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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XVIII No. 26, may 1-15, 2009
Neyveli Lignite Corporation
a reality

– TMS Mani, A centenary tribute

(By Sriram V)

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 were 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. The next year Prime Minister Nehru visited the quarry and in 1955 the Neyveli project was taken over by the Centre.

Triumphant – TMS Mani and wife at the Thermal Station of NLC

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 later, 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 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 crore (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 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 leaving 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 in the shops 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 transporting 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 groundwater 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 borewells 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 stormwater 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 is 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 for the first time in India, with 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, indeed, during the cold war years.

TMS Mani, the superman who saw all this through, 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.

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, a strong fragrances (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 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. He did not even build a house of his own. When he was Secretary PWD, he was of the view that this would invite comments, and after taking over at NLC there was never any time. 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 M.K. 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 T.T. Krishnamachari and T. Sadasivam (of M.S. Subbulakshmi fame). The two had fallen out on the issue of Tamil Isai and it was at his daughter Lakshmi’s wedding where 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 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 R.S. 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 away 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.


In this issue

Going slow on saving...
Protests gather over...
Making Neyveli Lignite...
Tamil studies in Germany
Historic residences...
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