Close Encounters with Al-Seshan: Tribute to the Man Who made Elections Free and Fair

TN-seshan-_16e58b8495a_largeWe who worked at the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) were lucky. The list of luminaries with whom we had the opportunity to interact was beyond belief.

Mr. TN Seshan was one of them. During his stint as Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, he was on our Governing Board, as CEE was a Centre of Excellence under the Ministry. Apart from that, since CEE was part of Nehru Foundation for Development founded by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai (whom Mr. Seshan counted as a guru), he took interest in the institution beyond his term also.

When he was on the Board, he made it a point to visit CEE whenever he was in Ahmedabad. And review the programs. He could pick holes in any presentation in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, and ask the most unanswerable questions. And his questions were certainly not put gently! While it was traumatic, when we dried our tears and reflected back on the experience, what he pointed out were indeed basic shortcomings in the program design or implementation.

All of us at CEE used to get all primed in the weeks preceding The Visit. We tried to ensure that everything was in order, but sure enough his perfectionist eye would catch just that smallest detail that we had overlooked. And someone had better have had a convincing answer for that! As Mamata remembers: “My personal Encounter with Mr Seshan was when I had to present some parts of a compilation of what was, in future, to become a publication titled ‘Essential Learnings in Environmental Education’. As someone who was still very new and untutored in the subject, this was an absolute trial by fire. Mr Seshan ruthlessly ripped apart every sentence, and reduced me to tears in front of the entire gathering of CEE! In the many years that followed, the Day that Mr Seshan Made Mamata Cry, became one of the memorable milestones in the institutional, and my personal history! As I grew older, and perhaps a little bit wiser, and Mr Seshan became a national icon, every time he was in the news, I remembered with greatest respect how he ingrained in me the importance of working towards ‘excellence’ in whatever one did”.

During his tenure as Secretary Environment, he gave CEE the task of doing a review of the state of Environment Education in the country. And a ridiculous deadline. In those unimaginable days before internet and Google and emails, we set about physically gathering reports, syllabi, textbooks from each state and UT. Almost 30 people worked day and night for about 20 days trying to make sense of the mounds of material. And then the day of the first presentation was upon us! Our director, Kartikeya Sarabhai and a small team of us were to take the 8 a.m. flight to Delhi. We were in the office till 4.30 a.m. putting the report together. While we went home for a quick shower, a team continued work printing and photocopying the report. We and the reports just made it onto the flight!

The meeting was set for 11 or 11.30 in the morning. It was a large Board room where about a dozen officials and our team were gathered. We had about 3-4 copies of the report. We put one at the head of the table where Mr. Seshan would sit. And waited, with butterflies in our tummies. He walked in almost on time; gave us barely a look of acknowledgement, picked up the report and rifled through it. For exactly about 7 minutes. And then tore us and the report to shreds! He started with the shortcomings in the framework that we had created for the analysis, the data gaps, the facets we had not even tried to look at, etc. etc. The meeting lasted about 15 minutes. He spoke in a flow for the latter 8 minutes, tossed the report back on the table, and told his office to fix another date for the next presentation the following week.

It was a learning like no other! We had worked on the report for days, but he was able to get a better perspective in 7 minutes!

The story had a fairly happy ending in that we completely re-thought our approach, and worked on the report over the next month, with interim presentations. The report became a baseline for our work on Environmental Education, and definitely impacted subsequent policy directions.

I had the chance to interact with Mr. Seshan on many occasions, including teaching him how to use the new Apple Computers, a big novelty at that time! He would often call us home for meetings early in the mornings, and his gracious wife would give us wonderful coffee. After the official work, over the coffee, he was not averse to chatting about this and that, including Mamata Kulkarni and Shilpa Shetty!

It is indeed a privilege to have seen Mr. Seshan in action, and worked with him in a small way. When media referred to him as Al-Seshan, he would joke that Bulldog might be more appropriate than Alsatian! Well, from my memory of him, his bark and his bite were both scary. But they did set India’s democracy on a solid footing!

–Meena