Sharma was born in 1931. He studied at Gwalior and Benares. He was awarded Ph D in Mathematics while teaching at Pilani. He joined the IAS in 1956. The first role-conflict he faced was as the Collector of Bastar (1968-71) in Madhya Pradesh (now in Chhattisgarh) as a representative of the state responsible for protecting the tribal people versus an agent of government keen on so-called development at any cost.
He always opposed destruction in the name of development if it attempted to alienate the native tribals from their habitats. In Bastar, he was humiliated and even ill-treated by the industrialists, but Dr Sharma took it light. He served as the Planning Advisor to the North-Eastern Council. Realising inherent limitations of higher civil servants in key secretarial positions vis-à-vis political executive, he sought premature retirement in 1981.
Sharma became the Vice-Chancellor of the NEHU, Shillong, under different and difficult conditions. Indira Gandhi, who learnt of his commitment to the Adivasis and the Dalits, persuaded him and made him the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (1986-92) under the Constitution.
He played a key role in bringing the PESA Act and was also instrumental in the Sub-Plan strategy. His Reports to the President as the Commissioner are replete with cases of violation of the Constitution by governments and other authorities. They have been hailed as a work “next in order of historic significance only to the Constitution of India.”
‘Gaon, Ganaraaj; Hamaara gaon, hamaara raaj’ were his popular slogans which he used to give in meetings with the tribals after his retirement. His strong contention on the tribal issues is revealed in his own words: “A tribal is not poor. He is Deprived and Disinherited in his own Domain; his ‘DES’ ironically amidst the unbounded bounty of Mother Earth to her dearest children. They are the brightest jewels in the rich mosaic of great Indian civilization proud of its vivacious diversity. You cannot teach democracy to the tribal people; you have to learn democratic ways from them.
They are the most democratic people on earth.” Sharma never permitted mining in the Scheduled Areas during his tenure. Being the Chairman of the Bharat Jan Andolan, he posed seven questions to all the political parties and also the candidates on different and divergent aspects on the eve of 1999 general elections. He wrote many books on Mathematics, education, tribal affairs and political economy in Hindi and English.
Dr Sharma was always simple and honest. He took just one rupee as salary as the Commissioner. He hated luxuries. He never travelled in A-C coaches or cars. He led a very humble life in a small house in Delhi. He always loved to spend time with the tribals. He opposed the Narmada Dam and even the Polavaram Project, arguing that they would displace lakhs of tribals. Dr Sharma was a true follower of Gandhian philosophy but supported the people’s movements in the forests.
He himself declared that he was a prohibitionist. He played a key role as one of the interlocutors along with Prof Haragopal in the release of Alex Menon, a District Collector in Odisha, by the Maoists. “Promises galore, but grapes are sour” was his strong contention until he breathed his last on Sunday. (The writer is a Junior Lecturer in English, TTW IIT Study Centre, Rajendranagar, Hyderabad)