He Watered the Arid Fields of Administration with Intellectual Rigour and Honesty

Ramaswamy Iyer, civil servant and water policy expert, passed away on September 9. He was 86

Ramaswamy Iyer, being felicitated by Vice President Hamid Ansari at a function in New Delhi in November 2013. Credit: PIB

Ramaswamy Iyer (1929-2015), being felicitated by Vice President Hamid Ansari at a function in New Delhi in November 2013. Credit: PIB

It was the monsoon of 1993. The campaign against the Sardar Sarovar dam on the river Narmada was at its height. Although the World Bank had withdrawn from the project, the Indian government was pushing ahead with construction. When a 14-day fast in Mumbai yielded only empty assurances, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) stepped up its protest by declaring the launch of jal samarpan, activists inviting death by drowning in the river’s rising waters. A day before the August 3 deadline, the government capitulated. A five-member committee was appointed to review all aspects of the project.

Ramaswamy Iyer was on this committee. During his tenure as Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, he had played a key role, together with T. N. Seshan, then Secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Forests, in securing clearance for the Sardar Sarovar project in 1987. In the same year, he had also drafted India’s first National Water Policy, which endorsed a strategy of dam-building and inter-basin transfers to exploit water to the fullest. Most observers naturally assumed that Iyer would support the dam.

However, as the committee reviewed documents, heard testimonies from all sides and travelled to the Narmada valley to witness for itself the lives and landscapes affected by the dam, Iyer’s position changed. From believing that the project was desirable and needed only to improve its record of resettling displaced people, he came to see the Sardar Sarovar dam as a monumental folly on all counts – technical, economic, social and ecological.

Iyer’s critical view of large dams became stronger when he was appointed to review the Tehri project in 1996 and to head the India country study for the World Commission on Dams in 1997. Subsequently, studying trans-border river conflicts between India, Nepal and Bangladesh, he began to see dams as only one element in the larger mismanagement of water by engineers impervious to social and ecological impacts. This led him to reject the expert-driven model of expensive water diversion and advocate an approach based on participatory planning and regulated water harvesting. Comprehensively repudiating the dominant view of the water establishment of which he was a leading light, Ramaswamy Iyer came to promote a radically different vision of how the resource should be managed.

What was notable about Iyer’s conversion was that it was not a leap of faith but a conviction that grew out of a careful consideration of the facts. He remained open-minded, judiciously weighing arguments for and against large projects, with a balance firmly calibrated to the constitutional principles of social justice and the public good. And he dedicated himself to pursuing this commitment in his characteristic style: never preachy or polemical, he invited others to think for themselves, persuading them with the rigour and clarity of his thoughts. Working tirelessly till the end, Iyer created a body of scholarly and popular writing that stands out for its erudition and lucid exposition. His widely-read analyses of the Cauvery dispute, the inter-linking of rivers, resettlement and rehabilitation laws, and the larger institutional context in which water is managed, have shaped public debate on these issues. An even bigger achievement is that his work has compelled bureaucrats and engineers to re-examine their own practices and prejudices.

Ramaswamy Iyer was born on October 18, 1929, in Thakkalai, Travancore (now Kanyakumari district, Tamil Nadu), the eldest of five children. His father was a government servant whose job took him to Bombay, where Iyer went to high school and then college, studying English literature. He joined the Indian Audit and Accounts Service and, as is the norm, served in various ministries, including agriculture, finance, chemicals and fertilisers, steel and mines, railways, as well as a two-year stint in Washington DC as Director of Audits for Indian missions in the Americas. He was a member of the Jha Economic Administration Reforms Commission in the 1980s and developed an interest in the history of the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General which grew into a larger concern about government functioning.

During this period, as public sector institutions came under attack for inefficiency and corruption, and supporters of liberalisation advocated scrapping them altogether, Iyer published a meticulous analysis of public enterprises, dissecting their role in the larger framework of government while recommending functional autonomy. This book, The Grammar of Public Enterprises (1991), was followed by Water: Perspectives, Issues, Concerns (2003) and Towards Water Wisdom: Limits, Justice, Harmony (2007), and edited volumes on water laws and other subjects. Putting into practice his belief that institutional reform would only happen if there was sustained pressure from within as well as without, Iyer lectured to engineers and government officials, mentored NGOs working on water rights, and was a firm friend to social movements. His gentle, unassuming persona could calm raised voices and mediate between big egos; he inspired respect as well as affection.

Age did not seem to slow down Ramaswamy Iyer or stop him from growing intellectually. Even as he became frailer physically, he surprised his friends by publishing an article on linguistics, discussing Chomsky and Wittgenstein. He continued writing on Carnatic music, a love he shared with his wife, Suhasini (they met as students in Bombay and married in 1954; they had two sons Sriram and Mahadevan). Several weeks were set aside by the couple every year during Chennai’s music season, when the two of them would stay in a lodge near the Music Academy and move around the city in public transport attending concerts.

Throughout his life, he trained himself in new disciplines, teaching himself calculus in his forties, and going on to study philosophy and constitutional law. And he continued his early fondness for literature; his tastes included Doris Lessing and Dick Francis. In Lessing’s poetic precision and Francis’s driving pace perhaps Iyer found not only an entry into other worlds but also that felicity with words that was the signature of his own work.

Amita Baviskar is a Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi

  • T.R. Viswanathan

    An excellent attempt to do justice to an illustrious career and several contributions to society. He was responsible for changing the name of the ministry to Water Resources.
    T.R. Viswanathan (Ramaswamy’s brother)


    It’s persons like Mr. Iyer that provide a ray of hope to future aspirants in civil services. Amidst all the pressures, problems, criticism that service might bring as a flip side, his life still is an example that just a little innovation coupled with genuine concern for the people can keep you going. He is true example of living on his principles but ready to accept and learn from anyone.

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