The presence of “black clay” in the area surrounding Pondicherry was
known to workmen engaged in drilling wells as early as 1828. It was however only in 1935 that this was taken up for analysis. In 1941 Binny & Co made an attempt to check for lignite deposits in nearby Neyveli but soon gave it up for want of suitable equipment. In 1947, the Government of India sent its Geologist and Mining Engineer, HK Ghosh to sink bore holes and test the availability of lignite. Within four years Ghosh estimated that 2000 million tonnes of lignite was present in the area though the task of excavating it would be daunting owing to the presence of sub-soil water. In 1951, Paul Erryich, a mining engineer was deputed by the Bureau of Mines, Government of the United States to the Government of Madras under a technical assistance programme to study the possibility of mining the lignite. Based on the findings of Ghosh and Erryich, a high-powered committee of the Government of India recommended the setting up of a pilot quarry which was inaugurated in 1953 by Dr U Krishna Rau, Minister for Industries, Labour and Co-operation, Government of Madras. The Secretary to this department was TMS Mani ICS, the man who would make the lignite project a reality. He was designated Chief Executive, Lignite Investigations and the next year Pt. Nehru visited the quarry and in 1955 the Neyveli project was taken over by the centre.
Neyveli Lignite Corporation was set up as a private limited company on 14th November 1956, by the Government of India with the mandate to undertake mining and processing of lignite, generation and distribution of power, manufacture of fertiliser, chemicals, etc. And selected to head the new venture was TMS Mani. Born in 1908 he had been named TM Subramaniam which he shortened to TMS Mani on qualifying for the Indian Civil Service (ICS). During his years in the Government he had served in various capacities in the Madras Presidency before being posted to the Finance Department in Delhi during the Second World War. Returning from there in 1946 he took over as Commissioner of Textiles in Madras before going on to become Secretary, Health and Secretary PWD. He was known to be an upright officer who brought in his characteristic intelligence and capacity for hard work into any and every assignment that he was given. Even when he was Chief Executive of the Lignite Investigations, he had worked hard in bringing together the various ministers and bureaucrats both in Centre and State levels and had put together a very accurate estimate of the financial outlay of the project.
But most of his friends felt that transforming NLC into reality was
something that was much more than he could handle. As his son was to
write later, “there were many who doubted whether the numerous
problems would ever be solved. Many advised him to get out early,
as the problems of nature, the artesian water under the lignite
seam, the political divisions between the Central and State
Governments, and petty jealousies, would doom it to failure”.
There was a shortage of foreign exchange which delayed the project.
In addition there was a widely held body of opinion that no lignite
existed in the area and that when the excavation would be completed
and the subterranean water removed, sea water from Cuddalore would
flood the mines and submerge the entire neighbourhood. And the task
was not just a question of mining. At a total outlay of
Rs 113 Crores (in 1956) it included creation of an open casting
mining division, constructing a township, setting up the power plant,
the urea plant for fertiliser and the domestic fuel lignite
briquetting plant. Work began in May 1957 after a formal
inauguration by Pt. Nehru.
TMS Mani in his capacity as Chairman rose to the occasion and as was
his habit in all his earlier assignments studied, learnt and
understood the various aspects of setting up the Corporation.
He acquired knowledge of “hydrology, open-cast mining, modern mining
machinery, town planning, personnel management and financial
management by interacting with experts in the respective fields”.
The Neyveli Township grew up, a planned layout, under his personal
supervision. His mother-in-law was to write admiringly, “they
transformed open, barren land into gardens, tanks and buildings,
as if it was child’s play.” Housing received special attention.
All housing units were to have a plot of garden space and enough
ventilation. Wanting to be a hands-on chief, TMS Mani, who had
earlier operated from Madras and managed at the Inspection Bungalow
in Neyveli during visits soon moved home to Neyveli. This meant l
eaving his enormous government bungalow, Cherwell on Greenways Road,
Madras and settling into the comparatively modest accommodation of
the Chairman’s residence or Emdis House as it was called in Neyveli,
in 1958. Having faith in the cooperative movement, TMS Mani ensured
that the township had cooperative stores, markets, milk dairies,
petrol pumps, hotels and even cinemas. The last he felt was an
absolute must for otherwise employees would keep going to
Chidambaram to watch films in the night and turn up to work
bleary-eyed the next day! His eye for detail even saw to the
creation of hair-dressing saloons. Besides these, schools,
hospitals, nursing homes and a telephone exchange came up.
At all these locations, discipline was paramount and even his wife
had to stand in queue to purchase what she wanted. Use of company
vehicles for personal use was frowned upon and he set the example
by driving to work in his personal car and then using the official
vehicle for all office related work before driving home again in
his own car.
There were enormous headaches in the project. Moving the mining
equipment proved a big challenge. The Adyar Bridge was found to be
too weak to bear the load of the equipment as they were transported
from the Port to Neyveli. The machinery was dismantled before the
bridge, carried across and then reassembled at the other end before
being loaded on to trucks for transport to Neyveli.
The special mining machinery proved to be incapable of handling the
local Cuddalore sandstone. The teeth kept breaking and had to be
replaced thereby reducing the quantum of mining. This problem was
later solved with suitable modifications to the teeth and by
introducing a systematic drilling and shatter blasting programme. The
huge reservoir of ground water below the lignite bed was another
problem as it would threaten to burst forth and flood the mines if
the pressure was not reduced prior to commencement of mining. This
was done by selectively forming bore wells and pumping out water to
reduce the pressure. The area was prone to flooding during monsoons
and this required constructing of pumping stations and suitable
storm water drains. All this required that equipment be in top
working order and TMS Mani devised a system of maintenance that
was followed religiously.
On a happy day in August 1961, the lignite seam in what is today
called Mine 1 was exposed. And what’s more, water did not rush in
from Cuddalore as the Cassandras had predicted. TMS Mani was in
raptures. His mother-in-law was to comment that he rejoiced as
though he had dug it out himself. “You do not understand,” was
the reply. “It was no surprise and no credit to me that lignite
lay underground. But in its absence, in other words, had we not
found any of it, the shame of just indulging in all this work of
excavating would have been my lot.” By May 1962 full-fledged mining
had begun with for the first time in India, the use of German
excavation technology and equipment. The same month, the first
Power Station at Neyveli, set up with Soviet collaboration was
commissioned. It was South Asia’s first and only plant to be
fuelled with lignite and was the first power plant in India to
be set up with Soviet technology. By 1962, the entire project
had seen Indians working with Germans, Russians, Englishmen and
Americans. A unique collaborative effort during the Cold War years.
TMS Mani, the superman who saw all this through, had one fatal
weakness. He suffered enormously from asthma. Even a whiff of
fragrance or a cold breeze was enough to bring it on. Being a
smoker did not help. But undeterred by it, despite several
sleepless nights of breathlessness which would leave him exhausted
even if he climbed a single stair, he laboured on and brought his
project to fruition. Assisting him in every way was his patient
wife, Rukmini. Not once did he come late for a meeting owing to
his malaise. The daily schedule never varied. It began with a tour
of every facility on the complex at 8.00 am followed by hours and
hours of office work, often ending at midnight.
TMS Mani celebrated the weddings of his daughter and son with the
greatest simplicity. The first had happened when he was Secretary
PWD and the second when he was Chairman NLC. He was of the view
that a civil servant should set an example in matters such as this.
Gifts were strictly discouraged and the list of invitees was pared
to a minimum. He did not even build a house of his own. When he
was Secretary PWD, he was of the view that this would cause comment
and after taking over at NLC, there was never any time.
By 1962 his family members felt that it was time for a break from
the NLC routine where matters had stabilised and work was going
smoothly. He decided to spend some time in Bombay with his daughter.
The humid weather of Bombay aggravated his asthma and on 13th
November he had to be rushed to Madras for treatment. On boarding
the aircraft in a strong fragrance (about which theories vary from
a broken perfume bottle to the use of a disinfectant) brought about
a severe attack of breathlessness and he passed away before any
medical help could be brought in. He was only 54. In another year
he would have retired and then written the book he had planned on
his experiences at Neyveli.
The body was brought back to a stunned Neyveli for the last rites.
His legacy to his family included nothing beyond a fully paid up
insurance fund and a 15 year old Chevrolet. An ICS officer’s
income he opined was to be utilised in maintaining a certain
standard of living and he had lived up to that maxim. He had
given his children an excellent education and that was his
lasting legacy to them. It was left to Rukmini and her three
children, the last of whom was a physically challenged son,
to pick up the pieces. Later his elder son MK Mani, would
become and continues to be one of India’s leading nephrologists.
Rukmini would also make a mark- as Honorary Secretary of the Madras
branch of the Family Planning Association of India, she was to do
yeoman service till her passing in 1980.
On the lighter side, TMS Mani achieved what many felt was an
impossibility and that was the making of peace between his two
friends TT Krishnamachari and T Sadasivam (of MS Subbulakshmi fame).
The two had fallen out on the issue of Tamil Isai and it was at
his daughter Lakshmi’s wedding when MS sang, that the great thaw
happened between TTK and TS!
His legacy of Neyveli is of course monumental. Today, the plant,
much expanded continues to be one of India’s major thermal power
sources and perhaps every time a light bulb is switched on in Tamil
Nadu, someone is paying a tribute to TMS Mani. A road in the Neyveli
complex is named after him. In many ways his achievement and manner
of death would be similar to that of RS Krishnan, the first
Executive Director of BHEL and father of the Trichy unit and
township. He too was an asthmatic and smoked a pipe and he too
would die in harness after making his project a reality.
On the occasion of TMS Mani’s birth centenary in 2008, two books
were published and released by his family members. The first,
TMS Mani, Civil Servant Nonpareil, is a compilation of tributes
written by friends, relatives and admirers. The second, Waves of
Nostalgia from a Mother’s Memory is the English translation of the
Tamil biography of his wife Rukmini written by her mother
K Saraswathi Ammal who was unfortunate to witness the passing of
her only child during her lifetime. Saraswathi Ammal, one of the
daughters of the well-known lawyer of Madras, V Krishnaswami Iyer,
wields a descriptive pen and in her hands, life in Madras of the
1930s and 40s springs to life. It has been translated into English
by KV Seshadri, IAS (retd.), TMS Mani’s son-in-law.
The two volumes make for a great tribute to an upright and
dedicated civil servant and his supportive wife.