We remember his tenure as Chief Election Commissioner. However, as a man of action and great simplicity right from the beginning of his career he had a way of doing things differently which set him apart from the rest.
On 10th November 2019, the news of the death of Mr. T N Sheshan brought to my mind the memory of meeting him along with Dr. Aneja in Madras (now Chennai) sometime in 1978. The context was the state plan for Operation Flood-II in Tamilnadu and we were to meet Mr. Sheshan, who was then the Agriculture Production Commissioner of the state.
I had actually no idea that I was going to meet this personality. I had said yes to Dr. Aneja, when he asked me if I was ready to join him for a meeting in Madras and I had without hesitation said, ‘yes sir’. The whole conversation on intercom was somewhat like this:
“Hi Nagar, Aneja here. I am going to Madras for a meeting. Do you want to join me”.
“Sure sir,” I replied.
“Don’t you want to know why I am going there”. “No”, I replied back.
“ Then why do you want to join me”?
“I have to buy some cane chairs for my dining table”, I gave a rather cheeky reply.
“Alright, get ready, book you tickets and see you in Madras on (date). Carry with you relevant documents. And this trip is going to be no fun, ok”. I could hear his laughter on the intercom.
“And inform me when your bookings are done”, he concluded.
Now I knew he was involving me in some serious business.
At this time, I was handling MIS and a large part of it was the rural supply and urban demand surveys. My group had just completed 3 years of survey work in 18 Operation Flood I milksheds, their urban markets and 4 metros. These surveys were conducted, in one annual and 3 seasonal rounds to capture seasonal supply demand variations so as to understand how it affects procurement across seasons with its consequent effect on milk marketing and prices. By any standards, it was a massive exercise and I was happy that our projections were closely matching the actual procurement figures in all the milksheds.
In a way, this exercise had established the credibility of our survey design, sample size and our data capturing and validation methodology. So, when Dr. Aneja asked me to carry relevant documents, I knew he was referring to a summery of Tamilnadu survey data.
When I informed him of my bookings, he asked me, “where are you staying”, “Hotel New Victoria, opposite Egmore railway station”, I replied.
“Book my room too” he said; “where, Connemara?”, I asked.
“No, in the hotel where you are staying”, came the answer.
I wondered why on earth would he want to stay in a 3 star facility which was way below his entitlement. I found the answer when we met in Madras (this trip is going to be no fun). Oh, so he had warned me well in advance.
Anyway, we reached Mr. Sheshan’s office at the appointed time. He had couple of months back received an official letter from IDC (Indian Dairy Corporation, NDDB’s sister Organization that was responsible for project funding prior to its merger with NDDB in 1987) asking the state to submit a plan for funding under OF II.
When we reached for the meeting, we were greeted by Mr. Sheshan and his team drawn from the Tamilnadu Dairy Development Corporation (TNDDC) with a pile of four bound volumes, each weighing approx 1.5 kg. These were the plan documents for four dairy development regions in which the state was divided by TNDDC. There were two sets, one each for me and Dr. Aneja.
The idea behind ‘presenting’ us with these bulky sets was to overwhelm us. The officials thought that we will carry these plans to the hotel room, spend our days and possibly nights going through them and, perhaps approve them by the end of our two days visit.
Dr Aneja and I looked at the volumes, exchanged glances (reminding ourselves of the preparation we did to receive the first FAO-WFP Mission in 1970 and saying that we are the past masters of this game) pushed them on one side. Dr. Aneja then addressed Mr Sheshan, “Sir, I am sure a lot of effort has gone in making these plans and your officers have done a wonderful job. But since we don’t have time to go through these plans here, we will have to take them to Anand for a detailed study. That would considerably delay the approval process”.
“Then what do you suggest”, asked Mr. Sheshan.
“It would be appropriate if your officers can make a presentation on each of these four plans”, Aneja replied.
Mr. Sheshan immediately agreed to the suggestion and asked the team leader to make a presentation.
Dr. Aneja and I exchanged a glance. We knew we have caught them unawares. TNDDC team was not prepared to make a presentation. When the leader hesitated, Mr. Sheshan retorted, “You are making the presentation here in my office, now”.
While the team leader was getting ready to make the presentation, Mr. Sheshan addressed Aneja, “ These plans have been worked out in great detail and if you find anything wrong in them, I will ‘chew’ my non existent hat’.
Oh boy, I had just learnt a new phrase. Mr. Sheshan was very fond of using it, and in the next 10 minutes, he must have ‘chewed’ about 15 hats. I started counting but soon lost count.
When this conversation was going on between the two, I started glancing through one of the plans. I suddenly noticed a bar chart and a table wherein seasonal milk production figures for cow and buffalo milk were given. In the documents, buffalo was referred to as “black cattle”. I found these figures strange and turned corresponding pages of the remaining three documents.
All four had similar projections. In the meantime Mr. Sheshan got busy on phone.
When Mr. Sheshan was busy on phone and the team leader with preparation for presentation, I showed the table to Dr. Aneja and pointed out that the seasonal variations shown were 1:1.3(lean:flush ratio) and to arrive at it, they had increased the quantity of milk from black cattle by adjusting the fat content at par with cow milk. So, if cow milk has 4% fat, and buffalo milk 6%, in the projections, 100 liters of buffalo milk was shown as 150 liters of “black cattle” milk. This not only inflated the total production but also gave this unrealistic lean to flush ratio. They had used it to arrive at the processing and milk drying capacity projections.
Unfortunately, what the leader forgot was that while reducing fat content, the other component of milk -SNF will also go down proportionately. And therefore his entire plan was based on highly inflated production and procurement projections.
Dr. Aneja immediately seized the opportunity to demolish the plan. He got up from his seat, extended his hand towards Mr. Sheshan and said, “Congratulations Sir, you have already achieved in TN what we think will take at least about 20 years, even in Gujarat.”
Mr. Sheshan was not expecting this. He looked shocked and confused and asked, “What is it? Gujarat is way ahead of the rest of the country in dairying and you say we have already achieved it. What are you talking about”.
Dr. Aneja calmly replied, “Sir, the lean: flush production ratio. Wonderful achievement Sir.With this, TN will have all the fresh milk it needs to market even in summer and you wouldn’t need to invest in expensive powder plants” and showed him the projections in the documents.
This must have hit Mr Sheshan very hard as the next thing we witnessed was a copy of the document flying across the room. A fuming Mr. Sheshan gave the team a thorough dressing down, mercifully in Tamil for us to not to understand what he was saying. But its effect could be seen on the faces of the entire team of TNDDC. It continued for about ten minutes. They were then given marching orders.
After the team left, a visibly upset Mr Sheshan turned to Dr. Aneja and said, “I didn’t know I am surrounded by d*****s. Please leave these documents here and depute a NDDB team to make a plan for us.
As we came out of the secretariat, Dr. Aneja looked at me and said, “Chairs- forget about them this time and get down to the business. You are making the first state plan under OF II, and it is going to be Tamilnadu”.
That’s how I ended up in planning.
Next day, when Dr Aneja was leaving for airport, I casually remarked, “I didn’t know dealing with state governments was that easy”.
He didn’t say anything, he just smiled and left for airport.
Unknowingly, I had just shot myself in the foot. But that’s for the next story.