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The ‘Q’ factor cost him Cabinet Secretary’s post

K V Ramanathan (KVR) was amongst a galaxy of administrators who strode like a colossus. Sadly, how quickly they are forgotten by society!

Tamil Nadu has produced several outstanding civil servants known for their brilliance, efficiency and integrity. In the years immediately following independence, several of these hailing from middle class families had brilliant academic records and emerged at the top in the IAS examinations. G Ramachandran, M G Balasubramanian, K V Ramanathan (KVR) are some of these who come to mind readily.

I remember KVR’s presence at the Economic Editors’ Conference in the 1970s in the session with the Minister of Fertilizers & Chemicals. They were days of momentous decisions and the dominance of lobbying by the Italian wheeler-dealer, Quattrocchi. The demand for fertilizer was increasing in the aftermath of robust growth in agriculture production. The important decision to construct the HBJ pipeline to transport gas from the Bombay High to the northern states to set up large capacity fertilizer, power and LPG fractionation plants based on natural gas were discussed.  KVR suggested scaling up the capacity of urea plants from the earlier 750 tonnes per day to 1500 tonnes per day, a Hanuman jump in those days.

It was also decided to standardise the technology, design and engineering for ammonia and urea plants for the new plants then contemplated. Several technical committees recommended CF Braun, USA as the most suited for collaboration. KVR as Secretary-Fertilizers, gave his preference in his submission to the government.


How he lost out to PK Kaul...

However, the power of Quattrocchi prevailed. Snamprogetti, which was way down in ranking, got the contract even without having the requisite know-how for ammonia-based urea production on its own. Sadly, it also caused KVR the post of Cabinet Secretary, which should have routinely come to him. Even 24 hours before the announcement, senior civil service officials got the impression that KVR had been selected as Cabinet Secretary. But powerful lobbying by another contestant and possibly KVR’s standing steadfast with the committee’s recommendation on CF Braun resulted in P K Kaul appointed as Cabinet Secretary. How sad, his brilliant son-in-law Jairam Ramesh, who wielded power with the Congress, came much later into his family as his son-in-law and on the Delhi scene!

After missing out as Cabinet Secretary, KVR was shoved into that pinjrapole for senior civil servants, Yojana Bhawan, as Secretary, Planning Commission. Thence he moved to Manila as Executive Director, Asian Development Bank.


Brilliance right from childhood...

On every account, KVR had been known for his brilliance. Son of the famous and brilliant lawyer K Venkatsubramania Iyer, his brilliance was evident from the very young age. Another brilliant civil servant, SVS Raghavan, recounted: “while KVR was studying at the fourth standard in the elementary school, his teacher spotted him as being way ahead of his class and promoted him to the seventh standard! KVR maintained his rank at the top, right up to SSLC but then he was under-age for admission to the college! Father Murphy, a famous icon of Loyola College of those days, permitted him to join the intermediate course with the condition to pursue the course for three years (against two)!” KVR scored brilliant again and pursued B.Sc (Honours) in Chemistry at the Presidency College. He joined the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, for further studies. His high rank at the IAS exam decided his career as a civil servant. This friend ruefully remarked that had KVR pursued science, he could well have been a noble laureate.

The loss of science was a gain of civil service. KVR worked diligently as the Collector of Salem, special officer of Parambikulam-Aaliyar project, Director of Agriculture and Settlement Officer, Second Secretary to Tamil Nadu government... before shifting to Delhi.

On his retirement, he served as the Resident Editor, Indian Express, Southern editions and later as the Editor of Sruti, a magazine for fine arts.

K P Geethakrishnan, former Finance Secretary, referred to the extremely helpful nature of KVR and his versatility and mastery over several subjects, notably music and cricket and to his elephantine memory.  

In his demise at the age of 86, the country lost one of the most brilliant civil servants.

The skewed value system of society is again in evidence. There is no news of KVR’s death in the media. The Hindu had space for a four column heading on the demise of film director K S Gopalakrishnan and a two column heading for author Kamala Laxman who passed away on the same day!

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