He stood firm against pressure
Reviewed by V. Eshwar Anand

The Honest Always Stand Alone
By C.G. Somiah.
Niyogi Books.
Pages 273. Rs 395.

THE Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, recruited in the 1950s, commanded great respect. Considered the cream of the nation, their integrity was beyond doubt. The writer, a 1953 batch IAS officer of the Orissa cadre, is honest to the core. He stood firm against all kinds of pressure. A Kodava by birth, he belongs to the Codanda family in Madikeri, headquarters of Kodagu district in Karnataka.

Smith may not have become the Chief Secretary of Orissa, but his innings at the Centre did help him prove his mettle. He was Secretary to the Government of India, Home, Company Affairs and the Planning Commission, the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India.

Somiah narrates an episode when he was the state Forest Secretary. In 1967, when Chief Minister R.N. Singh Deo had told him to give remission to the contractors of kendu leaf (a minor forest produce used for wrapping in the manufacture of bidis) on the ground of a poor crop, he refused on the ground that the contractors had made good money in the preceding two years of the three-year lease. His troubles soon started. He was shunted out to Cuttack as the Excise Commissioner. Worse, following some "adverse remarks" in his character roll, he was excluded in the panel for Joint Secretaries at the Centre.

He fought against the "adverse remarks" due to a "vengeful" Chief Minister and sought protection in the empanelment procedure, but failed. His successor heeded the Chief Ministerís advice and gave remission to the contractors. Soon, it became a big corruption issue that eventually led to the fall of the government. And one-and-a-half years later, Somiahís stand was vindicated when the Justice Mitter Commission (appointed by the Congress government) indicted the previous government in granting relief to the kendu leaf contractors which, it said was "unwarranted and mala fide".

The writer had his share of problems during the Emergency (1975-77), when he was the Joint Secretary (Police) in the Ministry of Home Affairs. He held that the scale of arrests in the country was "enormous" and that there should be no case of "illegal detention". When he started examining the proposals of the Intelligence Bureau and suggesting changes while sending the files to the Union Home Secretary, he was told to resubmit the files to him without his own proposals.

Somiah, however, stood firm and told the Home Secretary that as an administrator, the former should critically examine all the proposals and the latter was well within his right to reject his suggestions while submitting the files to the Minister. On the other hand, if the latter found merit in the formerís proposals, he should endorse them for the Ministerís decision. Somiah told the Secretary that if his stand was not acceptable, he should either be shifted out of the department or repatriated to Orissa.

The writer proved his impeccable integrity while holding crucial positions. When he was the Union Company Affairs Secretary (and by extension, the Chairman of the Company Law Board with quasi-judicial powers), legal luminaries like Nani Palkhivala and Asoke Sen were appearing before him in the Monopoly and Restricted Trade Practices (MRTP) hearings. Industrialists, too, were making a beeline to him for seeking clearance under the MRTP Act. The writer describes how Dhirubhai Ambani once tried to test his level of integrity. He bluntly refused Ambaniís offer of some Reliance shares out of his promoterís quota.

As the Union Home Secretary, he dealt with some important issues such as the Operation Black Thunder and the flushing out of terrorists from Amritsarís Golden Temple, the Mizo and the Gorkhaland Accords. The writer should have given a more in-depth analysis of the Operation Black Thunder, especially his role in the North Block in handling the problem. He has not thrown new light on the decisions taken by the crisis management team during those critical days more than what had already been reported in the Press.

Of course, the writer mentions his momentous visit to the Golden Temple with his family after the controversial operation because his boss, Union Home Minister Buta Singh, was barred entry into the temple. He says his prayers at the Harmindar Sahib did help "assuage much of the perceived hurt".

Somiah is known for his brilliant sense of wit and humour. He narrates an interesting experience during his stint as the Collector and District Magistrate, Mayurbhanj. Orissaís Accountant-General Sandilya (former President Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnanís son-in-law) had, in a demi official letter, sought Somiahís explanation as to how some revenue stamps of higher denomination were eaten away by the rats at the Baripada Collectorate. As he did not respond to the two reminders from the AGís office, Sandilya had threatened to include the item as an "audit para". (Those days the district officers were scared of any audit objection and, therefore, tried their best to avoid it).

Somiah, without losing his cool, sent a tongue-in-cheek reply to Sandilya. He wrote that he had inspected the treasury strongroom, convened a meeting of the rats who had damaged the revenue stamps. The "king rat" had told him that they "nibbled" only the higher denomination stamps since they found the gum behind these stamps to be "sweeter". On receiving the reply, Sandilya and his colleagues burst into peels of laughter and that was the end of the audit objection.