Kanuru Lakshmana Rao – the engineer statesman, my father

by Kanuru Ashok Rao

My father would introduce me to his friends saying, “this is my son. He is an engineer and he writes good English”. That was not so much a praise of my knowledge of  English as it was a reflection of his deep disappointment in me as an engineer. For my father, engineering was not a profession, it was a way of life. When he received the news that I had cleared the final examination leading to  graduation  in Engineering, he came to my room and after congratulating me and giving me an affectionate kiss on the forehead, he advised me to take cooking lessons from my mother. Noticing the bewildered look on my face, he explained, ” my dear son you have qualified to join the engineering profession. An engineer must learn to be self sufficient”  The designer of Dams, that he was he reflected , ” well an engineer  may have to build a  bridge  deep in a jungle”

Self reliance did not stop with the individual, for him it was a concept valid even for the nation. I was born, in England, towards the end of the Second World War. My mother was alone with her two siblings aged four and two. She had no relatives around in that foreign land, nor could any of them come even in an emergency, due to the war had civil aviation was not available. There were no modern jet aeroplanes either.  She pleaded with him not to leave her in England in that condition and go off to the USA. He told her, “I am going to USA to learn the art of designing dams. When India becomes free, we must be able to design dams across our mighty rivers like  the Ramapada Sagar Dam,  the …….The nation must come before the family”  That was the extreme to which he was make or demand  sacrifice for his concept of national self reliance.

And so India won its independence and started on its tryst with destiny. Nineteen hundred and fifty, my father was transferred to Delhi. The Hirakud Dam was being designed with the help of engineers from the Bureau of Reclamation, USA. The Americans were soon packed off and India’s journey towards self reliant design of river valley projects began. All kinds of  large dams were designed and built in India  without any external aid. These included straight gravity dams, arch dams, concrete dams, masonry dams, underground power  houses… anything that was or could be done any where in the world was being replicated by the Indian engineers. The Dams on the Chambal, Hirakud across the Mahanadi, Farakka Barrage on the mighty Ganga, Kosi Barrage across India’sriver of sorrow, Ukai on the Tapi, Sharavadi project in Karnataka, Uniam in Megalaya, Srisailam and Nagarjuana Sagar on the Krishna and so the list of  structures that bear the name of my father in their stone and mortar goes on and on. There is barely a river, a power house or even a corner of India that cannot testify  to an association with my father in his five decades of  work as an engineer, a visionary, a minister in the Government of India, a statesman… so comprehensive was his contribution to the sectors of irrigation and power  in the post independent India.  It is indeed a shame that that same nation toady needs foreigners to design small structures  like Chemira in Himachal Pradesh. Such is the transformation that neo liberalisation has brought about.

His concept of self reliance was not a concept of autarky, but that the two way interaction with the world should be towards achieving technological excellence and not technological dependence. So much was his confidence in India’s capabilities that he set up a public sector enterprise, Water and Power Consultancy Services,  with the objective of commercially exporting India’s technological expertise. This quest for international market was based on the principle that in some areas India had achieved international standards of excellence and could export its knowledge with self confidence and pride. This was quite the opposite of the present day export lead growth economics which is based on the sacrifice of self reliance and indiscriminate opening of the market to multinationals with the aspiration of being sub contractors or as a junior partner of a multinational corporation.

Since my father worked almost round the clock, he had little time for the family. He was like a stranger and I had hardly any occasion to talk with him. After I finished  matriculation I was packed off to a college in a small town. I found the living conditions very bad, particularly the food seemed entirely unpalatable.  It was difficult adjusting to a small dirty backward town coming as I was from the national capital. I thought the best way to get my father to reverse his decision would be to emotionally black mail him. And so I told him how bad the food was. He heard me patiently and then asked me were I was boarding. He then laughed and said, “son what is the meaning of  mess in English language. My complaint dismissed he got back to his work. But before he did that he told me that I should rethink my elitism and remember that India was a poor and backward country. That was the land where his roots were, he never forgot that. He founded, in the public sector an enterprise, Rural Electrification Corporation, in order to ensure accelerated development of rural India.

After a busy public life and as he entered the eighties, one day my father decided that he would  shift to Vijayawada. Knowing the poor medical facilities available in Vijayawada, I strongly protested. He just brushed aside the objection and said, ” I am now going to die. I want to therefore return to the land where I was born and grew up, to the land to which I belong and amidst my people. The farmer and  river Krishna were his inspiration.  Once while I was with him in Vijayawada he just collapsed and while the doctor was being called he held me close and whispered, ” if anything happens to me, make sure that whatever follows is simple. I was always a simple man and wish to be remembered as such even when I am gone” At a time when one is dying to think of such instructions instead of  other concerns that one would expect showed his priorities.

His designs were not only simple but also humane. I once asked him why he took such a big risk and decide to do what had never been attempted before anywhere in the world, building a dam across a river like the Krishna in masonry  instead of concrete. Masonry was used to build structures on rivers, but never before on such a scale.   He replied that besides the abundant availability of stone, there was abject poverty and therefore an urgent need to provide employment to unskilled workers. Nagarjuna Sagar was built by hand. At one point of time there were a hundred thousand people moving up and down the scaffolding carrying stone. An unforgetable spectacle of human endeavour,  perhaps paralleled only by the Pyramids and the Great Wall. His blue print for  the gigantic task of linking the rivers of India, the Brahmaputra – Ganga right up to  the Cauvery, was motivated by concerns  like national integration and employment generation as much as they  were by needs for irrigation, power, navigation etc.

Such courage came from his being through in the fundamentals of engineering. On rare occasions he found time to help me with my studies. Once when he was teaching me the theory of structures, it was not the text book that he asked for but the syllabus. He looked it up, rolled up a paper in the shape of a cone and then started explaining the play of the various forces on the cone and derived, from the fundamentals,  the relationship between them. Considering that he was already a Minister in the Government of India for over a decade and in various policy making positions for two decades before that, to just derive a formula from first principles was indeed a testimony to his grip on the subject.  I did not understand a word of what he was  saying or following the formula being derived as I was just wonder struck with amazement. He was evolving the equation as if he were writing a poem. I was rudely shaken when he asked me is this equation correct ? This ability to remember details also amazed Jawaharlal Nehru, when my father delivered flawlessly a twenty five page,  Presidential address to the Institution of Engineers. Nehru remarked about this extempore delivery of a prepared speech which deviating from a single word in twenty five pages of text.

Perhaps I did not live up to my father’s  expectations as an engineer, but I would say in self defence, I never wanted to be an engineer. When the choice of career came up I was reluctant to join the engineering college where I had got admission. My father asked me what I aspired to become later in life. I wanted to be a lawyer, I decided to tell him then most coveted of all careers. I said, I want to join the Indian Administrative service” I was sure that was something for which he would let me forgo an engineering career. He looked at me and said, “What you want to be glorified clerk and for that you want to give up an opportunity to be the human equivalent of the Brahma – the creator” He then went on to explain the benefits that humanity would derive from the various dams that he had designed and constructed. I felt embarrassed, if not guilty,   I just packed up my bags and left.

Dr. Kanuru Lakshman Rao  was truly a great Indian engineer. What was most significant about his life and work was that he gave confidence to and had confidence in the Indian engineers. IT is a tragedy that today we are denigrating our own achievements and have decided that India can at best be a second rate nation – a nation of sub contractors to western multinational corporations. That is the greater disappointment of K. L. Rao than just the failure of his son.

source : geocities