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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  An officer who did the IAS proud in unforgettable ways
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An officer who did the IAS proud in unforgettable ways

Guruprasad Mohapatra (1962-2021): Mover, shaker and martyr to our war against the pandemic

A file photo of Guruprasad Mohapatra (Photo: ANI)Premium
A file photo of Guruprasad Mohapatra (Photo: ANI)

If covid is a war, then it has claimed a top-ranked martyr this week, Guruprasad Mohapatra, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the 1986 batch who was serving as secretary in the government’s department for promotion of industry and internal trade (DPIIT). The supreme sacrifice that he made epitomizes the work done by a large body of civil servants who have given their best to ensure that the nation and its citizens are able to emerge from this calamity, while many of them were themselves covid positive and symptomatic.

As an officer and a gentleman, few could match Mohapatra. As the head of one of several empowered groups set up by the Prime Minister for a timely, effective and coordinated response, he was instrumental in ensuring that a covid surge-led spike in demand for medical oxygen was met, marshalling oxygen supplies almost till his last few breaths to give other patients a fighting chance. Continuing work even while he was hospitalized, his sense of responsibility was such that he put the country above his own needs. Hundreds of officers have laid down their lives in the call of duty. As Kenzaburō Ōe wrote, “The dead can survive as part of the lives of those that still live."

The untimely death of Mohapatra, or Guru to friends, was mourned by all, from the Prime Minister to ordinary people whose lives were touched by his presence. Rajiv Gauba, the cabinet secretary of India, paid him a rich tribute as “a man who ensured that the government’s efforts, in any field entrusted to him, were brought to culmination, with solutions that were both simple and structural"; “His demise was an irreparable loss to the nation. Mohapatra, along with Ravi Kapoor and Vaghela, was part of the team of Secretaries that managed to create an eco-system that ensured India went from importing to becoming the largest manufacturers of PPEs and from near zero production of ventilators to nearly 20,000 a year." As a professional, his career was marked by achievements. In his role as municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad, he oversaw the Sabarmati river-front redevelopment. As chairman of the Airports Authority of India (AAI), he ensured expansion of aviation infrastructure in tier 3 cities for the Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik (UDAN) scheme. As secretary, DPIIT, he ensured that work on ease of doing business gathered further pace, with the country moving up 14 positions on the global chart. The government’s push for reducing the compliance burden of citizens in their interactions with the state apparatus was spearheaded by him. Guidelines for the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, described by Nandan Nilekani of Infosys as “breath-taking in its simplicity", were an example.

Born to one of the greatest modern Oriya writers, Mohapatra Nilamani Sahu, whose short story Abhisapta Gandharba is one of the finest works of Odia literature, he inherited his father’s perspective of looking at problems with a humanness often missing in administrators. His erstwhile boss R.N. Choubey, member of the Union Public Service Commission, wrote: “Guru could convert any difficult situation into a positive opportunity with his problem-solving attitude. While his integrity was impeccable, he never wore it on his sleeves."

Social media has many obituary messages of this kind, whether posted by friends from Jawaharlal Nehru University, colleagues, or people in industry who had warm words for the cheerful officer he was, ever ready to help. As someone 25 years junior in the IAS, my interaction with him was limited, yet each time it left a mark. As a young impertinent collector in my sixth year of service, I had the temerity to seek him out when he was the AAI chairman. Instead of reproaching me for my disdain of the chain of command, he heard me out patiently as I requested no less than his personal intervention in developing the Bokaro airstrip as a commercial airport. Within a week, I was back on the phone with him, as he told me that he was sending a team to evaluate the airstrip. Now, with four years of experience and then some in the Government of India, I look back and realize that this leadership was what set him aside.

My second interaction with Mohapatra was during a courtesy visit I paid him, as collectors are oft required to do, when he came to Ranchi in January 2019. I reminded him of our conversation, and before I could ask, he told me he remembered it. I was struck by the affability, modesty and unassuming nature of the man who wore his success so lightly.

It was the third and final interaction that shall stay with me till my consciousness gives way. In mid-April, I got an SOS call from a hospital fast running out of oxygen, through a common friend. There was not much I could have done as a deputy secretary, disengaged from the field. Grasping at straws, I forwarded the message to Mohapatra. An ‘OK’ followed. Within four hours, the hospital had oxygen. It was only much later that I realized that he himself was unwell.

That was a time when the pandemic was extremely severe, when he would have been inundated with such requests, and yet he responded and acted upon the message, irrespective of where it came from, truly living up to the IAS motto taught at Mussoorie.

As Ernest Hemingway once said, “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another." There can be no doubt that Mohapatra led a distinguished life. These are the author’s personal views.

Rai Mahimapat Ray is an Indian Administrative Service officer serving in the ministry of finance.

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Published: 22 Jun 2021, 10:37 PM IST
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