and evacuation loomed large over the population. A new post of Secretary Water Supply was created and I was asked to take over both as the new Secretary and Chairman of Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board. That posting changed the course of my career and ultimately, I choose to follow the path of water management at international stage for the rest of my career and life.


The Technology Missions were the best management and governance experiment ever happened in the system. The rules and regulations were not altered but flexibility given for the management of the program and its implementation in the states. The role played by Sam Pitroda as adviser to the PM was excellent. He worked through the departmental Secretary and never interfered in the process of decision making. I also had wonderful support from the then Secretary of Rural Development Mr. V C Pande.


The wonderful network which we developed for the water mission with the CSIR, Defense, Space laboratories and with NGOs, academic institutions and all other who are interested to help in solving the water problem created a think tank which became model for an Integrated Water Management in future. The most successful integrated water management model was in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh. I was happy to introduce the model for the Integrated Water Resources Management or IWRM in the Global platform later.


Mr. Jim Grant, the Executive Director of UNICEF was a missionary and charismatic figure in the global development scene. He raised UNICEF to a new height where it gave a lead to the UN system for child friendly and focused development agenda. Mr. Grant asked me to join UNICEF in 1990, I could not say no to this opportunity and joined UNICEF in New York in August 1991. I was soon appointed as the Global Chief of Water Environment and Sanitation in New York and got the opportunity to use my technical knowledge in one hand and global advocacy on the other. The most satisfactory mission was to help the new South Africa to develop their water and sanitation policy.


While developing the strategy for the first time in UNICEF for Water in 1995, I focused on the issues of Hygiene and Sanitation and arrived at the model of Hygiene first approach. Later when the UN General Assembly did not clearly endorse the sanitation Millennium Development Goal in the year 2000, at the instant of the then British Development Minister Ms. Claire Short, I planned, designed and launched the WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) campaign in the International Water Conference in Bonn in 2000.


I was one of the six plenary speakers in the WSSD conference in Johannesburg in 2002, ten years after the Rio conference. It was the greatest moment for me to address the august gathering which included all the country delegates and in the front row was Dr C N R Rao, a great supporter of the Technology Mission in India and a moral support to me from the Water Mission days.


Our present Prime Minister provided the required boost to the sanitation program. However, the program is repeating the same mistakes as was done in 1987 when the first National Sanitation Program was launched by Late Rajiv Gandhi and even now missing the most crucial Hygiene component. Mr. Gandhi did not hesitate to stop the program to change its course when the defects were brought to his notice. The impact evaluation is missing and almost no linkage with other social program. Now the issue of sustainability and impact is again a big question!


If I now recollect an incident is worth mention. As the youngest Deputy Secretary in Department of Mines I prepared a note for the Secretary and the headmaster (as we used to call him) Mr. Sondhi. He tore it apart murmuring why the young officers could not learn to write proper notes. The note was to go to the Minister Biju Patnaik, another legendary stalwart. In the meeting in the evening with the Minister, he praised the note which was 5% by me and 95% by Dr. Arun Ghosh and Mr. Sondhi. Both the senior officers pointed at me and informed the minister that the note was entirely my writing. Those stalwarts will affectionately scold you, correct you but will not hesitate to encourage you and give you moral support and credit.


In Gujarat, I was exposed to the values of the Gandhian freedom fighters that were still in the scene and managing the new state of Gujarat. I was surprised at their simplicity and honesty. The Chief Minister of the State would take a State Transport bus to visit his home town. Their humility and commitment to people taught us many things.


The Academy gave us the self-confidence, the pride and ethics of the job (we never considered IAS as a job but work for our nation). I walked into the UN civil service without any hesitation but full of that confidence and pride as an IAS officer. Being an IAS officer, my doors were specially opened in old British colonial Nations like East Africa, in South Asian Sub Continent and of course in UK specially. I heard of good words whenever I visited or delivered in any lecture in institutions like Harvard, LSE, UK Universities, and Princeton or even in Wharton. The sweetest surprise I received when in a meeting with Deputy Administrator of USAID in Washington DC, he proudly presented my batch mate Joan de Lima as the Director in charge of Development.


The biggest moment of my international civil servant career came when in the introduction party of the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador I saw with wide eyes and awe, our Roman Holiday Princess Audrey Hepburn. When I was introduced and shook hands with her, I informed her of my feelings as if one of her large poster of Metro Cinema Hall of Calcutta became live! She gave one of her sweet charming and innocent smiles. She was not only charming but while travelling in Africa demonstrated her sincere concerns about the impoverished children. She confided that with the UNICEF support she survived post world war Europe and so her commitment to the causes of UNICEF is genuine and not publicity. It is sad that she left the world soon after that visit.


Through the journey, the unsuitable boy could come across many personalities, many different cultures and traditions and must confess in all situations the training imbibed in me by the ethics and advices of Mr. Pimputkar and the Academy played a major role to give the confidence. In this journey, I always tried to be of some help to others and so started a NGO for HIV affected and infected children in India after retirement from the UN. It was most satisfying six years I had, till I called it a day and handed over the reins to younger people. IAS is not a career but a journey and inherent part of one’s life. It all depends as how one takes it, whether for power and misuse or to shape life to help others with immense satisfaction and peace.






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