Photo Credit- The Institution of Engineers,Telangana State Centre

The Telugu World Column No-31

Dr. K.L. Rao, Politician of a Different Genre

Several Telugu leaders who achieved national stature in politics or their professions outside the states or the country have been mentioned before. It is not possible to write about all of them, but some cannot be omitted even by oversight. One such was Dr. K. L. Rao (1902-1986), a great engineer who also rose to be a Union Minister for Irrigation and Power. He was regarded as next only to the greatest, Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya.

Dr. Rao, born in a middle-class family of Kankipadu in Krishna district of Andhra, lost his father when he was nine.  Like the great violinist Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu he also had only one eye, having lost the other while playing in school as a child. And yet he studied at Guindy near Chennai to be its first postgraduate engineer and went to Birmingham in England for his Ph.D. He wrote Structural Engineering and Reinforced Concrete, said to have been prescribed as a textbook while he was still a student.

Called the architect of the modern temples (as Jawahalal Nehru described the giant projects) Dr. Kanuri Lakshman Rao designed many of them such as Nagarjuna Sagar, Bhakra-Nangal, Kosi, Heerakud, Chambal, Srisailam, Tungabhadra and Farakka. They brought more land under cultivation, led to higher food output and provided work to millions of farmers. India’s Water Wealth, his book, is considered a resource book for the irrigation sector in India.  He set up the Rural Electrification Corporation. He was elected thrice to the Lok Sabha in 1961,’66 and ‘72 from Vijayawada in a unique campaign talking only of projects and development and not politics. He was the minister for Irrigation and Power at the Centre (1963-1977).  

As a Parliamentary correspondent in the early 1970s I was amused that Dr. Rao, the Irrigation Minister, had the figures of all the major projects in the country and was providing them in answers to MPs’ questions in the Lok Sabha. He was not thwarted by the Speaker telling him that he need not answer about some unrelated projects as the supplementary did not arise from the question. He would rant off technical details about other projects too, saying he did not mind as he had the information, “Speaker Finds Minister Too Obliging” was a ‘story’ I put out about him.  

Awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1963 and doctorates by Roorkee, Andhra and JNT Universities,  he was  president of the Central Board of Irrigation and Power  and of the All India Engineers Association and vice-president of International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering (Asia).  He worked as a professor in Rangoon (Burma, now Myanmar) and as assistant professor in the United Kingdom.  His autobiography is The Cusecs Candidate. 

He was a politician with a difference, who proved that politics need not be ‘dirty’ as commonly believed, based on intrigue, factional loyalties or other negative aspects noticed today. Whatever was written so far is in public domain – Wikipedia or other published sources. However it is not known that his house in Delhi gave shelter to several poor families for years and that Mrs Rao was conducting self-help programmes for poor women by having their craft products and items like pickles made by them marketed. It also hosted several religious leaders and mathaadipatis visiting Delhi. 

His daughter K. Sujatha Rao retired recently as an IAS officer who was one of the best Union Health Secretaries of the country.  Covering the two cyclones that hit coastal Andhra in some decades ago, when she was a young district collector, I heard much praise for her work in rescue and rehabilitation of the affected people. There is large-scale evacuation from vulnerable areas in all such disasters, but people are normally reluctant to leave their homes and in some places she had to literally chase them out wielding a lathi. She is remembered even today for the AIDS control and other health schemes she led and her advice was taken on the recent corona-  virus  or Covid-19 pandemic.

Several Telugu IAS officers and administrators did commendable work at the Centre, like her. Telugu people proudly mention Satya Nadella, CEO of Bill Gates’ Microsoft, but only old timers know that his father Bukkapuram Nadella Yugandhar, was a distinguished IAS officer who, in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure as the Prime Minister, was the Secretary of the Union Rural Development Ministry, director of Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (popular as IAS Training College at Mussoorie), special secretary to the PM and member, Planning Commission. When he died in September 2019, tributes were paid to him as a bureaucrat who was pro-poor, against red tape and an honest, upright, officer maintaining a low profile shay choice.

Such was his penchant for simplicity that Satya’s marriage of Anupama was low-key family affair to which even PV was not invited. The Prime Minister ‘gatecrashing’ the celebration made big news then. While the entire nation and Andhra were excited about Satya becoming CEO of Microsoft, it was dismissed by Yugandhar with one sentence that his son knew his job and he wished him well. Satya rushed to Hyderabad on his father’s demise and, as per his wish, the funeral was a low-key affair.


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