She retired after 37 years in service in July last year and did what she had done all her career: Take steps for women’s empowerment. Karnataka former chief secretary Ratna Prabha intends to start a website ‘She for Her’, which will narrate the stories of women entrepreneurs who came up in life because of help from other women.
“This will help take away the sting of what most people think, that woman is the woman’s main enemy,” says Ms Prabha, who was back in the news when she joined the BJP. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi is doing good work. He is working round the clock for the people,” she said. She is well-known for pushing the case of women in a variety of areas, from social welfare and security to industries and information technology. She is well-known in the Hyderabad-Karnatak region, where she served for extended periods and made a marked difference in the status of women.
She started her career as assistant commissioner of Bidar, far away from Bengaluru, the first woman to hold the post there. “Luckily for me it was close to Hyderabad and AP being my home state I was very happy. I am a true Hyderabadi at heart,” she says with a smile.
“Amazingly they had not seen a woman employee. It was fascinating for them to see a young girl. Some thought I was the daughter of the assistant commissioner.”
When people came to her with grievances, she remembers being “nervous and shaky, sitting in that seat and wondering how to resolve those issues. But the job tells you what to do.”
She started visiting the villages. “My father had a great impact on me. He was collector of three districts and he was always flooded with people. He would not even have his breakfast,” she says.
She is the daughter of IAS officer K. Chandraiah, the first collector of Hyderabad who retired as an AP Public Service Commission member and Dr K. Vimala Bai, Professor Emeritus, who was head of the dermatology department at the Gandhi Hospital.
Bidar then had a Unicef-supported programme, Bird, or Bidar Integrated Rural Development Programme, for women empowerment. It supported anganwadi workers and gave job skills to women.
She tagged along with the collector to see how Bird was run and understand the condition of women. The challenge was to deal with male colleagues and politicians. She realised that once she communicated with them, they connected very fast. “I was gaining respect and their reaction was that ‘in spite of being a woman she is doing very well’,” Ms Prabha recalls with a laugh.
They used to call her ‘AC Saab’, for they did not know to call her madam. Based on these and such experiences she wrote a book, “Chronicles of an AC Saab.”
She was in charge of recruiting anganwadi workers for a village, but there was no one who had cleared Class VII. She finally had to get the workers from a neighbouring village. The anganwadi worker in 1983 got Rs 75 and the helper Rs 50.
Decades later, when she became chief secretary, a woman named Rajamma called her. “I was the reason to motivate her and now her daughter was also an anganwadi worker,” Ms Prabha recalls her saying.
“I must say, without boasting that wherever I went I created an impact. In Bidar, a lot of girls are named Ratna Prabha. I feel that is a tribute to my work.”
A year-and-a-half later, she got promoted as special district commissioner, development, and moved to Chikmagalur. “Here we started a pilot project of Dwcra (Development of women and children in rural areas). She also learnt Kannada, “a turning point in my life.”
This is where she met with Kashappa, gram panchayat adhyaksha of Giriyapur. He told Ms Prabha that the district had had women collectors who would just come and go. He told her that when women occupy a certain seat, they should do something for other women. “What remained ingrained in my mind was that wherever I went I must work for women,” she says.
“Bankers those days asked women to make papads, achar and the usual things. But I said no to this. We trained women in cane-making, furniture-making. We gave two acres each to the women on lease so that they could grow coffee. Over a period of time, they started earning and became independent. The bankers who had initially hesitated now started giving loans and the repayment also started very fast,” she says.
After her marriage to civil service colleague A. Vidya Sagar, who later retired as Special Chief Secretary, AP, Ms Prabha came to Hyderabad to join the film censor board and continued for four years, the first regional censor officer. She was known for clearing films in a day, and the industry started moving to Hyderabad from Chennai. She says the best tribute she got was in 2015, when her daughter got married. “All of them came for the wedding. The wedding was star-studded and I think that is a compliment.”
In 1990 she went to Raichur, again abutting AP, as deputy commissioner or collector. “I also learnt to be nice and kind to my juniors, especially the women. I remembered situations where I was not treated well and I was determined to treat others well,” she says.
She was the first woman collector in Raichur. The Tungabhadra canal was coming in and the farmers were agitated over water. “Chief Minister Veerendra Patil wondered how I would tackle the issue. In the two years I was there. I handled the Tungabhadra issue very well,” she recalls.
But women and their issues were uppermost on her mind. “Some boys came to meet me and talked about the Devadasi system. We got a survey done and roughly about 9,000 women were enrolled. A police officer called Kodandaramaiah was MD of the SC/ST corporation and he mentioned that in Andhra Pradesh the government was giving land to SCs. Then I realised that the issue of the Devadasis could be handled positively because they were all SCs.”
She talked to Mr Kodandaramaiah about this and got his approval. Ms Prabha says, “We bought a lot of land. Where it was dry land we gave two acres and irrigated area we gave half an acre or one acre. We invited the CM and had a huge function and he was extremely fascinated,” she recalls.
She was motivated by the praise and started giving house sites and houses. “The husbands seemed to be okay with it, the only problem was with the MLAs. Slowly I could change their attitude too. The MLAs gave away the pattas to the women.”
The officers within the system were not at all happy and she was getting a firing from senior colleagues. The CM was very happy.
She also gave autorickshaws and taught women to drive and this was inaugurated by then Chief Minister Veerappa Moily. “Margaret Alva had also come. Moily dithered getting into one of the autos and Margaret Alva lent him courage by holding his hand,” Ms Prabha recalls.
Having her husband in another state who was also getting transferred meant quite a bit of extra work, and Ms Prabha had a woman helper. When she was in Raichur, her husband was posted in Kadapa and when she went as collector to Bidar again, he was posted in Medak.
Ms Prabha was a state table tennis player. “The nationals were in December and my mother used to encourage me to participate and come back and study for the finals in March. I was a fairly decent student. I also played women’s cricket and represented the Women’s College,” she says. She played till she got into the civil services.
She returned to Bidar, also known as the ‘Punjab of Karnataka’, this time as the collector in 1983 and the tenure lasted through the turbulent years. The police opened fire and six persons were killed. Moily who was CM was wondering if he should send a woman but nobody was interested.
“For two years when I was there, there was no tension. When I got transferred they cried when they came to send me off,” she says.
She prepared an action plan for women and briefed the MPs, MLAs and ZP representatives that the benefits should go to women. “Politicians are well meaning and they listen to you,” she says.
She came to AP when she lost her father in 1995. The Visakhapatnam Export Processing Zone was looking for a development commissioner and Ms Prabha was the first woman officer to be posted there and was there for seven years. The family finally stayed together with her husband also getting a posting there.
She had no experience in industries; an industrialist called on her and wondered how she would do as her reputation was being anti-industrialist, especially when she was collector.
“We got the first car wheel project and another company wanted to start a diamond cutting and processing unit. Those days there were there was the East West Airlines, flying to Bombay. The appraisers were trained, but the lockers in which the diamonds had to be carried would not lock. So we couriered the diamonds through the pilots. Deccan Chronicle wrote a front page story on it. In the diamond unit more than 3,000 girls were employed,” she recalls proudly.
She says she built a road-over-bridge and a compound wall and asked for 100 acres for expansion. “Now it is booming with companies. That was my first entry into industries.”
She told Dr Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy that she had a lot of experience in exports and wanted to do IT exports. He posted her as IT secretary, Hyderabad, leading to much heartburn among colleagues because she belonged to the Karnataka cadre.
This was in 2004 and the IT policy was coming to an end in 2005. “I drafted the IT policy for AP and incorporated sections for women which were not there, including protection, maternity benefits. Corporate social responsibility for industrialists also was added. We started Jawahar Knowledge Centres in colleges, the students were trained by the company that would later take them on their rolls. Both were happy because the attrition levels came down, so lots of girls and boys got into into this very good scheme,” she recalls.
There was pressure to shift her. She became principal secretary and moved to the public enterprises department and then to transport and stamps and registration. “Once I joined the department, I asked the CM if we could reduce the stamp duty by one per cent on property exclusively owned by women. He agreed but there was a lot of protest within the department over the loss of revenue. YSR gave me the go-ahead and thus the GO was introduced. But as soon as I left, that was the first GO to be withdrawn,” she says.
She went back to Karnataka, this time to Gulbarga as regional commissioner. And Delhi as additional secretary, women and child welfare. “This was my first exposure to the women’s ministry,” she said. The horrific Delhi gangrape incident happened at that time.
After the incident, she wrote a number of policies and called it the Nirbhaya scheme. There were one-stop crisis centre for women, one-stop service centre for women, an effort to stop the decline in the child sex ratio which is now called ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’.
“All these project reports I prepared. In a ministry you have the pleasure of preparing policies,” she said. She returned to Karnataka as additional chief secretary and sought the industries department. Despite pressure from her colleagues, she was posted as the first woman additional chief secretary of industries. “When I took charge we were in the 13th position. The next year I brought it to eighth and the next year No 1. Gujarat was No. 1 till then. We crossed Gujarat by nearly Rs 20,000 crore investment,” she says. The policy was expiring in 2013 and she changed it from benefiting only the large industries to small and medium ones and made it more Karnataka-centric with greater incentives.
“We made it into four or five zones with a special package for women, SC/STs and NRIs. The policy was much appreciated.” It included special women’s tech Parks in Hubbali, Dharwad, Mysuru, Ballari, and Kalburagi. “This was new and we had a special policy for women” she says.
Delegations of women were going abroad. “We formed a group called Ubuntu (Zulu for humanity). We used to have three programmes and we invited only the CM. Ubuntu is now being registered as a society and we want to add more members.”
“Serving people and seeing a smile on the face of people whom I help gives me the greatest joy and happiness. There is no better feeling than making a difference in someone’s life and that’s the opportunity IAS gives,” she says....