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Ep 7: Trailblazer - Santha Sheela Nair, Retired IAS Officer, India

Updated: Jul 22


Hello, Sirisha here! Today's guest interview is with Santha Sheela Nair, a retired IAS Officer from India. Join me as we discuss leadership, working for the government, driving social change, and impacting millions of lives through public service. Listen to the podcast to get insight into the Indian administrative service (IAS), Leadership, Management, Managing through change, Water resource management, Rain harvesting, Zero waste, and Alternative foods. Come, let's #paintlifetogether!

Follow us on Instagram @womencareerandlife and don't forget to listen & subscribe to the podcast here!

Ms Santha Sheela Nair is a Former IAS officer from the 1973 batch in India. She was posted as the first woman district collector of Trichy and retired as secretary to the Govt. of India. She has had a long and illustrious career spanning 50 years of service to her country. She served as the Vice Chairman of the State planning commission and was called after retirement to serve in the Chief Minister’s office.

Ms Sheela was posted as a special officer during the 2004 Tsunami emergency and helped shift a large number of families to temporary shelters and helped in restoration and rehabilitation. She has been a champion of sustainability and was instrumental in making rainwater harvesting a legal requirement in the state of Tamil Nadu. This program was successfully implemented impacting a population of 65 million, averting the Chennai water crisis in the 2000s.

Below is a transcript of the episode, slightly modified for reading.


[00:51] - Santha Sheela Nair's... career in the IAS [Jump to section]

[07:27] - Performance & Management advice [Jump to section]

[10:14] - Managing through change [Jump to section]

[14:00] - Note to your 21-year-old self... [Jump to section]

Food for thought. Episode takeaways [Jump to section]


Santha Sheela Nair's... career in the IAS [00:51]

Sirisha: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today's guest episode, I have a very special guest with me, Miss Shanta Sheila Nair. She's an officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) from the 1973 batch and has had a long and illustrious career in government services in India and had a wide-ranging impact. What you will find and discover, as you listen to her conversation, is she's worked on issues and challenges that we talk about today, 15 to 20 years before they became the items of today. One of Miss Sheela's significant accomplishments is implementing the rain harvesting program in the state of Tamil Nadu in India, with a population of over 65 million. It is three times the population of New York City. This implementation averted the Chennai water crisis in the early 2000s. I am really excited to have you today. Thank you for joining us. To start off, can you give us a background of some of the work you did in your administrative services for the last many years?

Sheela: My work was my passion. In fact, I was really happy to do the things that I was doing and very happy that somebody paid me for it. I loved my work hugely and I knew that when I retired, I was going to have a huge problem because I would no more have the infrastructure and the work and the ecosystem in which I enjoyed myself so hugely. So during the course of my career, the IAS it is the kind of job where you switch sectors quite frequently, and from being a district magistrate in charge of law and order and the police and overall development of a district to various things. From my first posting in Dindigul, where I was the sub-divisional magistrate and taking care of the entire administration, you know, you're the government's representative in the division, my next posting was MD of the poultry Development Corporation.

So I had to switch from being you know, a person in authority to being a salesman or a saleswoman for chicken and it was a huge change, but I enjoyed it. I was there for three years and I'm very happy to say that you know, the lot of work that we did at that time. At that time Tamil Nadu was deficits in poultry and poultry products, and we used to get most of our eggs and chicken from Kerala, but today Tamil Nadu is the biggest producer of poultry in India. You know, we went on to commercial poultry farming and so on. But the thing is, you know that it was such a challenge to work in a sector, so totally different from the one that you handled a few months ago, when I was in poultry, I was passionate about poultry, people would see me off the road and say, Oh, you're the 'chicken lady.'

38 years in active service and after that, again, another seven years after retirement, there were two or three areas which I developed a permanent commitment to. One was the whole question of water management, and water resource management. The management of the demand of water more than the management of the supply of water, you know, which is the focus that I had taken up. I used to be the Managing Director and Chairman of the city water supply utility. I was also the Secretary in charge of water supply both in the central government and in the state government. I had opportunities to work in the sector a lot and that's how I gained my expertise in that area. Post-retirement also, I have been continuing to be involved in all aspects of water management, particularly rainwater harvesting, which I had the honour and privilege of drafting a law making it mandatory for the entire state to have rainwater harvesting structures in all their buildings and promoting rainwater harvesting across the state and making it a model for other states. I got invited all over the world to talk about it. So I became from the chicken lady of many years ago, I became the water woman, then looking at alternative nutritious foods. I was in part of my career jointly. between the agriculture ministry in government of India in Delhi had occasion to see food production at a national scale. I found that even at that time, that was more than 20 years ago, but recently I zoomed in on it. Even at that time, it bothered me that Paddy and the wheat were the cereals that were being promoted and there seemed to be a politics of grains. There were other grains like Jowar, Bajra millet, different types of millet so foxtail millet, barnyard millet, these are the English names. In Tamil they are kuthiravali, varagu, saamai, thinai, kambu, all these bills were the traditional foods of our people. I think I've been talking too much, maybe you need to ask me a question.

So from the chicken lady of many years ago, I became the water woman.

Sirisha: It's very fascinating. You have done so many different things but they all intersect and have an underlying theme. Though, you're talking about food you're connecting the other parts, can the environment, the populace support itself, be self-sustained and empower them to earn a living?

Sheela: The other areas, it's also again, related. I was municipal commissioner of Chennai municipality for four years. At that time, my biggest worry is solid waste, solid waste management, the management of garbage. Another area that I worked on in the field, business of zero waste, how can we segregate our waste, and we use almost everything that we put as waste as a resource. I'm very happy that you know, I'm only telling you all the good things that have happened. One of the private institutions, a university called SRM university, invited me recently to launch a business management program in solid waste management, which is huge because it's the first time it's been taken to that level.

Sirisha: Yeah, I was watching this documentary, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the top themes was sanitation, especially in Africa. Very similar to what you said, you know, conserving the water and having areas where they can sustain it. Want to take a step back, I know you did a lot of different things, you moved your post every three, four years. I wanted to talk about it from that standpoint, how did you make the transitions and make the adjustments, what would you suggest for someone who has to move?

Performance & Management advice [07:27]

Sheela: Management irrespective of what you are managing, follows certain principles, whether it's government management or private management. Even in the corporate world, when you start off in some area, in some specialized area, Production Manager, Marketing Manager or something or the other, and then you become a General Manager, where you take care of everything because you have learned the skills of management while managing one particular product. and that you're good at it. You can manage a variety of products all together at the same time and then you become a CEO, and then you manage the whole company, including the accounts and everything and you're right on top there. This is a skill which you acquire by doing whatever job you're doing.

When a competence that you get in delivering the goods making sure that you are the best person on the job, then you can be the best person on the job irrespective of what the job is, you could be the President of the United States you could be director from NASA. You will still do a good job irrespective of whether you're in the IAS or in some other area, general management and management of affairs of a variety of sectors. Ultimately, you want to become the CEO, you want to become the head of the government, whatever, you have to manage several sectors, then you are switching jobs. That was your question to me if you're switching jobs from one place to another, how do you manage because the skills of management irrespective of what the sector is are the same, and you improve. As you go along, you manage different sectors, you learn different skills, there will be sector-specific requirements, which you pick up very quickly. Once you are a blotting paper, taking in these things, and you have been used to being a blotting paper, taking these things, wherever you go, within two to three months, your antennas are so well tuned, you do pick up very quickly. Because you are in a responsible position, you are in a managerial position, people are looking up to you, you can't let them down, you can't let yourself down, you can't let your bosses down. So you know, you just perform, we just perform that's all. If you have the basic skills, you will get there and you will do well.

Be the best person on the job irrespective of what the job is.

Sirisha: Yeah, I think that's really good advice, right, doing the best that you can and absorption and learning, that really makes a lot of this sense. The other part is maybe touch on the same skills or maybe a little bit different. So I know you worked in senior government, you probably met people with different viewpoints, political strategy, whatever. So how do you communicate and converse and get them sometimes to see the vision that needs to be seen, and build those relationships?

Managing through change [10:14]

Sheela: Top executive keeps changing, you have to gear yourself or pitch yourself, depending on the change in management of the changing board of directors, you know, there's suddenly change in the policy of the corporate sector. How do you respond to that? And how do you see my basic point was that as a civil servant, my job was to be able to, give some advice, and to see whether we can, direct policy in some way. But the political boss was my boss, and I accepted that as my boss. If they didn't agree, they had a different point of view and they felt that that was superior and had to be done, then I just did it, it was my job. My job was given to me, I have done my bit in trying to convey to you what should be done, etc. But once a decision is taken, and you are an executive, then your responsibility to yourself and to your job and your system is to execute it, and to execute it well as if you believe in it. and you must do your best to see that it works. At that time, you can't work on personal egos, "that this is what I said, and they never listen to me. So I'm not going to do it, I'm going to make it fail." and that's the kind of attitude which I think, because your idea might have also failed, you don't know. Somebody is your boss, then he has the people's mandate. If he is asking you to do something, when you do it, unless it is illegal or something to be a good leader, you have to learn to demand respect and also to accept responsibility, because that is what has to be done. It should be done with all sincerity of purpose and that makes you a more valuable team player. You know your bosses also see that saying, you know who can be relied on, you would do that with your own subordinates, you think of yourself in that position where you tell your subordinates, somebody working with you and she or he says no, I don't agree with you. No, I, maybe you have a different point of view, this is what I won't do it and if he or she doesn't do it, what do you think of him? And what do you think of a person who goes ahead and does what you want him to do? You know, you build up a certain reputation, loyalty, commitment to a job on hand, and the ability to deliver in spite of you not necessarily approving of it in the first place. So these different personalities, you handle that way. Because they may have in fact, I have had to deal with, governments who where one government you are serving, as the next government is totally opposed to the previous government.

To be a good leader, you have to learn to demand respect and also to accept responsibility

Sirisha: I'd like what you said when you said your idea may also have failed. I think that's what we fail to realize, right? We always think our ideas are going to work and that person may or may not know what they're talking about, but it's quite possible that your own ideas may not be successful.

Sheela: That, you know, your idea may fail and you don't have anybody to answer to but those people have many people to answer to if your idea fails. And finally, it's their decision and you are a paid civil servant, you are a paid employee and you will do what you are expected to do. From your subordinates, also from people who are working, your junior colleagues, your junior staff, what would you expect them to do, the same thing you respect somebody who stands up and speaks for himself. And maybe it gives you some ideas and you respect that you encourage that but at the same time, when a decision is taken, then there are no holds barred. You know, you just go ahead and do it.

Your idea may fail and you don't have anybody to answer to but those people have many people to answer to if your idea fails.
When a decision is taken, then there are no holds barred. You know, you just go ahead and do it.

Note to your 21-year-old self... [14:00]

Sirisha: Right, very true. So this is a question we ask all our guests if you were to write a letter to your 21-year-old self, what advice or encouragement would you have would you give them?

Sheela: I would say, don't be disappointed. However, there is always another day and at 21, you have got a long way to go. And by the time you're 70, you'd have seen many days, as I have seen if today seems like it's impossible, and it's terrible and awful. It's a dark day, there's always sunshine ahead, you can be sure of that. It can't be night all the time, has to be sunshine after some time, there's a cycle in all these things. Nothing is ever on top all the time, nor is anything at the bottom all the time. So don't ever be disappointed. Every experience is worth learning from, you may have some regrets, and you may brood over it. Go ahead and bawl and brood over it and get it out of your system. Don't get bogged down by it. Don't let it defeat you. Even the worst of the darkest days will pass over to the single one sentence I will say don't be disappointed, there's always sunshine ahead.

I will say don't be disappointed, there's always sunshine ahead.

Sirisha: That's a very good, very hopeful message, right for people as they go through challenges.

Sheela: Thank you for prodding me and provoking me to say more than I intended to

Sirisha: First I want to say thank you. Thank you for such a pleasure to talk to you, just to hear your experiences.

Food for thought. Episode takeaways

Here is today's food for thought,

  • Be the best person on the job irrespective of what the job is.

  • To be a good leader, you have to learn to demand respect and also to accept responsibility.

  • Your idea may fail and you don't have anybody to answer to but those people have many people to answer to if your idea fails.

  • When a decision is taken, then there are no holds barred. You know, you just go ahead and do it.

  • I will say don't be disappointed, there's always sunshine ahead.

Resources Mentioned:

  • Indian Administrative Service | Indian Administrative Service

  • Water harvesting | Chennai Metro Water Harvesting

  • Millets | Alternative Food Source- International year of Millets

  • UN | 2023 International year of Millets

  • MBA | MBA, Waste Management & Social Entrepreneurship, SRM University

Guest: Santha Sheela Nair

Host: Sirisha

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