Most Indians have heard about India’s first female IPS officer Kiran Bedi, but few know about the first woman IAS officer of India. In an age when most Indian women didn’t even try getting into civil service, Anna Rajam Malhotra fought gender bias, stood her ground and went on to become India’s first female IAS officer. She was also the first woman to hold a secretarial post in the central government.
Here is the inspiring story of this gutsy, determined and stubbornly honest woman who didn’t let anything hold her back from succeeding in life.
Born on July 17, 1927, in Niranam village in Kerala as the daughter of Ottavelil O. A. George and Anna Paul, Anna Rajam George (née Malhotra) was the granddaughter of Malayalam author Pailo Paul. She grew up in Calicut and completed her intermediate education from Providence Women’s College. After earning a Bachelor’s degree from Calicut’s Malabar Christian College, Anna moved to Madras where she obtained her Masters in English Literature from Madras University.
In 1950, Anna decided to attempt the civil services examination and qualified for the interview round. Back then, she did not know that she was the first woman to do so. In 1951, when she appeared for the next round of the exam, she was discouraged from joining the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) by the distinguished board which interviewed her (it comprised of four ICS officers and was headed by R.N. Banerjee, the Chairman of UPSC). Instead, the Foreign Service and Central Services were offered to Anna as they were “suitable for women.”
However, Anna was determined to get the post her rank deserved. She convincingly argued her case, stood her ground, chose Madras cadre and picked up her rank. Incredibly, her appointment order had these lines: “In the event of marriage your service will be terminated”. However, after a couple of years, the rules were changed.
Posted to the state of Madras, the first Chief Minister under whom Anna worked was C. Rajagopalachari. In principle, Rajagopalachari was against women entering public service and was not keen to post the new recruit in the field. He was convinced that she would be unable to handle law and order situations, if and when they arose. So instead of the charge of a district sub collector, he offered Anna a post in the Secretariat instead.
But Anna, who had undergone training in horse riding, rifle and revolver shooting and in using magisterial powers , knew that she was at par with her male counterparts. For the second time in her fledgling career, she fought for a chance to prove herself, arguing that she was equally competent to men in handling any situation that might arise as a part of her job.
Eventually, she was posted as sub collector in the Hosur district, becoming the first woman to do so. However, gender remained an issue for some years for Anna. As a sub collector of Hosur, when she visited a village in the taluk on horseback, she was informed that the village women wanted to see her.
When Anna went to meet them, they just walked around her, looking at her and an old lady said, ‘she looks just like one of us.’ It was then that Anna realised their disappointment and knew that people expected something different from a woman who had made it as an officer.
Talking about her experience in a later interview, Anna recalls how back then most men used to apprehensive of a woman’s capability in taking decisions regarding public administration, using discretionary acumen in handling magisterial powers, of handling a lathi charge or police firing. So Anna had to prove herself time and again to stand up against gender prejudices. However, she does not hold this against the men but says it was the conservative mindset that prevailed at that time that made them react that way.
While Anna’s journey as India’s first female IAS officer brought new challenges everyday, it was rewarding as well. After a few years of her service, Anna learnt that Rajaji ( as C. Rajagopalachari was called) had appreciated her work in an official report and, at a public meeting in Trichanapalli, even mentioned her as an example of progressive women!
Even the then-UPSC Chairman commended her performance and said that it was a reason for him to recruit more women into the service. However, Anna says that her performance should not be a criterion for recruiting women candidates. Her reasoning behind this is that suppose she had failed, then this criterion would have prevented another woman from getting her chance. So, she strongly believes that women should be enrolled on merit and given a fair chance to prove their capability.
While her administrative brilliance fetched her widespread respect in the official circles, it was her thoughtfulness that endeared her deeply to the common man. For instance, early in her career, Anna had to negotiate a sensitive issue when six elephants entered a village in Hosur. Her love for the gentle giants, coming from her village roots, forbade her from issuing shooting orders for six elephants so she decided to consult her senior on how she could resolve the issue.
“Use your head, Ms. Anna,” was an unhelpful senior’s retort on requesting for advice. Not the one give to up, Anna persevered and managed to save the jumbos by using her knowledge of pachyderms and plain common sense to cleverly manoeuvre them back to the forests!
Over the years, Anna served under seven chief ministers. She worked closely with Rajiv Gandhi in the Asiad project in 1982. With Indira Gandhi, her tryst was brief but impressive. Given the responsibility of agricultural inputs, she had to accompany Ms. Gandhi on an eight-state tour, giving information about food production, which had declined. A stickler for rules and deeply committed to her duty, she undertook the tour despite a fractured ankle.
Away from the line of duty, Anna bided time to finally marry her colleague, batchmate and sweetheart, R. N. Malhotra who became the RBI governor in 1985. “It was worth waiting for,” she would say with fondness about a man in whom she found “exceptional humane qualities”. Malhotra had earlier served as the Finance Secretary when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister and was posted as India’s Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington when they married.
It was when Malhotra returned to India to take up the job of Governor of the Reserve Bank of India that Anna got her most notable assignment: building India’s first computerised container port, Nhava Sheva, in Mumbai.
By the late 1970s, concern had begun to be voiced about congestion at India’s ports and policymakers had decided it was necessary to augment handling. This meant planning and development of facilities for sea and land modes of transportation. The Bombay Port Trust, the leading port in India at that time, was in no position to do that, prompting the government to identify Nhava Sheva as the location for India’s first container port.
Anna, who had not handled such a project before, had to start from scratch in what was then marshy, salt pan land. Everyday, she would leave early from her residence on Carmichael Road in South Bombay to catch a boat at 7 am from the Gateway to set out for Nhava Sheva, then just a deserted cluster of villages. The then-Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi visited Nhava Sheva a few times while construction was under way. Thoroughly impressed with Anna’s work, the only concern he had, apparently, was the less-than-delicious food that Anna would arrange!
The greenfield port of Nhava Sheva opened in May 1989 and a year later, Anna was awarded the Padma Bhushan. However, despite her pioneering role, Anna wears her achievements lightly and warmly recalls how her finest hours as a bureaucrat were spent with villagers in rural India.
People like Anna Rajam Malhotra come along very rarely. Civil servants like her are rarer. The hard-working and stubbornly honest lady lived a life only a handful of other women of her time lived, inspiring many others to take up the challenge of civil service in the coming years. A woman who broke barriers and set examples, we salute her spirit and exemplary service to the nation.