Rajarshi Bhattacharya: Managing Natural Disasters, Running Well-Organized Elections

Rajarshi Bhattacharya was born on 6 December 1954, in Shillong, Meghalaya, and completed schooling there in 1971 at St. Edmunds School. In 1974 he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics with honours from St. Edmunds College, North East Hill University in Shillong. In 1976 he earned a Master’s of business administration degree from the faculty of Management Studies at the University of Delhi in Delhi. He also received a diploma in development studies from the University of Cambridge in 1992.


Bhattacharya joined as a probationary officer the State Bank of India in 1976 and in 1978, he was selected to the Indian Administrative Service. He worked for more than 36 years in a range of assignments for the IAS.

Flood, Cyclones and Riots

On completion of the two-year training, in July 1980 Bhattacharya was named Sub-Collector of Tekkali Sub-Division, a coastal area along the Bay of Bengal, in the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh (now comprising the two states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana). Within two months his first major challenge arose, with the disaster management effort during the Vamsadhara River flash floods. The efforts initiated by him to prepare a local, detailed village-wide contingency plan for disaster management were of great help to deal with flood. The plan included emergency evacuation and relief arrangements for residents mostly likely to be affected by cyclones and floods within the Tekkali Sub-Division.

This was the beginning of several tough disaster management situations that Bhattacharya managed, including a drought in 1987-88, floods and cyclonic storms bordering the Bay of Bengal, riots in December 1988, all in the Krishna District. Each of these events occurred during his tenure as Collector & District Magistrate, Krishna District, Andhra Pradesh, between 1986 to 1990. 

Commenting on the Drought Relief efforts, the Planning Commission of the Government of India, in a letter dated 16 September 1988 from Dr. D.N. Prasad, Adviser State Plans, to the Collector & District Magistrate of Krishna District wrote: “I must complement you for exercising your ingenuity and devising an excellent technique for equitable distribution of drought relief funds on the basis of objective criteria.” Recognising the work done during the floods, the state government of Andhra Pradesh recorded in its October 1989 award the “the outstanding work done in the July/August 1989 floods.” 

The aftermath of the explosive riots of December 1988 was an unprecedented destruction of life and property in the region. The effectivity of the emergency relief and rehabilitation measures launched in Krishna District to restore normalcy was recognised by, amongst others, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Dr. N.T. Rama Rao NTR who, in his letter of 7 March 1989 to Bhattacharya, Collector & District Magistrate Krishna District, stated, “I wish to place on record my deep sense of appreciation for the excellent work turned out by you in providing speedy relief and effective rehabilitation to the people and families affected during the recent violence in Krishna following the unfortunate death of Sri V.M. Ranga, MLA. Please convey my appreciation to all your staff who were involved in this magnificent work, which has won the admiration and appreciation of one and all.” 

Similarly, journalist Turlapaty Kutumba Rao, subsequently a recipient of the fourth highest Indian civilian award of Padma Shri, in a handwritten personal letter in Telugu wrote on 27 January 1989 to Bhattacharya that (translated to English) “The tact and temper you have displayed in settling the unprecedented difficult law and order problem that prevailed in the city of Vijayawada and the district as a whole for the last month is praiseworthy in more than one way. In particular your ability and tact displayed in shifting Smt. V. Ratnakumari to the hospital have won the appreciation of one and all. The fact that you have tackled such a difficult situation with such courage, tact and calmness undoubtedly proves the fact that you have success not only here but everywhere….”  

The Telugu daily newspaper Andhra Patrika commented in its article on 28 January 1989 that the measures taken by the collector were appreciated by the ruling and opposition parties as well as all sections. Similarly, other Telugu daily newspapers such as Eenadu, Andhra Jyoti, and Udayam also commented very positively on the relief, restoration and rehabilitation measures, such as on 8 February 1989 by all the three newspapers.  The Machilipatnam Working Journalists’ Union, in its letter of 2February 1989 to Bhattacharya wrote “Congratulating you for your tactful and able handling of the law-and-order situation consequent upon the death of Mr. V.M. Rangarao, Vijayawada Legislator, which has very much helped in bringing about a harmonious and peaceful atmosphere in the entire state. Apart from this, your remarkable efforts in handling the delicate situation of shifting the fasting Mrs. Ratnakumari to the Government Hospital is very much appreciated….” 

The High Court Bench of Andhra Pradesh in its order of 30 January 1989 in writ petition number 518 of 1989 commented, inter alia, “However, we very much appreciate the promptness and devotion with which the District Collector has discharged his duties pursuant to the direction by this Court.” The Krishna District Chamber of Commerce, in its letter of 7 February 1989 to Bhattacharya wrote “(we) offer our heartfelt thanks for the excellent way you have acted in controlling law and order situation and afterwards the rehabilitation of the victims….”

The Zilla Praja Parishad Krishna District, the apex level District Panchayat Raj institution, in a unanimous General Body resolution on 4 February 1989 recorded the appreciation of the House for the speedy action taken by the District Collector and the District Administration in providing relief to the victims who suffered heavy losses in the riots in Krishna District. 

Subsequently, as Additional Secretary and full time in charge of the Project Management Unit of Andhra Pradesh during the years 1990-1991, Bhattacharya dealt with the massive 28,000 million rupees (1990-91 prices) Cyclone Emergency Reconstruction Project (CERP) of Andhra Pradesh.


When one of the deadliest natural disasters, the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, struck India, Bhattacharya was immediately drafted by the Government of India from the state government of Andhra Pradesh to work in the Ministry of Home Affairs-Delhi to assist in the critical task of tsunami relief rehabilitation measures, mainly in the worst-affected Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The immediate necessity there was to provide temporary shelters to nearly 10,000 families whose homes were destroyed by this havoc.

 It was critical to complete before the onset of heavy monsoons within three months the construction of 9,572 intermediate shelters for these families who were widely dispersed across 58 distant locations in eight islands over a distance of 700 kilometres in Andaman and Nicobar. The objective of these intermediate shelters was to give these families temporary homes, which would be structurally stable enough to withstand torrential rains and possible earthquakes (the A&N Islands are in the most severe seismic zone), pending their settlement in permanent homes.

This was an extremely difficult task with a tightly compressed schedule for completion of planning, formulating, designing monsoon resistant and earthquake resistant shelters, obtaining Government of India approvals, procurement of practically all materials, including bulldozers, excavators, etc., from areas of the mainland, which itself is around 1,300 kilometres away across the Bay of Bengal. After having transported these across rail and road on the mainland, construction of shelters and handing them over to the affected population before the onset of the impending blinding monsoon was completed.

These intermediate shelters were designed by some of India’s top-most experts. This Group of Technical Experts (GTE) were from institutes of national and international repute, such as Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai and Roorkee. GTE comprised experts and professionals, and civil engineers such as the Director of the Structural Engineering Research Centre Chennai, under Council of Scientific & Industrial Research, Executive Director of Building Materials and Technology Promotion Council (BMTPC), representatives of the Ministry of Urban Employment and Poverty Alleviation, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Housing and Urban Development Corporation, and also certain officials who had many years of experience of working in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, such as the previous Chief Engineer/Engineer-in-Chief and ex-Chief Secretary. 

The target of completing these shelters was fully achieved before the onset of the monsoon season, by ensuring that all the 9,572 intermediate shelters were completed by April 2005 so that the Tsunami-affected shelterless people could occupy these for their temporary homes. Considering that the Government of India approved the project towards the end of February 2005, it effectively meant completion of the project in about two months.

Additionally, Bhattacharya also assisted in the completion of the processes for enactment of the Disaster Management Bill, the staffing, budget, institutional and infrastructure support, including support for setting up of the office and building for the newly created National Disaster Management Authority and drafting of the Disaster Management Rules.


In March 2006, Bhattacharya moved to the Election Commission of India as Deputy Election Commissioner.

The management of the conduct of elections in the world’s largest democracy is a formidable and rigorous task, requiring meticulous planning. The opportunity for this typically comes early in officers’ careers and it was no different for Bhattacharya. He organized elections from his earliest posting in the district and continued until he headed a District as Collector & District Magistrate and District Election Officer from 1986-90. Subsequently, for the Election Commission of India from 2006-09, he gained national level experience and expertise through the conduct of elections for the General Elections to the Legislative Assemblies of a large number of states, including Kerala, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Jammu and Kashmir (these are now two separate Union Territories), the National Capital Territory of Delhi, Karnataka, Goa, etc.

Each of these state elections presented its unique set of issues. Thus, the General Elections to the Karnataka Legislative Assembly was due, as per the normal term of the Assembly, around the middle of 2009. However, with the sudden dissolution of the Assembly and the announcement of President’s Rule in November 2007 in that state, it became statutorily imperative to conduct the Assembly Elections within a period of six months. Updated electoral rolls are an essential requirement for the proper conduct of elections, and this exercise is an integral, regular aspect of electoral administration. The intensity of that exercise for three months between December 2007 and mid-March 2008 resulted in the updating of nearly 9 million names out of a total electoral list of around 40 million. And this task was done simultaneously while implementing the orders, issued in February 2008, for delimitation of constituencies in the state, which made it all the more intricate.

Holding the 2008 (November and December) General Elections to the Legislative Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir (now two separate Union Territories), posed concerns of a different nature. They included the sustained agitation for more than four months on account of the land Issue during the peak critical preparatory work for the conduct of elections, the intense planning and foresight required for the organisation of a Seven-Phase Election done that year in terms of logistics, temperature, snowfall, border areas, contingency planning on all aspects, including adverse weather such as snowfall that could block transportation and weather dependencies of air sorties. Meticulous planning, comprehensive and thorough organising, abundant contingency planning, and rigorous implementation resulted in the conduct of peaceful, free and fair polls with an overall voting percentage that was much higher than the percent polled in the 2002 general elections in the state, so much so that, the national daily The Hindustan Times on 25 December termed the elections as “Democracy wins 7-0”, referring to the seven phases of the elections carried out over a month during November-December 2008. Another national daily, The Times of India, on 25 December 2008 headlined it as the “most credible polls …. ever in the State”. On the same day the Hindustan Times headlined it as “Historic JK polls end on high note … on a historic note” and added further that “Historic is how these polls are being referred to in political and administration circles as well as among ordinary people”.

Around the same time, the 2008 General Elections to the Legislative Assembly for the National Capital Territory of Delhi posed its own set of challenges. There were nine election districts, but for delimitation, only one district.

In the capital of Delhi, the growth of urbanisation, along with the huge turnover of population through either intracity shifting and/or through migration to and from Delhi should have implied that the regular updating of electoral rolls had kept pace with the shifting population. However, that was not so.

The cumulative updating of names done during the previous five years from 2003 to 2007 was very low. This raised serious issues about the purity of the rolls. Hence, a massive special effort was launched for the revision of the electoral rolls of Delhi. This extensive and intensive exercise over a limited period of just a few months resulted in updating more than 7 million names on the base of around 10.7 million people, which works out to more than 67% of the base voter population updated for the election through this critically high priority effort. Viewed from another angle, the quantum of total updates during these few months in 2008 was more than two and half times the total quantum of updates of names done over the long period of five years from 2003 to 2007.

This gargantuan effort aimed at truly reflecting the actual voters names raised deep apprehensions among public representatives.

By then all the political parties of Delhi were also acutely concerned about the lack of quality of the electoral rolls. They were so perturbed that the two main political parties, namely, the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) and the main opposition Bhartaiya Janata Party (BJP), came in a joint delegation on 12 September 2008, including Smt. Sheila Dikshit, Chief Minister of Delhi and other senior members of INC and Shri Jagdish Mukhi and other senior members of BJP delegation, to complain about the severity and criticality of the errors in electoral rolls data and images.

After completion of this herculean revision of the electoral rolls, including a unique algorithm methodology for checking and re-checking, and supervisory checks and re-checks of the rolls, the purified electoral rolls were finally published in October 2008. Thereafter, no delegation from any political party came to the Election Commission to complain solely regarding any major problems in the electoral rolls for the National Capital Territory of Delhi. The result of all these efforts was a good voter turnout on election day, which was one of the highest compared to previous few years in Delhi.
Many of the national daily newspapers reported favourably on the efficient conduct of the General Elections to the other state Legislative Assemblies. Analysing the Punjab 2007 General Elections to the Legislative Assembly, the national daily The Tribune on 26 February 2007 considered it “one of the fiercest and most peaceful elections in the state in recent decades.”

Identity-UIDAI, Early Days

On 28 January 2009 the Government of India approved the creation of the Unique Identification Authority of India within the Planning Commission. Immediately thereafter, on 2 February 2009, Bhattacharya joined the Planning Commission of India as Senior Adviser charged with working full time as Director General and Mission Director of the newly created Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). He performed for six months the exceptional assignment of setting up a completely new body, including locating the appropriate office accommodation, logistics, manpower, financial matters, and many other teething, yet distinctive, necessities which arise when birth is given to a novel organisation with a gigantic task. He did all these for the first six months after the birth of this Authority until the joining of a regular Director General on 31 July 2009. 

Thereafter, he continued with the Planning Commission as a regular Senior Adviser untill his joining in January 2010 as Financial Adviser in the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, Government of India, with concurrent charges of some other Ministries in which he advised the Ministries on all financial matters.


School Education

After completing his term as Financial Adviser, Bhattacharya became Secretary, Government of India, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of School Education & Literacy in October 2012. He headed a department with an annual budget of about 500 billion rupees. He continued there until the end of December 2014. His responsibilities included some of India’s largest flagship programmes in education which, at that time, covered 1.45 million schools and targeted 200 million children, including the Mid-Day-Meal programme feeding 104 million children daily and is one of the largest noon meal programmes in the world. He led India’s ongoing reforms focused on quality education and providing employable and quality skill training.



In January 2015, Bhattacharya retired from professional life, residing in Delhi with his wife. Their daughter is a travel journalist and content marketing specialist. Their son is a former musician and a writer/editor.