Among ex-colonial countries, India was unique in its civil services. The forerunner was the hallowed ICS — the steel frame. It had many outstanding Indians, all of whom continued to serve the newly independent nation with its myriad problems. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not see the ICS as a British legacy, to be disbanded after Independence, but reinforced as the administrative backbone of the Government of India and State Governments. Thus was born the IAS.
Career opportunities for the intelligent, educated young were scarce in the early years of independent India. The private sector was insignificant. So the best and brightest gravitated to the IAS. Among them was S Venkitaramanan, a topper of the 1953 batch of the IAS.
After the usual, typical district tours characteristic of the service, he occupied a number of key positions in the governments of Tamil Nadu and India. He served in historic times and was an active player in the history of those times.
As a first hand witness of the Green Revolution in India, working with the then Agriculture Minister, C Subramanian, who, with the late MS Swaminathan, drove the use of HYV seeds in the teeth of opposition from sections of economists and politicians, he knew the importance of foreign knowhow to quickly tackle the intractable problem of food shortages.
Venkitaramanan had a balanced view of the role of public and private sectors. He pioneered the joint sector model in Tamil Nadu involving the financial resources of Government and the management expertise of the private sector, catalysing a number of new industries in the State.
In the heyday of ‘socialist’ economics, he had the wisdom and maturity to recognise and understand the extent of entrepreneurial risk with extremely limited personal financial resources in a highly regulated economy and repressed banking and capital market environment and was, therefore,ever supportive of private sector investment initiatives, abhorring unnecessary regulation.
In the generally risk averse environment in Government, he was different — dynamic and a risk taker.
Bank credit control was subject to strict limits, again in the mistaken notion that credit expansion was responsible for inflation. He had a different view, realising credit precedes production and increased production is the best antidote to inflation. Ideologically and as Finance Secretary and RBI Governor, he was a (practical) Keynesian.
Above all, he handled multiple roles in extreme crises with equal ease and panache — in fact, he had a penchant for challenges and challenges found him.
It’s an awesome record of success in the most difficult of circumstances — Finance Secretary in the Government of Tamil Nadu and Government of India, constantly battling budget and foreign exchange deficits, CEO of a joint sector fertilizer company (which he brought back from the abyss), with the pinnacle being his taking over as Governor, RBI, in the worst ever balance of payments situation that the country faced.
A brilliant bureaucrat, corporate chief and central banker rolled into one. Few can match the canvas of achievements.
The speed with which he read and cleared files was astonishing. Those not disposed of in the office would be loaded into the boot of his car for ‘homework’! Every one of them — and they were file mountains, given his positions and responsibilities — would come back the next day with precise comments and instructions. He was a master at editing notes sent to him and finding the exact turn of phrase needed.
Despite an incredible IQ, his approach was never overbearing but genial, inspirational and motivational — true qualities of leaders.
Old time businessline readers would recall his sage articles on the economic and financial issues of the day.
The writer worked closely with Venkitaramanan when he was CEO of the joint sector fertiliser company and later as a member of the Venkitaramanan Committee of the Government of Tamil Nadu on raising financial resources for the State