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M Y Ghorpade: A Tribute

M Y Ghorpade, a seven-time member of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, was deeply committed to panchayati raj. A tribute by an official who worked with him.

COMMENTARY

an award-winning wildlife photographer,

M Y Ghorpade: A Tribute

preferring to shoot in black and white film

and a winner of many prestigious national and international awards.

T R Raghunandan

M Y Ghorpade, a seven-time member of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, was deeply committed to panchayati raj. A tribute by an official who worked with him.

T R Raghunandan (raghu@janaagraha.org) served in the IAS from 1983 to 2010, before he took voluntary retirement. He now works with panchayats across the country.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
december 10, 2011

“The call is for you”, said Aditi, my

wife, on a June evening in 2001.

“Someone very polite”, she added, “cupping the phone’s mouthpiece and handing it over. “I am Ghorpade, minister of rural development and panchayati raj”, said the voice at the other end. “Would you like to work as the secretary of the department?”

This was a bolt from the blue. Here was a senior minister, directly speaking to me, without any private secretaries to assist him. I was being pitchforked into an important department and would be the youngest and most junior secretary to the Government of Karnataka, at that time. Even though I only had a nodding acquaintance with M Y Ghorpade, my impression was that he was an imposing and somewhat intimidating person. Instinct told me that one did not refuse when spoken to by him. “Yes, sir”, I heard myself say. Within a couple of hours, M Y Ghorpade was again on the phone. “I’ve met the chief minister seeking your posting. He has agreed. You start tomorrow.”

I did my quick homework on my future boss. Murarirao Yashwantrao Ghorpade was the son of the erstwhile princely state of Sandur, a cool wooded haven in the sweltering district of Bellary. Born in 1931, he joined the Congress Party after obtaining a postgraduate degree in economics from Cambridge. He entered the Karnataka assembly at the young age of 28, in 1959; the year I was born! He represented Sandur constituency seven times in the Karnataka assembly and was a Member of Parliament thrice, in 1962, 1967 and 1972. He was Karnataka’s finance minister from 1972-79 during the Devaraj Urs period and rural development and panchayati raj minister in the early 1990s, when under his stewardship, the 73rd amendment’s mandatory provisions for panchayati raj were legislated into law. After the law was enacted, he resigned from the ministry in protest against the delay of panchayat elections. A man of principle, I noted that there was a softer side to him too, he was

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Committed to Panchayats

It was clear that M Y Ghorpade, who was now serving his second term as rural development and panchayati raj minister, was universally known and respected for his commitment to strengthening grassroots democracy through panchayats. However, I had a more mundane concern; was he a decent person with whom to work? Oh, he is a darling, said one senior officer whose opinion I sought. Be careful, he is moody, unpredictable and has a terribly bad temper, said another. So, it was with some trepidation that I entered his wildlife photograph-lined study the next day.

In that first meeting, M Y Ghorpade described the full scope of my work and laid out his plans. Karnataka’s strength lay in a strong legislation, but it was found wanting in executive action to serve the law. There was no large-scale political support for decentralisation and reform had to be low profile and stealthy. It has to avoid self-congratulatory rhetoric and state out fully and frankly all existing shortcomings and suggest operational solutions to strengthen panchayats. He wanted that to be addressed. He had it all laid out on a sheet of paper – 35 action points on which he wanted policy recommendations, detailing what precisely ought to be done.

M Y Ghorpade constituted a working group on decentralisation to find operative solutions to the shortcomings identified by him. I served as the group’s membersecretary. The report, when released in March 2002, was ignored by most and criticised by some. To M Y Ghorpade, this was water off a duck’s back.

Master Class in Politics

I then received a master class in the political piloting of reforms. M Y Ghorpade came across to most of his party men and political rivals as a somewhat distant, professorial and harmless do-gooder. Behind this non-threatening façade, he concealed an experienced, political mind, which he put to good use to get his way, often

COMMENTARY

stealthily. In implementing the working group recommendations, the first landmark was of introducing clarity into what the zilla, taluk and gram panchayats should do, through activity mapping. He skilfully steered his proposals through a cabinet subcommittee, having his way with almost everything he proposed, through persuasion and diplomacy.

Almost simultaneously, significant amendments were proposed to the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act with the objectives of facilitating peoples’ participation and making panchayats more accountable. These aimed at establishing a two-tier system of ward sabhas for each constituency in the gram panchayat and gram sabhas at the panchayat level. These sabhas were given wide powers, including mandatory identification and prioritisation of beneficiaries and developmental plans for all government programmes. The bill also proposed that beneficiary lists finalised by the gram sabha cannot be subsequently changed at any level of the government.

While I fervently wished otherwise, I had little hope that these amendments would sail. I feared that they would be ruthlessly rejected by the Vidhana Sabha, as they aimed to drastically clip the powers of legislators. M Y Ghorpade’s strategy dawned on me as he made his opening speech in the Vidhana Sabha. He said that these amendments were important and far-reaching steps, and proposed that they should be discussed in an all-party select committee. Having thus pre-empted any possible opposition, he then personally scouted around to constitute a select committee comprising champions of decentralisation from all parties. He chaired every meeting, patiently listening to each member and separating the wheat from the chaff in our evening debriefing sessions. The draft bill emerged even stronger and was passed unanimously in both houses, with all members reserving fulsome praise for M Y Ghorpade.

However, these empowering steps had little meaning if they were not supported by adequate finances for the panchayats. Ghorpade overcame this impediment through an interesting ploy. In reply to an assembly question asked by a keen supporter of panchayati raj, MLA D R Patil, on whether the government would commit to match the powers given to the panchayats with adequate finances, M Y Ghorpade announced a total commitment to do so. This reply was referred to the Assurances Committee for compliance and implemented thereafter.

M Y Ghorpade was passionate in ensuring peoples’ action for drought-proofing. Under his guidance, a statewide movement for water conservation, named Jala rakshana, was taken up. During 2002-03 and 2003-04 droughts, over 1 lakh farmers registered with their respective gram panchayats, which then contributed 75% of the requirement in the form of foodgrains. The farmer contributed the remainder of the wage and material cost from his pocket. More than 1,00,000 tonnes of grain were released progressively to meet the demand.

While it was M Y Ghorpade’s velvet glove that everybody saw, every once in a while, the iron hand would show. Once, when both of us were in Delhi, we received news from the law secretary of the Government of Karnataka that a retrogressive amendment to the Panchayat Raj Act was proposed by some misguided elements in the government, to be sneaked through as an ordinance; could the minister speak to the chief minister and stall it? M Y Ghorpade’s face darkened when I broke the news. He hesitated to cancel the important appointment with the deputy prime minister, but was firm that the amendment ought not to be passed. He asked me to return to Bangalore immediately carrying a secret message to his ministerial colleagues. Fortified by a legal opinion against the amendment from the advocate-general, I appeared before the senior members of the council of ministers and then, in as deadpan a tone as I could muster, I delivered M Y Ghorpade’s message exactly as I was instructed, “My minister wishes to inform his ministerial colleagues that if the proposed amendment is carried out, he regrets that he will have to part ways with them”.

Having conveyed my minister’s ultimatum, I stood there quaking in my boots, every eye in the room fixed on me. It took Chief Minister S M Krishna all his diplomatic skills to see that M Y Ghorpade’s messenger was not harmed that day! The ill-advised amendment was dropped.

M Y Ghorpade’s functioning style was demanding and rigorous. He had no patience for new-fangled technology, such as watching PowerPoint presentations. He would usually ask officers to write on a white board, what exactly they wanted or

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december 10, 2011 vol xlvi no 50

EPW
Economic Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

proposed. Needless to say, many were intimidated and unsettled by his gimleteyed stare. He also had the knack of stopping and seeking to know more, exactly while one was trying to gloss over a weak point in a presentation. You had to do your homework thoroughly.

Yet, he had a sense of great fun; sometimes stopping one in mid-stride to compliment one’s sartorial elegance. One would never know when he would have a sly joke at one’s expense. Once, he stopped a senior officer who was wearing a particularly loud maroon shirt with the words, “Mr Principal Secretary, I admire your courage in wearing that shirt”. The room dissolved into laughter. I began to welcome the evening chats with M Y Ghorpade at Sandur House. In his quiet study, with a magnificent tiger captured by his Hasselblad regally contemplating us, we met to celebrate successes, contemplate setbacks and regroup. Our musings would be interrupted by tall glasses of delicious spicy buttermilk. Often, as we were in mid-stride in a serious discussion, with a grand wave of his hand, he would call all official proceedings to an end. Reaching out for Bertrand Russell, he would read passages aloud. Several times, we rambled on into the late evening, our office work done, together reading and savouring passages from philosophy, wildlife and poetry. When M Y Ghorpade read a book, it stayed read. He would underline paragraphs, pencil in notes in the margins and then marvel at them years later.

Yet, the famous bad temper of which I was warned occasionally showed. Usually, I got a weather report from his private secretaries beforehand and learnt to avoid any skirmishes. Sometimes, one flew directly into the eye of the storm. On one such occasion, Ghorpade got steadily irritated as a meeting stretched into the evening. In the gathering dusk, he began to snap at all of us and by nightfall, everybody’s nerves were frayed. In the gloom at the Vidhana Soudha gates, finally, the two of us were left, glumly waiting for our cars. I was not in the best of my moods either. Perhaps feeling the need to make amends for the tense meeting, Ghorpade asked me what I would do when I got back home. I told him that I would join a party,

Economic Political Weekly

EPW
december 10, 2011

if it was still on; it was my birthday. There was genuine remorse in M Y Ghorpade’s eyes. The tension of the evening melted away as he wished me and chided me for not telling him earlier; he would have called off the meeting.

The next day, I heard a familiar voice on the phone. “Mr Raghunandan – it was always ‘Raghunandan’, never ‘Raghu’ – would you please come to my house when you leave office?” As I reached his house, he handed me a small box, containing a minimalist slim elegant wristwatch. I was tongue-tied with emotion. “Many many happy returns of the day! May you live a very long life and mark time with this”, he said as I wore it. I was told that he spent a few hours choosing this gift for me, at a showroom earlier in the day.

Wildlife Photographer

At no time was M Y Ghorpade to be separated from his photography. Every year, he would regularly take a couple of weeks off with his trusted lieutenants Kannan and Kumar, to troop off to into the wilderness. His favourite destination was Kanha National Park, where he shot most of his marvellous black and white pictures of tigers. One of his last projects was to capture the bears of Daroji sanctuary, not far from Sandur, on film. He was immensely proud of these photographs, taken in late 2003 and we often interrupted our discussions by walking around the room, with my minister recounting with childlike fervour how each photograph was taken.

In 2004, M Y Ghorpade announced his retirement from politics. An iron-willed man, no pleading would make him change his mind. He returned to his ancestral home in Sandur to concentrate on the many things he loved, teaching children at the Sandur Residential School, wildlife photography, reading and writing. Not too long after that, I left the state to join the central ministry of panchayati raj, I was wedded to the subject for life.

Over the years, we spoke occasionally. He chided me often for not finding the time to write to him, of what was happening across the country on panchayati raj. I did try, several times, but it had to be the perfect letter, and handwritten. Nothing

vol xlvi no 50

else would pass muster. The drafts lay around partly finished.

Teaching Children

Finally, I met him in December 2010 and we had a long and delightful chat. He was happy and contented with his life and spent the evenings teaching children English and history. I noticed with amusement that his style had not changed. In his makeshift classroom at home, stories from the Puranas were read aloud to children, who then were to recount them in their own words and use the familiar white board if they so wished. I left him that evening, with the promise to visit and write to him frequently.

M Y Ghorpade died on 29 October in Bangalore. It is difficult to come to terms with the loss of M Y Ghorpade. As I stood there in the shadows at Sandur, watching thousands of silent tearful mourners filing past his casket, I realised how much he was loved as a public figure. His royal background did not detract from the fact that he was a man of the people.

But to me, Ghorpade was much more than a minister. He was a father figure; a mentor and a friend; always there, warm-hearted, witty and affectionate. He inspired me to work hard; to never overlook the details. He also taught me not to take life too seriously, to have a sense of proportion and balance. He had a wonderful photograph of a langur poised in mid-jump in his study. Above the graceful arc of its tail, was the simple message “Animals know that the primary purpose of life is to enjoy it”. I used to look up at it often, and the tension of work would melt away.

Now all that is left are a bagful of memories. And one slim, elegant steel watch that I wear daily.

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