B N Yugandhar, who passed away last week, was perhaps one of the few remaining “nationalist” policy reformers. He was part of a gang that constantly searched for and pushed an Indian agenda for globalisation and domestic reform. These reformers set the agenda in the Eighties — the decade which saw a remarkable spurt in growth in the last century. This was falsely labelled as unsustainable by a successor regime. At any rate, the strategy lost out to the Washington Consensus reformers in the last two decades (Manmohan Singh and the current set of policy makers). So,
Yugandhar, and others of his ilk, turned their attention towards strengthening local and community institutions.
In the late Seventies, Yugandhar was private secretary to P N Haksar. We were in the Planning Commission, Haksar’s three musketeers — me, Nitin Desai and Vijay Kelkar; at times, YV Reddy, then in the finance ministry, and Arjun Sengupta, then in the commerce ministry, would join us and we would have adda in my office during lunch or in Yugandhar’s office over Yojana Bhavan’s famous coffee. Yugandhar would regale us with Hyderabad stories — still relevant given the goings on in Andhra politics. In the morning, a score or more MLAs would be cursing some “rebel” but by evening the rebel leader was a hero.
Then there was one Reddy, a minister with leftist leanings, who went to a North Bihar district accompanied by Yugandhar and the collector took them to meet some “bonded labourers”. The minister told them that the “sarkar” had decided they were free (the 20 Point Programme). But they said, “Their sarkar (the local zamindar) had not heard of such freedom”.
Yugandhar then went to Mussoorie for his first stint at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration (LBSAA). We would often help him in “basic needs” planning. His next posting was at ESCAP at Bangkok; he would call us there, ostensibly to discuss Indian planning, but Yugandhar’s agenda was to acquaint Indian policy-makers with the rural reforms in Korea and East Asia.
After returning home, Yugandhar started his major programme of producing a manual on district planning. His deputy there knew me since as a collector, he had accompanied me during a trip from Bangalore to Mangalore. We would sometimes go to a village and he would show me a local project, say, a tank being desilted by local people — in that part of the country, even the sculptures around the tank were beautiful. But they never took any official help in all this. I would acquaint Yugandhar’s deputy with the Central scheme that could help him in his endeavours. He wrote a training paper on bottom-up planning — this talked of the district collector and planners joining hands with the local leadership. Yugandhar asked his deputy to draft a training manual based on that paper.
He came back to Delhi as secretary, rural development with additional charge of panchayati raj. Yugandhar was instrumental in integrating the small farmer and landless labourers’ project into the district plan and insisted on the finance ministry giving it a free fund, albeit of a limited nature for local priority projects. His aim was to make local planning an operating system with some resources of its own. In his stint at the PMO, Yugandhar supported all this.
He was constantly innovating and yet never lost his sense of humour on the frailties of his compatriots. Yugandhar was instrumental in telling the PM to send me to mediate one of the Cauvery disputes. Apart from resolving the immediate problem, I also suggested that the riparian states use a formula devised to resolve the conflict over the Mekong basin as a dispute resolution mechanism. In one of these visits, the chief minister, who had a royal lineage, gifted me a watch. I handed it over to the PMO. Two weeks later, my wife said, “Yugandhar wants to have breakfast with us”. He came and told her he wanted to gift her that watch, because as per rules if you pay 25 per cent, you can keep the gift. Yugandhar got the watch valued. But it was worth lakhs. So, there was no question of keeping it. Both of us never forgave that politician for trying to bribe me and would fondly recollect that story while talking about the venal practices in our political system.
After retirement, Yugandhar made a major contribution to the orientation of the Indian administrative system, through, what is called the Bopal Declaration. At Bopal, near Ahmedabad, scholar and ex-bureaucrat Anil Shah had set up an NGO, Development Support Centre, to train local leaders. DSC got some of us together and along with Yugandhar, we framed a set of eight guidelines for government institutions to support community organisations engaged in sustainable development at the local level. This included annual elections, training local leaders, providing technical support, setting up procedures for financial probity, including auditing accounts, and instituting mechanisms to involve the landless poor.
Yugandhar was busy as long as his legs and lungs, devastated by cigarette smoking, would allow. He would travel to Anand to help IRMA to develop its State of Panchayati Raj reports. He would stand by the youngsters who would go to villages and report on misappropriation of funds meant for the poor and exploitation of landless labourers and Dalits and Adivasis. He admonished bureaucrats of a later generation, who would paper over such reports. He lobbied with and at times, got support from ministers like Mani Shankar Aiyar.
They don’t make them like him any more. If he reads this, wherever he is, he will say, “Come Sir, I was only doing my job”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 19, 2019 under the title ‘Grass roots reformer’. The writer, a former Union minister, is an economist.