What the modern, developed Tamil Nadu of today owes to K Kamaraj (2024)

Kumaraswami Kamaraj served as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu — Madras State, as it was then called — for nine-and-a-half years, from April 13, 1954 to October 2, 1963. That the date of his demitting office and passing away (on October 2, 1975) coincided with Gandhi Jayanti perhaps encapsulates the personality of this man who truly “served” as CM of the state.

Kamaraj had no “parivar”, apart from his widowed mother Sivagami Ammal, who continued to stay in their hometown of Virudhunagar even after he became CM. An oft-told story recounts him visiting her and seeing a pipeline with a tap installed at their modest home by overenthusiastic officials. Sivagami Ammal, like most others in Virudhunagar, used to collect water in a pot from a theru kuzhai or street pipe. A furious Kamaraj ordered the disconnection of the line. The municipality’s job was to provide public, not private, water connections — and Kamaraj was clear that his family wasn’t entitled to any special privilege.

Another story is of him going to Courtallam and deciding to bathe in the famous waterfalls there. Kamaraj went with two constables and an inspector, who had already cleared all other visitors out of the place. Noticing the large number of people being forced to stand outside, Kamaraj asked the inspector to allow them in and attend to his work at the police station. The idea of having the Courtallam Falls all to himself and making others wait till he had had enough was repugnant to him.

Sensitive and sensible governance

But Kamaraj embodied not just personal integrity and simplicity in public life. What also stood out were his common sense and concern for people’s welfare, amply reflected in his governance approach.

Once, he was given a file to select five candidates for admission to the government medical colleges under a special CM quota. He returned the file within a couple of hours to the then-chief secretary’s astonishment. When the latter asked him how he had chosen the five names so fast, Kamaraj replied that he initially looked for the parents’ signatures in the applications. He then selected the first five candidates only from the applications that had thumb impressions instead of signatures — knowing that these applicants represented the first generation to receive education and were, therefore, deserving of admission.

On another occasion, a file was presented to him, seeking budget approval for a foreign tour by officials to “study” town planning in the US. Kamaraj’s response was that the officials concerned should first go to Madurai. He wanted them to study how that city was built during the 13th and 14th centuries by the great Pandyan kings, with the Meenakshi Temple at the centre and all the streets radiating from it. For him, the temple town offered more valuable lessons than New York or Chicago.

A model of integrity

Kamaraj ran a tight administration to ensure that public money was well spent. There were just eight ministers, including himself, in each of his three terms. They were all people of impeccable integrity and competence. Kamaraj barely had Rs 200 at the end of his life. K Kakkan, who held the Agriculture and Works portfolios under him, lived in a rented house, travelled only by bus and died in the veranda of a government hospital in Madurai where he was admitted.


Kamaraj’s Cabinet also included the likes of R Venkataraman, C Subramaniam and M Bhaktavatsalam. Venkataraman went on to be President of India, Subramaniam the Union Food and Agriculture Minister (without whom the country would not have had a Green Revolution) and Bhaktavatsalam the CM who succeeded Kamaraj.

Subramaniam was, incidentally, a protégé of Kamaraj’s arch rival C Rajagopalachari. But that didn’t stop Kamaraj from inducting Subramaniam as Finance Minister in his Cabinet.

Building modern Tamil Nadu

There is another incident that points to him putting the interests of Tamil Nadu above everything else. Once when a central team came to survey potential sites for establishing a boiler plant of Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL), its members weren’t happy with the places shown to them by local officials. They wanted a location that had enough water, was near a railway line and not far from a city, where the families of employees could live. The team had practically decided to leave when Kamaraj suggested a place — Thiruverumbur, on the outskirts of Tiruchirappalli — that fulfilled all the requirements. The BHEL factory complex finally came up there. Kamaraj could well have insisted that the prestigious project come up in Virudhunagar or Madurai!

It wasn’t BHEL alone. A host of other public sector undertakings — the Integral Coach Factory at Perambur, Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi, Neyveli Lignite Corporation, Hindustan Photo Films at Ooty and even IIT Madras — were founded during his tenure. The industrial estates of Guindy, Ambattur and Tiruvottiyur near Chennai — where TVS, MRF, TI Cycles, Ashok Leyland, Enfield India and other big private corporations set up plants — were started or conceived when he was CM. Kamaraj couldn’t have had a better Minister of Industries than Venkataraman and a Finance Minister like Subramaniam. It was teamwork at its best.


The Kamaraj rule also saw 13 major irrigation dam projects being built — including Lower Bhavani, Vaigai, Parambikulam, Krishnagiri and Sathanur. No less were the investments in the social sectors. During his time, Tamil Nadu’s literacy rate rose from just about 7 per cent to 37 per cent. The nationwide midday meal scheme for schoolchildren was introduced first in Tamil Nadu by Kamaraj’s government in 1960. He, in turn, got the idea from his own Nadar community, which had initiated such a programme to boost enrollment at its Kshatriya Vidhyasala school in Virudhunagar.

A legacy to remember

As irony would have it, Kamaraj and Bhaktavatsalam both lost the 1967 Madras State Assembly elections from their respective Virudhunagar and Sriperumbudur constituencies. Subramaniam also suffered defeat from his Gobichettipalayam Lok Sabha seat.

But the deeds of great men are remembered even after their time. The foundations of what Tamil Nadu is today were laid by Kamaraj, Venkataraman and Subramaniam. And they cannot be forgotten.

The writer is chairman of the Chennai-based Hatsun Agro Product Ltd

What the modern, developed Tamil Nadu of today owes to K Kamaraj (2024)


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