In Memoriam T.L.Sankar

I felt good interacting with him. Often, it was from a distance and just me and my thoughts, but it felt good to think about conversations past. His tone of voice had a sense of purpose as much as it could have humor, and it never judged. I remember meeting him as a high schooler for the first time, I barely spoke, but sent him note cards right after, more than a couple, all at once, because I felt like it. Thiruvengadam Lakshman Sankar or thatha* as he let me call him affected me.

Energy is associated with global well-being. Universal, affordable and sustainable access to clean energy is central to overcome major global challenges such as poverty, inadequate education, economic and social development, and climate change (1). 13% of the global population lacks electricity, 3 billion people still rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and heating, and energy contributes to about 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions1. In India, as in most developing countries, the per capita energy use (indicator of economic and social development) is significantly lower than the global average, and about 70% of total electricity generation comes from coal which is projected to be the key energy source for the next 30 years. Therefore, development of the Indian coal sector in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner is of critical importance (2a) - even in a developed country like the USA, greater than 50% of electricity is generated from coal, and the usage is predicted to stay the same or increase in the next decade (2b). Why rely on coal more than on environment-friendlier sources of energy like solar, hydro, wind and geothermal? Because, presumably for most countries, and, especially, for underdeveloped and developing countries, the cost associated with developing and implementing green-energy technology, affordably and sustainably, across the socio-economic demographic is not feasible. So, what then is the outlook towards overcoming the global energy challenges and climate change? Should the focus be on making energy production from fossil fuels, like coal, greener, more sustainable and affordable to the masses and promoting economic growth while simultaneously making an effort to transition gradually into sustainable and affordable production of greener energy for all?

TL Sankar was Energy Advisor for the Planning Commission, Government of India. As Chairman of the Expert Committee to reform the coal sector in India, he writes to the Prime Minister of India, in a report dated September 2007 from Camp Delhi, about how to ensure coal as India’s primary source of commercial energy in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner for the next 25 years. The report elaborates how to: reduce cost of production, increase productivity, improve the education base in coal mining, and orchestrate these changes in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner devoid of administrative roadblocks. Specifically, he recommends the formation of a committee of scientists and government officials entrusted with financial resources to select a Research and Development team on a competitive basis, drawing nationally, internationally and from the private sector to meet the criteria and deadlines of the coal reform report. He ends by writing “I take this opportunity to thank you and your Government for having given me an opportunity to re-visit the issues of coal Industry which I had the opportunity to study initially, decades back, during my association with Professor Sukhomoy Chakravarti and Shri Mohan Kumaramangalam” (3).

In June of 2009, Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London, whose mission statement reads, “ to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world, through informed debate...”, given the global rise in the use of coal as energy, invited TL Sankar to debate with an international panel if coal was the answer to energy insecurity (4).

In response to the challenges of the coal sector in India as of 2011, Rohit Chandra, a researcher at the Center for the Advanced Studies of India, University of Pennsylvania, writes: “Acquiring coal resources abroad may make sense for strategic reasons, but given that it takes five to seven years to fully develop a coal mine, the short-term solutions must lie at home. The Sankar committee report on coal sector reforms predicted many of these problems four years ago, and it may be time to revisit the recommendations of that committee.”(5)

Geeta Gouri, former Chair of Economics at the Institute for the Public Enterprise (IPE), India and member of the Competition Commission of the Government of India that ensures the common man access to a broad range of goods and services at competitive prices, describes the Sankar Commission report on coal reform as a “magnum opus” on coal and required reading for those working in the field of energy economics. She also writes about how TL Sankar: as director of IPE helped create a forum for debates involving the finest minds in academia and bureaucracy in a manner that was also accessible to young scholars; helped formulate the first approach towards privatization of public enterprise; in general, and specifically as chairman of the Gas Price Revision Committee (1997), leaned towards impact of market reform on people more than efficiency of the suggested reform on the market (as a result and after much debate, the current natural gas price in India is fixed close to Sankar’s recommendations) - also, gas is cleaner and more efficient in terms of energy output than crude oil; as Secretary of the 1975 Fuel Commission Report, introduced the concept of private captive coal mining (allowing private companies to mine for coal for specific end uses but not allowing them to sell excess coal in the open market) and introduced it in the state of Andhra Pradesh in conjunction with “advance afforestation” to address environmental concerns; and through his People’s Plan for Power, suggested affordable power to larger number of low-income people by allocating to them old generators (and thereby, lowering investment capital cost) and by maintaining their tariffs at a fixed rate for a 10 year period (and thereby, avoiding problems with metering) - TL Sankar argues that bringing competition to the power production market would result in the dominant energy demand coming from the larger percentage of poor (and hitherto neglected) customers than the smaller percentage of affording customers; a differentiated power market relative to the ineffective cost-to-serve model that he details in a data-driven 10-year forecast (7). Geetha Gouri ends her commentary by saying, “The gender-sensitive approach that Sankar displayed as the director of IPE needs mention. The three M's (marriage, maternity, and motherhood) of women, now a buzzword, were addressed at the IPE. How was it managed? Through flexible working hours. If only, as Sankar would point out, there was continuous electricity and strong internet linkages, work could have been done from home. A hostel attached to the IPE doubled as a creche when required. Also, safe transport was provided till the main road from the deserted corner of Osmania University where the IPE was located.”(6,7)

Dr. Russell deLucia, Principal Founder of an international non-profit organization that works for the economic and social development of underserved communities using an inclusive market approach, writes about TL Sankar: “ Consider TL’s absolute genius in his design and implementation of AP Gas Power Corporation, a de-facto IPP [Independent Power Producer] before they were the norm for of his projects that I most admired was one in which a women’s self-help group came to own and operate a water treatment plant in partnership with the Panchayat” (8).

TL Sankar was born in Madras, India; debated in high school; studied Chemistry at the University of Madras, India; joined the Indian Civil Service (batch of 1957); studied developmental economics at Williams College, MA on a scholarship (class of 1966); chose to direct the National Institute of Rural Development, India; barely spoke about his Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honors; was an atheist because of violence and war in the world; interacted across social class in a Gandhian and diplomatic manner; thrived in  diversity of culture; and was always willing to consider and eager to debate.

Marcel Proust writes in Remembrances of Things Past “...the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognized their voices the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.” (9)

For me, it is the glass of cognac: the snifter cupped in his hand, the smell of swirling cognac, the sound of glass placed on the wooden table between sips, the snap of dark chocolate pieces, the flavor; the expressions, the conversations, the farewell hugs.

Thank you, thatha.

References and notes

1. United Nations, Sustainable Development Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

2a. Sustainable development of the Indian coal sector by A.P. Chikkatur, A.D. Sagar and T.L. Sankar in Energy 34 (2009), pages 942-953.

2b. Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy (2007), The National Academy of Sciences, USA

3.  Expert Committee Report to reform coal sector in India (archived at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvannia)

4. Is coal the answer to energy insecurity? Chatham House, London

5. India’s Coal-ed streak by Rohit Chandra, 2011, Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

6. Power for the People: Remembering TL Sankar (1928-2018) by Geeta Gouri in Economic and Political Weekly, February 9, 2019

7. Towards a People’s Plan for Power Sector Reform by T.L. Sankar in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 37, No.40 (Oct 5-11, 2002), pp. 4143-4151.

8. A Remembrance of Sri.T.L.Sankar by Dr. Russell Delucia and Avinash Krishnamurthy of S3IDF, an international nonprofit organization that builds inclusive market systems to promote equitable economic and social development.

9. Swan’s Way, In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1 by Marcel Proust (English translation by C.K. Moncrieff)

* thatha in Tamil refers to grandfather


3 thoughts on “In Memoriam T.L.Sankar

  1. Jeff

    What a truly lovely and moving eulogy, Bala. It is wonderful that you have a special "touchstone" through which to savor the memory of being with him.

  2. Nirmala vani

    What a wonderful tribute to a great human being. Beautifully shared the admiration,awe and pride you have in being associated with Shankar Thatha..


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