File photo | Indian Railways | Piqsels
File photo | Indian Railways | Piqsels
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Ferrying around 3.7 lakh litres of potable water over 200 kilometres, India’s first water train whistled into Rajkot railway station on 2 May, 1986. A city was saved from evacuation due to paucity of drinking water. C.K. Koshy, an IAS officer, was the Relief Commissioner of Gujarat State then and was pivotal in making this happen. A gold medalist from University of Kerala, Koshy joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1968 and retired as the Additional Chief Secretary of Gujarat. He was known as a no-nonsense administrator and the state’s best bet to handle a crisis. Despite all the challenges of a civil servant, he never let his sense of humour desert him. This article by him proves that.

In September 1985, as Joint Managing Director of the Gujarat Industrial Investment Corporation (GIIC), I was hosting a delegation from a European country at one of the more prominent hotels in Bombay. The well-appointed and upscale setting of a five-star hotel was far removed from the dusty environs of the backwaters of rural Gujarat, which till then had consumed the most part of my career, first as a sub-divisional magistrate and then as the district magistrate. 

The comparison between the Managing Director (MD) and District Magistrate (DM) was quite stark. The MD talked of a state-of-the-art eight-lane highway, while the DM would keep track of a rickety approach road being constructed under the government works programme. The MD would talk of multi-million business deals, the collector had to ensure that the local women’s Self-Help Group did not go out of business. The MD would be in a three-piece suit talking to business leaders, the collector in jeans and shirt sleeves rolled up would spend his day inspecting food for work programmes. The MD would concern himself with the chill in the seminar room, while the DM lost his sleep over the status of repair of the government milk chiller. The MD was the envy of his colleagues, and with the DM, his colleagues empathised.

MD, GIIC is a rather powerful man and I was enjoying the trappings of power and visibility. However, unlike in fairy tales, there is no ‘lived happily ever after’ in the civil service. The Murphy law ‘if anything that can go wrong, will go wrong’’ sooner or later catches up with you. In my case, it was the drought in Saurashtra.


Also read: How the business of water scarcity can be tackled in India


No rains in Saurashtra 

In the middle of me clinking wine glasses with the high and mighty at the hotel in Bombay, I received a message that I was required in Gandhinagar urgently and was directed to meet the Chief Secretary (CS) of the State. The CS was a battle-hardened, sharp, dour man who wasted no words in preliminaries. He informed me that I had been transferred to the newly created post of Relief Commissioner, that I was to take over right then because the Chief Minister “desired” that I begin to work in my new post with immediate effect. The word ‘desire’ in civil service takes an entirely different meaning than what the Oxford Dictionary will tell you. It simply means, get on with the job and please ask no questions. It was clear that my recently stitched pin-striped suits had to be sent to storage for a few years to come. So, in sync with the ‘glorious uncertainties’ of our service, I was back to square one, arranging fodder for cattle in Saurashtra, the still unfinished wine glass would have to wait!

So, the newly appointed Relief Commissioner started his work. He was the port of call for everything which sounded even remotely like ‘drought’. I soon realised that it was me or no one, who had to ensure that drinking water reached thousands of parched villages where lakhs of my countrymen/women waited patiently for the sight of the water tanker making its way to their village. In such a massive mobilisation, you can never win if God is not on your team. With the weight of such a huge responsibility on my shoulders, I went about my job with a prayer on my lips. There were moments of uncertainty, moments of despair and moments when nothing seemed to go right. Someone in these trying times had to persevere and keep the government implementation machinery steady with a brave face, and in this case the onus fell on me.

Handling the drought demanded every skill that the Service had trained me for. The working hours stretched for 16 to 18 hours a day. Me and my team arranged the logistics, monitored water movement by train and trucks while being well aware that if we slipped, the lives of millions of human beings and cattle were at stake. There was no margin for error.

I had taken the Relief Commissioner assignment when the rains failed in 1985, and due to the bad luck of my state and for me, it failed in 1986 and 1987 as well. Such successive failure of rain had not happened in recent history. The dreaded Murphy’s Law was keeping my company.

The cattle fodder was down to critical levels given the failure of rains. By a formal notification, grass used as fodder, was declared as an essential commodity and its movement was regulated by the state government. I remember the utter disbelief on the face of family and friends from green water-rich Kerala when I shared this fact with them.


Also read: Why new policies are needed to tackle India’s orphaned wells with no water


Getting water for villages 

In the service, the challenges come at scale. I had 17 districts (90% of districts) under severe drought. This meant 15,574 villages (80% of the total villages) in the State had no assured supply of water. By the summer of 1987, I had to start a cash for work programme for 20.56 lakh drought-affected people across the state. I was responsible for ensuring that these people got paid on time, pumping enough food grains into the public distribution system and ensuring transportation of water in severely affected villages. As we were getting this under control, it was decided by the state government that part of the wages in the relief works were to be given in the form of grains. Implementing this across the length and breadth of the state was no less daunting than the drought itself.

We grasped at desperate measures and from that desperation came innovation and that latent Indian trait of jugaad was on hand. Very often the only source of water was located 50 to 60 km away from the drought-stricken villages. When the fleet of water tankers owned by the government was fully deployed, we pressed private tankers into service. When even that source was exhausted, we purchased large plastic water tanks and tied them to trucks to ensure that water reached villages. It was a war-like situation, and I was the commanding officer with my ammunition fast running out.

Water trains and computers

If all this was not enough, Rajkot city, a bustling town in Saurashtra of almost a lakh people, faced the prospect of total evacuation because it had completely run out of drinking water. For the first time, special tube wells were dug in and around cities in the south of the state and the Railways arranged to run ‘water special’ rakes to bail out the city.

For the very first time in the history of the Gujarat Secretariat, we acquired computers to manage the crisis and so was born what is now known as the celebrated e-governance programme of Gujarat state. The computers came in a desperate bid to manage the ever-increasing logistical nightmare on the ground and not as part of a grand design in administrative reforms.

After three years of continuous drought, the rain Gods relented and the Relief Commissioner gave a sigh of ‘relief’. It was time for retrospection. My team and I had pulled off something incredible, the water crisis had been managed well.


Also read: Water no longer a developing-world problem: It’s become an everyone, everywhere problem


Lessons in crisis

Many factors contributed to what we could achieve. There are three important lessons to be learnt from this experience.

First, the successful management of the unprecedented drought was possible because it became a nonpartisan people’s movement. A disaster of this magnitude cannot be handled by the government alone. It is to the credit of the government in power and the opposition that no political points were sought to be scored, and no reputation was sought to be tarnished. It was a people’s war against a natural calamity.

Second, we were fortunate to have at the helm an outstanding Revenue Minister and a tribal Chief Minister sensitive to the deprivation of the people. Between them, they forged a leadership which, while handling the political fallout, left the officials to work insulated from any political sniping. The bureaucracy-political leadership relationship thus forged was perhaps the finest example of a mature democracy in action. In 1987, after the state had received ‘normal’ rainfall, the Revenue Minister spoke in the Legislative Assembly on the role of the bureaucracy in fighting drought. In a gracious gesture, he placed on record the thanks of the people of Gujarat for the service rendered by these selfless officials.

Third, the network of NGOs operating in the state was leveraged to the maximum. At times of disasters, well-meaning NGOs with the highest motives often run from pillar to post because the state apparatus is not geared to utilise their services. Gujarat has a long history of outstanding work done in the social sector by NGOs. The government, therefore, reached out to them in a well-calibrated response. An office headed by a senior officer was opened exclusively for coordination of voluntary agencies. This office became a clearinghouse of information as to what type of assistance was required in which district, thus preventing overlap and duplication of effort. The office also assisted NGOs in claiming their subsidies in time. Consequently, the effort of the NGOs was optimised. The cattle wealth of Gujarat was saved primarily due to the work of the NGOs in running cattle camps and in the excellent coordination between the Govt. relief machinery and the NGOs.

The unfinished wine glass left at the Bombay 5-star hotel that evening of September 1985 still stands on the bar table, as the soulful voice of Lynn Anderson plays in the background.

I beg your pardon,
I never promised you a rose garden.
Along with the sunshine,
There’s gotta be a little rain sometimes.
When you take, you gotta give, so live and let live,
Or let go.
I beg your pardon,
I never promised you a rose garden.

As for Murphy, he lived with me for the 35 years of service life, getting me into unforeseen situations, some of them I will relate to as this diary progresses.

As told to Sudipto Sengupta.

This article was first published in Probashi Online. It has been republished here with the permission of Sudipto Sengupta.

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11 Comments Share Your Views

11 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this delightful article peppered with wit and subtle humour. But Mr. Koshy was not the first to bring in the idea of water trains. In early 1960s, there was severe famine (not “drought”, please note) in Bihar which was on the front pages of the world press and the railways ran several water specials for several weeks. Mr. Koshy should have known this because he joined IAS in the sixties and must have read for his general knowledge paper.

  2. Inspirational account told with wit and subtle humour. But the claim that Mr. Koshy was the first to introduce water trains is borne out of ignorance. In early 1960s, there was unprecedented famine (not ‘drought’, please note) in Bihar which made headlines in the world press. During this famine, the railways ran full water rakes to different parts of Bihar for several weeks. Admittedly, we did not have today’s infrastructure, communications technology or resources.

  3. Brilliantly written and comes as a source of inspiration to future workers for public administrators. Thank you for the insights.

  4. Excellenr article and a case study as to how we can solve a perennial crises. The same strategy was replicated during sangli drought.

  5. Highly inspirational story of an amazing IAS officer. The way story had been narrated is awesome. Such stories always boost the morale of of our public personnel.

  6. Something similar was done in Maharashtra during the 1972 drought. Since then, water stress has increased manifold. Including in areas close to the Jayakwadi dam in Paithan, Aurangabad, identified as a growth node for the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor.

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