Crafting Policy, the V. Ramachandran Style
Working with the Expert Group on Participatory Planning chaired by Mr. V. Ramachandran was an object lesson in how to craft policy. The group had a mercurial composition and arguments flew thick and fast between the members. Mr. Ramachandran intervened more by listening carefully and summing up the discussions. At the end of each day’s deliberation, I began to look even more lost than before. I worried at what I would have to write, given that many of the discussions in the group were inconclusive. Mr. Ramachandran noticed my discomfort; by then, I had gotten to know him well enough to confide in him. On one particularly tough day, he told me that as a government officer, I should never forsake an opportunity to write a report on behalf of a Committee. ‘This is the chance for you to put your bright ideas into the mouths of people more influential than you’, he said. That was indeed a revelation.
Reassured by that invaluable piece of advice, I worked double time on the report of the Expert Group. Chapters were prepared and sent to Mr. Ramachandran for his vetting. I knew that he was a meticulous individual, but I marvelled at his keen eye and foresight. He whittled away at the rough block that I sent him, to sculpt a taut and purposive report. By the time we finished, in mid-June, 2006, it was a document of which one could justly be proud. I then saw – it would not be the last time – the humility and generosity that marks a great person. In his foreword to the report, Mr. Ramachandran wrote, ‘The Secretaries to the Ministry of Panchayati Raj… deserve our thanks for assigning Shri T.R. Raghunandan, Joint Secretary to the Ministry, to function as Secretary to the Group in addition to his heavy duties in the Ministry. The Group could not have had, as its Secretary, a more dedicated officer, with a wide and deep knowledge of the subject and a passion for Panchayati Raj.’ I was deeply touched.
With the report ready to be submitted to the Planning Commission, one could have rested on one’s laurels. But that was not in the nature of Mr. Ramachandran. A day after the report was ready, I heard that familiar gravelly voice on the phone. Could I have a couple of copies delivered extra-quick from the printer for him? He had to return to Thiruvananthapuram on the evening of the morrow. I worked double quick to have a few copies printed and bound, ready for Mr. Ramachandran.
The next day, Mr. Ramachandran, quietly and without any fuss, went to call on an old friend and colleague from the early days when he was in the government. He handed over the precious few copies I had printed for him and emphasised the importance of the report to his friend. He suggested that the Planning Commission should be persuaded to act upon the report quickly and prepare guidelines that could provide a framework for the States, to begin a campaign for participatory planning, commencing from all village Panchayats and Municipalities in the country. Mr. Ramachandran’s friend listened avidly and said that he would take up the matter with the Planning Commission.
Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, acted upon his assurance to Mr. Ramachandran swiftly. He forwarded the report to the Deputy Chairperson of the Planning Commission, with the suggestion that it should prepare and circulate framework guidelines for participative planning and send them to the States.
My master class at how policy ought to be piloted did not end there. A few months later, Mr. Ramachandran and I met in Bhubaneshwar, where we had been invited for a conference. There, along with the member of the Planning Commission, Mr. B.S. Yugandhar, we sat around the breakfast table and prepared a draft guideline for participatory planning based upon the recommendations of the expert group. These guidelines were issued by the Planning Commission in August 2006 – only the second time that such guidelines were issued by the Planning Commission – the last time was in 1969. Mr. Ramachandran had a sense of the occasion; he told me with a smile that the circular of the Planning Commission issued in 1969, had also been drafted by him.
‘Never stop with a report,’ Mr. Ramachandran told me, ‘Always work on how you will pilot it; who you will meet, who you will influence, to take action. If someone who is authorised to take action on a report requires a formulation that would go into an official policy, be ready to draft it at a moment’s notice. It does not matter who gets the credit for what you write’.
Priceless words of advice, indeed.
The report on participative planning was well received by the States. With the participatory planning guidelines issued by the Planning Commission, we were able to stoke interest in States to rekindle their efforts on strengthening Panchayats. A demand was received from States that had areas where Panchayats did not exist. Large areas of the north-east were government by Tribal Autonomous District Councils. Could we work on guidelines for participatory planning in these States too?
By then, I was hugely enjoying working with Mr. Ramachandran. We were in business again, traveling to districts and remote villages in the north-east, meeting representatives of tribal councils, governments and village level committees. By 2007, the second V. Ramachandran authored report, applicable to the District Councils in the North-east, was ready.
An unlikely friendship grew between the two of us. Every once in a while, there would be a phone call from Kerala house; would I be able to join Mr. Ramachandran for dinner? I looked forward to those meetings, when Mr. Ramachandran would regale me with stories from his youth, deep insights into how decisions were taken in the offices of the Prime Ministers he served, and words of advice that ring in my ears even today.
A few years later, when I was contemplating leaving the government to pursue my passion of working on the subject of local governments, I sought his counsel. For someone who did not stray from the straight and narrow path of the civil service, Mr. Ramachandran’s advice was surprisingly, that of a risk taker. ‘If you are passionate about doing something, better that you follow your heart rather than your head,’ he said. Bolstered by his reassurance, I turned my back on the government and headed out for my next adventure.