From Janam Bhumi Srinagar to Karam Bhumi Chennai

Ashok Ogra
The record of Indian bureaucracy since independence is a mixed one. Most bureaucrats have a tendency to stay with status quo and are indifferent to public grievances. They are averse to risk-taking and show no bias for action.
However, there are some outstanding bureaucrats who negotiate difficulties and challenges and cut red tape to serve the society with single-minded devotion and commitment. It is these bureaucrats who have made stellar contribution as instruments of the government to usher in reforms in governance and encourage people participation in development process.
Srinagar-born, Chander Kanta Garyali is one such IAS bureaucrat who is still remembered in the state of Tamil Nadu or her contribution in the area of women empowerment and in other social sectors.
No wonder, “Harijan Basti” in Karur district of the state has been renamed as “Gariyali Nagar”.
Such and many other interesting stories and anecdotes form part of her autobiography ‘My Beautiful Journey – From Kashmir to Kanyakumari.’
The book is the story of Chander Kanta Garyali – born to Kashinath Garyali & Indira Garyali – and traces her journey from downtown Srinagar to old Delhi where the family migrated in 1948 and then to Tamil Nadu – the state that was allocated to her after qualifying the IAS examination in 1972.
The book introduces us to her triumphs and tribulations – an inspiring tale of a pioneering woman bureaucrat. As the narrative unfolds, it transforms from being a mere diary of one individual to a prism through which the reader can view the various events and developments from 1970 onwards.
Chander Kanta describes in great detail her work in the areas of population control and poverty reduction in the state of Tamil Nadu and measures initiated by her to enhance women’s participation in every sphere of governance.
She has been associated with the self-help movement of women for over three decades and has authored five books on the subject of women empowerment.
In his forward N. Ram, Chairman and Publisher, The Hindu group of newspapers describes Chander Kanta as a ‘firm believer in the proposition that the poverty in India can be mitigated only by empowering women.”
As Collector of Madras, she made it a point to visit at least one slum every morning before going to office. “I found the slum population in the city was exploding. From a small hut, five to six, half-fed and half-naked children would emerge. It made me take strongly to promotion of family planning programme.”
She has special praise for the vision and the leadership that late M.G.Ramachandran provided to the state that saw so many social welfare schemes being launched resulting in the state emerging on top on social welfare index.
She provides valuable insights and graphic details of several path-breaking women and children oriented schemes including the much hailed Universal Noon Meal Programme for School Children- first launched in a government school for girls in Madras in 1982.
In 1987, children still died during immunisation in India because the needles and syringes were not always well sterilised. The first thing that Chander Kanta did was to streamline buying of disposable syringes for the immunisation programme -thus Tamil Nadu became the first state in India that made immunisation safe for children.
The book provides momentous, light-hearted and entertaining interludes, which is also reflective of the challenges faced by a bureaucrat.
One such incident that landed her in great embarrassment is when working as Secretary to the then Governor Mohanlal Shukhadia in 1976. As per the protocol book she sent out New Year greetings to various state dignitaries- on behalf of the Governor who was away to Rajasthan.
She adds: “naturally, I sent a greeting card to Shri Karunanidhi as a leader of a major political party of Tamil Nadu not remembering that Sukhadiaji was not on talking terms with him.
My act would have gone unnoticed but for the fact that Shri Karunanidhi promptly replied to the Governor thanking him for his greetings and simultaneously mentioning some issues of public importance. I was given a major dressing down by the Governor for sending a greeting to his ‘political enemy.”
Another incident relates to her familiarization with the Tamil language. She was just 2 years into the service when the then Chief Minister M.Karunanidhi visited her district: “The moment the District Collector introduced me the only question he asked me was, “Tamil teriyuma?” (Do you know Tamil?). Without batting an eyelid I said ‘Aama’ meaning, ‘yes’ though at that time that was the only Tamil word I knew.
I was wondering what would happen if he asked me a second question. By then the most intelligent District Collector, who was the hot favourite of the Chief Minister, preempted him by describing in much detail the profound arrangements being made for my Tamil education …. This seems to have satisfied the Chief Minister who then dismissed me with a grunt of satisfaction”. Over the years she has learnt the Tamil language with the help of a teacher.
She became the first woman in India to be appointed Principal Secretary to a serving Chief Minister – Smt.Jayalalitha.
The book also informs us about the dietary habits of the then Prime Minister Moraji Desai who was visiting the state in 1978.
She devotes the entire first two chapters to her birth in Srinagar and upbringing in old Delhi. She uses imageries and adjectives to describe her Janam Bhumi: “These mansions were admirable specimens of mud and brick architecture”. Srinagar is described as “the abode of Lakshmi” as “woke, breathed and lived by the river”.
This book captures drama of the Partition of India, which resulted in her father migrating from Lahore to Kashmir and then on to Old Delhi.
She provides a vivid account of some of the old customs of Kashmir Pandits- particularly during marriages, and the bonhomie that one saw between Hindu and Muslim communities during festivals – be it Idd or Shivratri.
Born into Tiku family, she provides interesting information in the change of surname to ‘Garyali’. One of her ancestor was a wealthy scholar who moved from Rainawari to the upscale locality of Maharaj Ganj,Srinagar and built a large house there. The five-story house boasted of a clock on the top. The clock (Ghadiyal) kept time for the entire locality by chiming every hour. In due course, people started referring to the house as Garyali House and started referring to Boni Tiku as Boni Garyali.”
While talking about Kabaili Hamla of 1947, Chander Kanta credits three people with saving Srinagar from falling into the enemy hands: Brigadier Rajinder Singh Jamwal who laid down his life at Buniyar in Uri while fighting the invaders; Maqbool Shervani – gusty boy of 19- who thwarted the advance of raiders thus valauable time for the Indian forces to land in Srinagar; Biju Patnaik, former Chief Minister of Orissa and the father of Naveen Patnaik, who piloted the first plane to land at Srinagar airport on the morning of 27th October. He brought 17 soldiers of 1st Sikh
Regiment commanded by Lt. Col. Dewan Ranjit Rai
In the course of her narration, she also recalls her association with religious leaders like Paramacharya of Kanchi, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.
When problems began in Kashmir in 1990 and Hindus started migrating from the Valley, Chander Kanta went to see Parmacharya who sent word through Swami Jayendra Saraswathi that all Kashmiri families in Madras must visit Shankara Math the following Sunday.
The message from the Paramacharya was like a ray of hope. I went along with these people. The Paramacharya sat with us for a long time, silently understanding and sharing the grief and misery. He consoled each one of us. I was myself utterly inconsolable about the mindless events in the Valley, so I completely broke down and started crying.
Since the Paramacharya does not speak much, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi conveyed his message: “Upheavals are part of human history. These things happen. My doors are always open.”
These words were a source of strength to all those families who were immensely worried about their near and dear ones, their homes, their lands and their properties.
Going by her immense contribution to the state of Tamil Nadu – both as an IAS officer and as a social architect – and the love and affection she has earned from the poeple, Chander Kanta Garyali proudly describes Chennai her ‘Karam Bhumi’ while retaining her longing for Srinagar-her ‘Janam Bhumi’.
(Ashok Ogra is a noted Management & Media expert and is currently Director of Apeejay Institute of
Mass Communication, New Delhi).