“Who was the first Indian woman to be selected for the IAS?”, the baritone voice of Amitabh Bachchan echoed in millions of homes, in one of the episodes of ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’. And then the hearts of lakhs of Malayalis and women activists skipped a beat because it was an important moment for them. Then their hearts and faces pulsated with pride as Bachchan said, “It is Anna Rajam Malhotra (nee George).”
Most Indians had heard about India’s first female IPS officer, the irrepressible Kiran Bedi, but few knew that the first woman to be selected by the UPSC for the IAS belonged to Niranam, a small village on the edges of the backwaters of Kerala. Anna was born in Ernakulam on July 17, 1927.
Those were the days when, even in a “progressive” state like Kerala, women stayed indoors and didn’t get into any service. But Anna fought gender bias, stood her ground, went on to become India’s first female IAS officer, created history and rewrote the rules. She was also the first woman to hold a secretarial post in the Central government. She grew up in Calicut and completed her intermediate education from Providence Women’s College. After earning a BA from Calicut’s Malabar Christian College, she moved to Madras where she obtained her Masters in English Literature. Her family was against her joining this male-only profession yet she went ahead and surprised everyone with remarkable marks.
In 1950, Anna passed the civil services examination and qualified for the interview round. In 1951, when she appeared for the next round, she was discouraged from joining the Indian Administrative Service by the board which interviewed her. Instead, the Indian Foreign Service was offered to her as it was “suitable for women.” Anna was determined to get the post her rank deserved, convincingly argued her case, stood her ground, chose Madras cadre and picked up her rank. Her appointment order had these lines: “In the event of marriage your service will be terminated”. But after a couple of years, the rules were changed. This was one government order that had not only changed her life, but millions of women who had joined government service.
Posted to Madras, Chief Minister C Rajagopalachari was against women entering public service and not keen to post the new recruit in the field. Being the conservative type, he thought that she would be unable to handle law and order situations. Therefore, instead of the charge of a district sub collector, he offered Anna a post in the secretariat. But Anna knew that she was at par with her male counterparts. Once again she fought for a chance to prove herself, arguing that she was equally competent to men in handling any law and order situation.
Eventually, she was posted as sub collector in the Hosur district, becoming the first woman in such a position. After some years of service, Anna learnt that Rajagopalachari had appreciated her work in an official report and, at a public meeting even mentioned her as an example of progressive women! Over the years, Anna served under seven chief ministers.
At the Centre, it was with Indira Gandhi, but her service was brief but impressive. Given the responsibility of agricultural inputs, she had to accompany Indiraji on an eight-state tour, giving information about declining food production. 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 bid her time to finally marry her colleague and batch mate RN Malhotra who became the RBI governor in 1985.
For her it was worth waiting for a man in whom she found exceptional humane qualities. Malhotra had earlier served as the Finance Secretary when Indira Gandhi was the PM and was also posted as India’s Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington. 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. The greenfield port of Nhava Sheva opened in May 1989 and a year later, Anna was awarded the Padma Bhushan. She breathed her last on Monday, September 17, 2018, in Mumbai, at the ripe old age of 91.