The Leadership Review Team

SR Rao and Transformation of a Post-Plague Surat

The Leadership Review Team

SR Rao

In September 1994, a pneumonic plague had broken out in Surat, an important trading city in western India. Such was the extent of the damage that it led to a mass exodus of people and left the city in ruins. The plague in Surat had a far reaching effect on India’s image internationally, and made a dent on tourism revenues and exports. Though the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) managed to contain the plague, at a great cost, Surat was still in dire straits.

It was in this desperate condition, after nearly one year of the outbreak of the plague in May 1995, that the then government sent SR Rao to handle the situation and prevent recurrence of the disease and save India’s face. The government’s vision, if there was any, in posting Rao was perhaps short-term; to improve the city cosmetically and make it ready to be presented under the media spotlight on the occasion of the epidemic’s first anniversary. But SR Rao, a seemingly ordinary IAS officer at first, was not a man of short-term vision.

Enters SR Rao

Suryadevara Ramachandra Rao, a Gujarat cadre IAS officer of 1978 batch, was posted as the municipal commissioner of Surat in May 1995. The posting in Surat was not SR Rao’s first stint as a municipal commissioner. Back in 1987, he was the municipal commissioner of Rajkot, and during that stint, he had shown that he was not a person of mere rhetoric but a taskmaster. In just six months, he had managed to lay a 63km water pipeline to Rajkot which otherwise might have taken years with political, financial and bureaucratic tangles.

But Surat was much bigger a challenge. The Indian National Trust for Architectural and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), conducted a survey in November 1994, and Surat had one of the lowest scores in hygiene and was labelled as one of the filthiest cities in India. The low ranking from INTACH came barely three months after the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) had spent resources in scrubbing up the city in the aftermath of the plague. The roads were in a perennial mess of garbage and squalor. The city’s drainage system, with open sewers, was in shambles. Water borne diseases like malaria, gastroenteritis, cholera, dengue and hepatitis were regular occurrences during peak monsoon season. According to reports in the early 1990s, out of the total percentage of people dying from malaria in Gujarat, nearly 50% were from Surat. The situation was especially grim in the slums where 40% of the population of Surat lived.

Identifies the Right Problem

While Rao knew that Surat was a disaster posting, he was smart enough not to confuse the problem with its symptoms; he did not fall for the temptation to bring in one of the best practices from around the globe to rid the streets of filth. He understood that the context was far from ordinary, and it was not possible for him to identify one correct solution as there were too many variables involved, and there was no easy way to establish a cause and effect relationship between them.

But soon enough, he found himself inundated with huge stacks of files and could clearly see that civil body’s efficiency was stifled by their weight. Because that was the only way bureaucracy worked; by passing around files from one department to another, sluggishly climbing up to top bosses of the civic body. And that is why the streets in Surat were littered with filth – the measures to clean them were still stuck in these files.

While he could see the problem in civil efficiency, he still needed to see what was going on the streets and what the citizens had to say.

Probes Further

To probe further, he set the big bundles of government files aside and started making rounds of the city. During the initial months of his tenure, Rao moved around the streets of Surat on foot, surveying the city first-hand. In these early morning field trips, he interacted with the citizens and acquainted himself with their problems. He also talked to employees of Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC), at all hierarchical levels, to learn about their perception of what was broken.

After rigorous probing, he figured that although the core problem in Surat was the civil body’s inefficiency, it was arising from multiple issues like lack of connect with the citizens, power politics of departmental silos, citizen apathy, corruption, lack of funds, and the catch-22 situation of  bringing sewer lines to slums.

Improves the Situation

Out of all these issues identified, he decided to first focus on those which would yield immediate improvement in the situation.

Solution I – AC to DC

Sitting cooped up within the four walls of the office, most officers of the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) were detached from what was happening in the streets. Their understanding of civic issues was a distant one that would often give an impression of apathy.

In order to bridge the gap between the citizens and the administrators, SR Rao started the ‘AC to DC’ (from Air-Conditioned offices to Daily Chores on field) rule in SMC. Under this rule, he exhorted the officers under him to spend five hours on the streets of Surat to supervise the sweepers and cleaners. For 365 days of the year, from 7.00 am to 3.00 pm, all the officers of SMC including Rao would be on the field. In order to make sure the rule was followed by every officer, he ordered that all the ACs in all the offices to be shut till three in the afternoon. With this operation, Rao also ensured that there was a constant face-to-face interaction between grass-root level employees of SMC, like the sweepers and cleaners, and the higher-level officers.

During the implementation of the AC to DC rule, many officers resisted the change by saying they had to stay in office to meet people. However, Rao repudiated their claims by stating that citizens came to the municipality office with their complaints because the officers were not doing their work efficiently. And that the officers will be more effective if they worked on field rather than passing around files within the glass walls of their office.

Solution II – Bringing Empowerment and Accountability

Now, even when the officers were on the streets in complete connect with the issues of their municipality, concrete steps to resolve these issues were still missing. In the SMC, there was no synchronisation and cooperation between various departments, and the power plays between departmental heads disrupted efficiency. This made it very difficult to take any concrete action to resolve the civic issues.

SR Rao, with a Masters in applied psychology from Vishakhapatnam University, saw the solution in tearing the fiefdoms and busting the silos. He divided Surat into six zones and assigned separate commissioners to each zone. All the commissioners, who were formerly department heads, were given administrative as well as financial powers of the municipal commissioner. By delegating responsibility, he made them accountable for their own zones and made them deliver concrete results. Rao held daily review meetings where the zonal commissioners interacted, and became aware of the similar problems they faced in their respective zones and had to cooperate with each other. All the decisions, including the allocation of resources, were made in these meetings.

And the driving of empowerment and accountability did not stop at the top. He also brought into effect a road sweeping programme, where one karamchari (worker) was appointed for every 300-700m of road, and made that stretch of road his jilla or beat. The karamcharis were given the responsibility of ensuring that no bin overflowed with garbage within their beat. At the same time, they were even given the power of slapping fines on defaulters like restaurant owners and shopkeepers whose premises were filthy.

Solution III – Weeding Out Corruption and Incompetence

His weapon of choice against corruption and incompetence was transparency. Citizens were provided a direct phone line to him and he was also reachable on the streets. He introduced citizen complaints redressal system which was tracked online and reviewed in every daily review meeting. According to SMC records, during the first year of Rao’s tenure, more than 90,000 complaints were filed and addressed within deadlines. During the same time, disciplinary action was taken against at least 1200 employees of SMC; the reasons varied from non-performance to bribe-taking.

Establishes Control

Once he set the immediate affairs at Surat Municipal Corporation in order, he focused on issues which needed long term solutions.

Solution I – Surat First Campaign

While he was able to set the Surat Municipal Corporation in order, the conditions were still not improving significantly as citizens continued to litter the streets.

To solve this problem of citizen apathy, SR Rao launched the Surat First Campaign. He started by first creating awareness about cleanliness and methods for neatly disposing off waste. The next step was issuing guidelines for all eateries and other commercial establishments to use a dustbin and not litter. Finally, heavy fines were levied on those who did not abide by the guidelines.

This approach started working, and in some time, with his stringent moral authority, sufficiently lauded by the local media, inspired the citizens of Surat to become active participants in the upkeep of their city. Such was the influence of his transparent and high moral standards of working that many came forward to bring down their own illegal encroachments, including religious structures, when he launched a campaign against illegal construction.

Two years after Rao took over – the INTACH survey of 1997 rated Surat as the second cleanest city in India (one place behind Chandigarh).

Solution II – A New Approach to Revenue Collection

The changes that Rao proposed and brought into effect needed additional finances. But when he requested corporators of the city to increase taxes, his proposal was turned down.

On one hand he plugged in the loopholes in octroi collections, computerised accounts, and brought in the profit center approach to ensure efficiency in revenue collection and service delivery. And on the other, he redefined the way property tax was collected.

Since property tax was collected every four years, there was no constant influx of capital to the civic body’s coffers. To remedy this, Rao proposed collection of taxes annually. Again, the corporators created a roadblock for him. According to them, the taxes were to be collected every four years and they opposed any change in that rule. Not one to bow down easily, Rao divided the city in four zones and assessed tax from one zone every year. Thus, he ensured that the SMC was getting sufficient finance annually, and at the same time he was fulfilling the corporators’ requirement of assessing tax only once in four years.

Under SR Rao’s leadership, the SMC’s revenue increased by nearly 54% from Rs 164.7 crore in the previous year to Rs. 253 crore. Collections from octroi jumped to 19%, and efficiency of property tax collection increased to 80% from a mere 30%.

Solution III: Improving the Living Conditions in the Slums

The problem of water logging was at its worst in the slums of Surat where it was virtually impossible to provide sewerage and drainage facilities, for their lanes were extremely narrow.

Knowing that the only way a sewer line could be extended to the slums, was for slum residents to demolish some part of their own houses. SR Rao approached some of the community leaders in the slums. To the surprise of many, compelled by the moral authority of SR Rao and convinced of his intentions to help, residents of Surat slums demolished parts of their own houses to help SMC widen the lanes and lay sewer lines.

By the end of Rao’s tenure, over 82% of Surat’s slums had high level of sanitation and hygiene. According to official reports, malaria deaths in Surat came down from 22,000 in 1994 to 496 in 1997, and zero in 2002.

P.S. – Surat continues to remain one of the cleanest cities in India because SR Rao put in place good systems to institutionalise the improvements he brought.

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