A Man For All Seasons: M Nageswara Rao is Just The Leader CBI Needs Right Now
M Nageswara Rao’s exploits in previous roles either in government or as part of the law-and-order machinery only indicate that his addition to the CBI at the top can only augur well for the investigation agency — and the country.
In July 2013, M Nageswara Rao was appointed Additional Director General (ADG) of Fire Service and Home Guards of Odisha. A little over two months later, the coastal state found itself bracing for Phailin — the most intense cyclone to make landfall in the country since the one that hit Odisha in 1999, causing unprecedented destruction of property and consuming the lives of over 10,000 people.
But history did not repeat itself in 2013. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had a simple and clear instruction for government officials: zero casualty. Though this ambitious goal couldn’t be achieved, the state administration’s success in greatly limiting the damage got accolades at home as well as abroad. The casualty count stood at 44.
Early detection helped in evacuating over a million people out of the cyclone’s path. This was made possible with “years of planning, construction of disaster risk mitigation infrastructure, setting up of evacuation protocols, identification of potential safe buildings to house communities and most importantly, working with communities and community-based local organisations,” as the World Bank described it in a memo.
The execution on the ground on the days of the cyclone was key to averting the disaster. This was achieved, thanks in no small part to capable officers like M Nageswara Rao — among them district collectors, police officers, and local community leaders in coastal areas — and hundreds of men and women who worked with and under them. The Fire Service and Home Guards unit of Odisha under Rao played a crucial role in disaster management. Rao mobilised over 1,000 personnel who worked round the clock to evacuate tens of thousands of people and cleared the roads of trees and other debris after the cyclone, ensuring road connectivity, which is critical for relief and rehabilitation work.
For their commendable work at the time, Patnaik awarded Rao and his men with the first ever Chief Minister’s Award for Excellence and Innovations in Governance and Public Service Delivery. The award carried a monetary component of Rs 5 lakh, which went to the Fire Welfare Fund.
Exactly a year later, as another cyclone, Hudhud, was set to rock the state, Fire Service and Home Guards personnel were even better equipped to face the crisis. But nature changed course and didn’t cause much damage to Odisha. However, it wreaked havoc in Andhra Pradesh. Chief Minister Patnaik then ordered Rao and over 450 of his men to go to the worst-hit districts of the neighbouring state. The units went equipped with everything they would need during the course of their stay there — from food and water to power saws and combi tools.
At the time, Rao’s instructions to them were clear: provide whatever assistance people need, but do not ask them even for water. Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu applauded and thanked the Fire Service and Home Guards personnel for their splendid service. Back home, Patnaik felicitated them publicly.
Earlier this year, the Odisha unit went to flood-ravaged Kerala to aid in rescue and relief operation — it helped saved over 5,000 people. For making the state proud again, Patnaik announced an annual award of Rs 25 lakh for the Fire Welfare Fund.
Under Rao, who headed the Fire Service, Home Guards and Civil Defence from 2013 to 2015, the institution transformed from an atrophying government department into one the state could take pride in. Rao brought many reforms both in training and methods of operation as well as in arming the servicemen with the right equipment. “Once Chief Minister Patnaik saw our work in Phailin, he extended full support to us. We established three training institutes in just one and a half years, which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” Rao told Swarajya.
“Some might say this posting is good or that one is bad. But I don’t think like that. This service provides you with a great opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.
The Fire Service has become a model for other states to emulate. Now, it is always ready and prepared to help other Indian states in times of need as Andhra Pradesh and Kerala saw firsthand. Not only that, even other countries want to take lessons from the unit in disaster preparedness. Last year, the National Disaster Management Authority approached it requesting training for executives from 14 Pacific Island nations that are tormented by cyclones regularly.
Transfers to the Fire Service or other such low-key arms of the government are often seen as “punishment postings” by officers. But for Rao, every job is an opportunity to serve the country.
“This is the bane of this country. We loathe to do small things that we can do and which can have a huge impact on the lives of people. But we all want to do big things, which we aren’t capable of doing. So, between the things that we cannot do and the things we do not want to do, we end up doing nothing. I believe in doing small things. No job is a punishment. There is room to improve everywhere,” Rao told Swarajya.
This attitude perhaps explains why Rao succeeds in institution-building, as his work at the helm of Fire Service shows, when others before him have failed to make a mark even after staying in charge for longer periods.
Rao’s service during his stint at the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) has earned him laurels. When he was Deputy Inspector General (DIG), Operations, in Manipur during 2005, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) had blocked the state’s major lifeline, the Imphal-Dimapur Highway, for over 50 days. The Imphal-Silchar road via Barak valley, the other major lifeline in Manipur, was under the control of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland Khaplang (NSCN-K). Four battalions of CRPF under Rao’s leadership cleared this road, where they remained camped for over two months. This alternative route facilitated communication and made transporting of essentials easier, thereby weakening the impact of the blockade on the Imphal-Dimapur Highway.
In June 2009, as Inspector General (IG), CRPF, in the Eastern Sector with jurisdiction over West Bengal, Odisha and Sikkim, Rao personally led operations against Naxals in Lalgarh in Midnapore district. He walked alongside his men on ground zero, an act considered highly abnormal for an officer of Rao’s seniority. The top Maoist commander, Mallojula Koteswara Rao, also known as Kishenji, was shot during this operation. Though he survived by a whisker, it was later learnt that he developed gangrene. He was killed in another encounter in 2011. Within three to four months of the start of the Lalgarh operation, CRPF and West Bengal Police were able to establish civil administration and peace over that part of Bengal. Rao, by leading CRPF from the front, gave officers of West Bengal Police confidence to take on the Naxals, which was missing earlier.
During his CRPF stint, Rao played an instrumental role in establishing the force’s CoBRA Battalion and getting the sanction for a second Group Centre of CRPF at Sambalpur.
Before Lalgarh, there was Kandhamal. Riots had broken out in this Odisha district in 2008 after Hindu saint Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was shot dead and his body mutilated for opposing conversions by Christian missionaries. At the height of the violence, over 50 companies of CRPF were deployed. Rao was CRPF IG, Eastern Sector, and thus it fell under his jurisdiction. When the situation went out of control of the state police, it was CRPF that established normalcy.
Ali Kishore Patnaik, Odisha state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has alleged that in Kandhamal, Rao passed an order restricting the movement of CRPF platoons between six in the evening and six in the morning, which “allowed the violent miscreants of the Sangh parivar to continue arson and rioting against the Christians during the night hours.”
Rao rubbishes the allegations made by Patnaik. “It is utterly ridiculous. We have so many instructions at any point of time during such a crisis. What ultimately matters is that it was the CRPF that ended the violence. Only after CRPF was deployed that in exchange of fire, some rioters were killed and violence started diminishing. They can write whatever they want, but CRPF under my leadership established peace,” he said.
It is also interesting to note that while Patnaik is now throwing Kandhamal dirt at a decorated officer like Rao, it was his party, the CPI(M) that submitted a memorandum in 2009 to Odisha governor, demanding that CRPF deployment should continue in Kandhamal.
For his service, Rao has been awarded two President’s Police Medals: one for meritorious service and another for distinguished service. Apart from that, he has been felicitated with the Odisha Governor Medal and Special Duty Medal too.
It is not that Rao has shone only in the topmost positions of the police services. His first posting as Sub Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) of Talcher in 1989-90 is a case in point. Notorious as a fast-growing hub of the coal smuggling mafia and criminal activities, Talcher in those days used to be seen as the second Dhanbad. Even as an SDPO, with help from his senior and junior officers, Rao cracked down on the mafia and brought smuggling down to a manageable level. The biggest losers of this drive were the brick kiln makers from Andhra Pradesh, as the coal smuggled from Talcher was transported up to Nellore and other regions in Andhra and was mostly used for baking bricks.
One delegation of brick kiln owners came to Talcher to meet Rao and pleaded with him to go slow on the mafia as there were fellow Telugu people who were suffering financially. Their costs had gone up and profits dropped because they were forced to buy coal at market rates, as the smuggled cheap supply got choked. However, their petition to Rao was unsuccessful as the latter refused to relent.
Recently, an online blogger, notorious for making dubious claims and blackmailing people, alleged that Rao didn’t conduct an investigation into an alleged corrupt business deal when he was CBI Joint Director during his posting in Chennai because the accused were fellow Telugu people. This blogger has been pouring vitriol at Rao for a few months now. However, one reason for his attacks could be a CBI case from 2014 against the blogger for posting an obscene photograph of a lady. Booked under Tamil Nadu Prevention of Harassment Act, he had managed to slow down the case but was put on the fast lane after Rao assumed charge of Chennai zone.
The other charge against Rao, that his wife had a property in Florida in the United States, got busted as soon as it was thrown up. Perhaps those who were making the allegations got a little too excited when they saw that the property owner had the same name as Rao’s wife, only to find later that these were two different women.
The allegations of financial impropriety against Rao have also fallen flat after he deconstructed each charge in a press release. Some are so ridiculous that they do not even merit a response, which maybe speaks of the need for journalists to get some training in finance and banking.
When he was the Superintendent of Police (SP) in Mayurbhanj district, Rao worked with District Collector Hawa Singh Chahar for reforming the Lodhas, a de-notified criminal tribe, freeing them from the never-ending loop of crime-jail-crime. As SP of Jagatsinghpur, he was the first officer in Odisha to use DNA fingerprinting, which helped crack a case involving the rape of a teenage girl and resulted in the conviction of seven years for the perpetrators. As SP, Crime Branch, he successfully prosecuted liquor kingpin Belu Das in the 1992 Cuttack Hooch tragedy that killed over 200 people and hospitalised 600 more.
Rao’s track record shows that he is a go-getter. It doesn’t matter if it’s a “punishment posting” or a rewarding one, he gets the work done. Whether it is fighting crime, corruption, Naxals, or reforming a moribund institution, he has the knack for achieving the goals before him with dexterity.
An institution builder, Rao is a man for all seasons. He is the leader CBI needs right now.
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