While finishing his breakfast with his family at Mahabalipuram, the then Collector of Cuddalore had not the faintest inkling that his plate would be full again. Or that he would almost die. But the giant waves of 2004 and the swirling waters upto his shoulders were no match for his steely resolve to rescue people in danger. Drenched to the bone, Gagandeep Singh Bedi and his wife Dr. Jaideep, in true ‘thy need is greater than mine’ spirit, saved quite a few residents hit by the tsunami. The sight of the district collector in the thick of action, wading through almost neck deep water was an enduring image of the tsunami.
The lesson learnt in disaster management by the rest of India from Tamil Nadu – of having key officials leading by example and from the front, emanated, after all, from a family of academicians. Bedi’s father Dr.Tarlochan Singh Bedi was the Principal of a government college in Punjab and his mother Mrs. Darshan Kaur Bedi was also an esteemed Professor. And this Gold Medallist in Electronics and Electrical Engineering too served as a lecturer for a while before joining the Indian Engineering Service, attached to the Signals & Telecom Division of the Railways in 1991. But from his school days in Faridkot, a young Bedi used to observe “how a Deputy Commissioner could influence development of a district. Many of my college mates are CEOs of companies in India and abroad. So it was never about money. I was motivated by what the civil services could do.” So he appeared for the exam and got into the IAS in 1993 with an All India 20th Rank and adjudged the ‘Best Allrounder’ of his batch.
Throughout his 24 year stint in the IAS, Bedi has always strived to be “above politics.” In politically surcharged Tamil Nadu, where it is easy to get branded or be seen as owing allegiance to the DMK or AIADMK, this officer has only been “fiercely loyal to duty.”
From his early career in the State, as Sub Collector of Sivakasi and Cheranmahadevi, Additional Collector (Development) of Cuddalore to his tenure as Collector of Kanyakumari and Cuddalore, Bedi has won the hearts of people and awards as well. In Kanyakumari, it was the Chief Minister’s Green Award for his Anti-Plastic Drive. As the Commissioner of the Madurai Corporation, Bedi completed the major Ring Road Project. “We developed the model of going public with an infrastructure project. It was fully subscribed. We repaid the World Bank loan with public bonds. This became a topic for a lecture at the IAS Academy.” In Cuddalore, another Green Award fell into his lap, along with one for the ‘Best Redressal of Public Grievances’.
But the highlight of his innings will always be his handling of the tsunami in Cuddalore. It’s hard not to go back to that fateful day in 2004 that shattered the peace of Christmas. By the time Bedi reached his headquarters, it was around noon with three to four hundred bodies piled up. Without a wink of sleep for 48 hours, he focussed on providing food and drinking water to the survivors and got hospitals to handle the mounting numbers – of the injured and the dead. “Given the death toll, the week after was also about convincing people to go in for mass burial instead of cremation which would have been time consuming.” Relief Camps and temporary shelters were set up, which soon gave way to permanent homes. The accent was on restoring livelihood. Within six months, fishing resumed. This was an uphill task as fishermen who had worshipped the sea found it difficult to accept that it could turn tormentor. After building new boats, a housing colony was constructed, with women rehabilitated and children given new play parks on the beaches.
Even before the ravaged district could bounce back fully, came another blow from Mother Nature. This time it was the floods of 2005, leaving almost two thirds of Cuddalore – Chidambaram under water. With a jeep, lorry and two boats at his disposal, Bedi, who knew the topography of the area like the back of his hand, swung into action, joined by the then Deputy Inspector General of Police Sanjay Arora. “There were snakes, wires hanging, women and children atop a bridge. We waded through the water and ensured that women and children were first evacuated. The Wallajah Tank was on the verge of being breached. By midnight, the water receded. I had to spend the night inside a bank, wearing a lungi for the first time in my life! Finally, we ourselves had to be rescued by the then Zonal Inspector General of Police S.R. Jangid.” These two rescue missions endeared Bedi to the people of Cuddalore and they came up with a demand that he be retained as the Collector for ten years! Because every dark cloud of theirs had a Gagandeep Bedi. That wish was fulfilled with Bedi, well after many promotions, being handpicked to monitor the development of Cuddalore. But that was not the only recognition. Former US President Bill Clinton who visited India, lauded the efforts as one of the ‘Best Models of Rehabilitation’. There were special pats from the then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and President Dr.A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. And invitations to deliver lectures across the globe – from the City of Bonn to Hawaii in the United States battered by Hurricane Katrina. Not to forget the NDTV Indian Of The Year Award.
From 2007, Bedi has been more or less operating from the Secretariat. A three and a half year tenure as Director of Rural Development was followed by a short stint as the Managing Director of the TWAD Board. In 2011, he became one of the youngest Secretaries and was given the Animal Husbandry, Dairy & Fisheries Departments. His free distribution of milch cows won the Chief Minister’s ‘Best Practice’ award. The poultry of Namakkal was spread across poorer belts of Villupuram and Perambalur as a boost to their economy. Postings as Secretary – Revenue and Rural Development saw him win more awards. As an inquiry officer of the Granite & Beach Mining Scam, Bedi stood his ground.
The present role as the Secretary – Agriculture, comes with its set of challenges. Tamil Nadu’s unprecedented drought had prompted Bedi to “enlist 16 lakh farmers into the PM’s Crop Insurance Scheme bringing under its sway 30 lakh acres, resulting in a 2280 crore compensation. This is over and above the State dole of 2200 crore.” The efforts won him the Best Meritorious Service Award. What about farmers from Tamil Nadu protesting in Delhi? Bedi says their demands are not within the State’s purview as they are about interlinking rivers and waiving of loans by commercial banks.
The academic streak in the Bedi family also exists in his wife’s side. Cutting her teeth deep into research with more than 50 published articles, Dr.Jaideep Mahendra is a dentist and Professor in Meenakshi Dental College who has done her doctorate on the linkage between dental and heart disorders and post doctoral research at Michigan University. The couple have two daughters – Gurbani and Muskan Bedi, students of DAV School. Bedi’s calm demeanour can be attributed to his daily dose of walking, jogging and yoga. When he isn’t winning awards, he relishes books on Punjabi Literature and spends all the time he possibly can with his family. The secret of his occasional Colgate smile now stands revealed.
(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Commentator, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)