The first major feat in a string of feats that would mark Dr D Babu Paul, who passed away on Saturday, out as one of Kerala's greatest bureaucrats was the successful commissioning of the Idukki hydroelectric project in 1975. All that came to define Babu Paul the administrator – flamboyance, quick-wit, spunk, diplomacy and firmness - were first on show in Idukki.
It was in 1971, when he was 30, that Babu Paul was asked to take up the newly-created position called project coordinator, Idukki Hydel Project. He had just been transferred to Thiruvananthapuram from Palakkad, and was warming up to his job as the deputy secretary in the freshly started Planning and Economic Affairs Department. This Thiruvananthapuram posting also kept him physically close to his family.
A lie and an exile
To leave his wife and son, who was only seven months old then, for a godforsaken land called Idukki was the last thing he wanted. He felt like he was being banished into the forest. But when chief secretary K P K Menon insisted, the young officer had no choice.
Senior IAS officials like Kaleeshwaran, Ramunni Menon and S Padmakumar were considered for the job. When all of them wriggled out, K P K Menon came up with a lie during the cabinet meeting. He said Babu Paul had agreed. Chief minister C Achutha Menon was glad. “He is the kind of man we need there,” he said. Leave alone Babu Paul's consent, he was not even consulted about the job.
For Achutha Menon, Idukki dam was a prestige project. The Union power minister K N Rao, after visiting the project area in January 1971, was deeply disillusioned. “I don't think this would work. Either the project has to be handed over to the military or it has to be shelved,” he said. This had hurt Menon's pride.
Man who stole an Impala
Nonetheless, his project coordinator faced problems right from the word go. The Electricity Board engineers were not happy with a bureaucrat taking charge. The power secretary had promised the new project coordinator, who was also the collector and magistrate of the project area, a car. But the board denied him one.
Babu Paul hit back the way only he can. He stole the KSEB chief engineer's Impala car. One day he asked chief engineer K V Kochaniyan, who was based in Thiruvananthapuram, to drop him at Moolamattom; the Circuit House in Moolamattom was the project coordinator's base camp.
Kochaniyan, the gracious man that he was, asked his driver to take “Babu Paul sir” to Moolamattom. But when he reached his place, Babu Paul asked the driver to take a bus back to the capital. Needless to say, a brand new Ambassador car, fitted with the project coordinator's board, sped up the Idukki curves in double-quick time. The Impala was returned. The board got a fairly reasonable idea about the man they were to deal with.
The young bureaucrat insisted that he should also get the copy of the daily reports the engineers in Idukki sent to the chief engineer. Such a show of authority had surprised even the then KSEB chairman, senior IAS officer V Ramachandran. But he did not let down a fellow IAS officer. The respectful manner in which Ramachandran treated Babu Paul helped to define the pecking order in the Idukki project area.
Once the technical wing was made to toe his line, it were the workers he had to look out for. The manner in which he tamed the fiery union leader Vazhoor Vishwam is now folklore in KSEB circles. Vishwam had deep disdain for authority and, during conciliatory meetings, he had this Rajnikanth-like habit of talking with a cigarette pressed between his lips, all the while blowing smoke on the faces of those around him.
Vishwam was no different with the young project coordinator. Even if he was irritated, Babu Paul did not show it. He allowed Vishwam to talk and burn up an entire cigarette. He just sat smiling, saying not a word. But once Vishwam pressed the smouldering stub on the ashtray, Babu Paul told him to repeat all that he had said. “Because you were talking with that thing in your mouth, I could not understand a word of what you said,” Babu Paul told him. There was a sudden eruption of laughter in the room. Even the workers Vishwan represented burst out laughing. It is said that never again had Vazhoor Vishwam talked to anyone with a cigarette stuck between his lips.
Swimming pool trips
Though life in Idukki was monotonous and hectic, the swimming pool created for the Canadian team at Kulamavu, a few kilometres down the road from Moolamattom, was a welcome distraction for him. (The project was carried out with Canadian aid.) Every Sundays he drove down to Kulamavu to dive into the pool constructed exclusively for the Canadians and their wives.
Babu Paul had no idea how carefree he was during those young days till the then governor Venkata Vishwanathan came on a two-day visit to Idukki. At the dinner hosted for the governor, Babu Paul arrived in a British suit. The Canadians were also present. Komantalevu, the wife of the Canadian team's leader Tremble, failed to recognise Babu Paul.
Tremble jogged his wife's memory. “Don't you know him? This is the collector who comes to the pool every Sunday.” The wife apologised. “I am sorry,” she told Paul, and then turned to her husband. “How am I to recognise him when this is the first time that I have seen Paul in some clothes.” (This 'swim wear' anecdote is told in 'Katha Ithuvare', Babu Paul's autobiography.)
Babu Paul had taken over in September 1971, and three months later, in December, Union minister K N Rao returned to Idukki. After visiting the dam site, the man who wanted the project shelved, told reporters: “Kulamavu, which was silent like a cemetery, is now humming like an active beehive.”
Babu Paul was in Idukki till the dam, one of the highest arch dams in Asia, was commissioned in October, 1975.
(All incidents mentioned here are narrated in Babu Paul's autobiography)