Leading by example
A versatile, dedicated and well-versed IAS officer, the late Venkataramani Bhaskar will be remembered as an ideal role model for many younger generations of civil servants
Venkataramani Bhaskar, a 1981 Batch IAS Officer, an independent Public Policy Analyst contributing several thought-provoking articles on taxation, public finance, governance, energy regulations and policymaking for prominent journals, breathed his last on Tuesday night after a brief illness. On hearing the news of his demise, Telangana Chief Minister KCR mourned his death and recalled his services in various capacities in the united Andhra Pradesh. Governor Dr Tamilisai Soundararajan condoled his death in a message and recalled his services.
Bhaskar was known to me personally for over 45 years since the days of my working as a Librarian in BHEL Higher Secondary School, where the Principal was his illustrious mother Madam Y Padmavathy. It was she who introduced me to him while he was about to enter into State Bank of India service as a probationary officer, a capacity he served until he joined the Indian Administrative Service.
I still remember those days when we used to participate together in quiz competitions, a couple of times enthused by Madam Padmavathy, prior to his joining SBI while he was preparing for competitive examinations. He was younger to me by five years. Manyam Jaganmohan Rao, former Principal Bhavan's Public School and a senior colleague of mine in BHEL Higher Secondary School, who knew Bhaskar right from the tenth standard, on knowing his demise, expressed shock, recalling the days when as a school student he was preparing for a science talent project. He was then preparing durable shaving soap guided by Jaganmohan Rao. He got the science talent scholarship. As a student of Doon Public School, he was brilliant and also a competent chess player.
It was only a month ago that I called Bhaskar to introduce my daughter to him who wanted to do an interview with him on Coronavirus and its economic ramifications. Somehow it did not materialise. The last time when I met him was three years ago in a social get-together in my house when I hosted a dinner in honour of Duvvuri Subba Rao, former Governor of Reserve Bank of India. It was a pleasant gathering attended among others by Late PVRK Prasad, S Narsing Rao (Principal Secretary to CM KCR), Urmila Subba Rao, Late Dr AP Ranga Rao and Bhandaru Srinivasa Rao.
Bhaskar obtained his Masters in Public Administration and Public Finance from Harvard University (John F Kennedy School of Government) and Masters in Science from St Stephen's College, Delhi University, along with PhD in economics from the University of Hyderabad. He had experience in international, national and regional settings besides extensive experience in both policy formulation as well as implementation, economic analysis and power sector issues. He had played a key role in the 13th Finance Commission which suggested the GST reforms in the first place. His focus had been on fiscal federalism, state and central finances, goods and service tax, problems of the power sector, challenges of regulation, disaster management and growth-related issues.
Bhaskar was the Chairman, AP Electricity Regulatory Commission, Special Chief Secretary Finance, Joint Secretary 13th Finance Commission, Chief Electoral Officer in united AP, Advisor International Monetary Fund, Joint Secretary in the Union Finance Ministry, Managing Director Metro Waterworks, besides serving as the Collector of Vizag and Anantapur districts. Bhaskar was appointed for a period of three years to advise the present AP government in mobilising finances and resources for revenue deficit that he declined.
Bhandaru Ramachandra Rao, former Chief General Manager of State Bank of India, on hearing about his death, recalled his association with Bhaskar when he visited New York 25-30 years ago. BR Rao who was working then as SBI Head of New York Branch invited him and his mother to be his personal guests. He took them around the city and he says that what impressed him the most in Bhaskar was his flair to understand new things about places of interest. Rao was also equally impressed with Bhaskar's understanding of traffic, water and power management practices in New York.
Former Governor, Reserve Bank of India and a former Indian Administrative Service Officer who was a colleague of Bhaskar in the united AP Government was also shocked on hearing the news. Subbarao who was aware of Bhaskar's hospitalisation was, in fact, expecting that he would fight his way out of the deadly virus as he did out of the many personal and professional battles all through his life.
Subbarao said that "fantasising is a common human frailty. One of my fantasies is this. If the PM or the CM were to assign me a special time-bound task and offered that I could choose my team, who would I enlist, that list changed as I moved on in my career and in life, but Bhaskar would always invariably be on it. It is never the case that a single IAS officer embodies all the virtues required of an ideal civil servant. Bhaskar came close to it."
Subbarao further said that Bhaskar was the type of officer a Chief Minister or a Chief Secretary would turn to if a challenging task had to be accomplished. No wonder that ministers and senior officers vied for getting Bhaskar on their teams. Recalling from his own experience, Subbarao said that IAS is a generalist service and the officers struggle to acquire domain knowledge as they shift from one job to another but Bhaskar was an exception. According to him, in every domain he was posted in, he was soon recognised as an expert.
"While in the IMF, he was on top of the nitty-gritty of international political economy; as Joint Secretary in the Finance Commission, he understood the nuances of fiscal federalism better than any professional economist; as Commissioner of Commercial Taxes, he mastered the indirect tax system so well that he became the 'go-to' person for any design decision on the GST; as Finance Secretary of the combined state of Andhra Pradesh, he had a very mature understanding of the politics that drive economic decisions," said Rao.
Subbarao, recalling one of his experiences with him, narrated one interaction with Bhaskar. As Finance Secretary of Andhra Pradesh for nearly six years, Subbarao had to learn to say 'no' to even very worthy proposals just because there was no money. Bhaskar was for some time during that period, head of the Hyderabad Metro Water Works. One morning, when Subbarao guillotined one of his proposals he came to him to argue his case once again. For over two hours, he explained why the decision to deny funding his proposal was short-sighted. He was so persuasive that Subbarao had no option except to approve it.
In the early 2000s, when Bhaskar was working for IMF, Subbarao was with the World Bank in Washington during which time they used to meet often for lunch or for an early evening meal. Again, to put it in Duvvuri words, "Bhaskar was well regarded by the political executive across the spectrum, prized by senior colleagues, loved by his peers. Bhaskar will easily go down as a role model for a generation of younger civil servants".
The writer is the Chief Public Relations Officer to the Chief Minister of Telangana. Views expressed are personal