UN Under-Secretary-General (USG) Arcot Ramachandran, who died on 17 May 2018, at the age of 95, was the first Executive Director of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, UNCHS (Habitat), now the United Nations Programme for Human Settlements (UN-Habitat). A national of India, he was appointed Executive Director, at the level of Under-Secretary-General, when UNCHS (Habitat) was established in 1978 and served until 1992. He was the longest serving Executive Director of UN-Habitat.
The late USG Ramachandran will be remembered for proposing the idea of World Habitat Day, which was established in 1985 by the United Nations General Assembly and was first celebrated in 1986. The World Habitat Day is observed every first Monday of the month of October as a special day to reflect on the state of human settlements as well as on the basic right of all to adequate and affordable shelter.
He was instrumental in the proclamation of the year 1987 as the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless as part of the Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000. At the core of this Strategy was the enabling approach and the goal of widening the range of housing choices available. Shelter, in its broader sense inclusive of building materials, water and sanitation, was among his top priorities.
USG Ramachandran also launched three significant global programmes: the UNCHS-Danida Training Programme in Community Participation in 1984, which sowed the seeds of what was to become UN-Habitat’s ‘people’s process’; the Urban Management Programme in 1986, the largest global urban programme ever and implemented jointly with UNDP and the World Bank; and the Sustainable Cities Programme in 1990, a pioneering programme on the road to the recognition of the role of urbanization in sustainable development through Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN Member States in 2015.
Before his appointment as the first Executive Director of UNCHS (Habitat), USG Arcot Ramachandran was an accomplished scientist. He graduated from the University of Madras, India, with a Bachelor of Engineering degree. He then pursued an MS degree in Engineering at Purdue University, USA, where he also completed his PhD in 1948. During the 1950s, he carried out post-doctoral research at both Purdue and Columbia Universities and worked as a research engineer at Babcock and Wilcox Research and Development Centre in Scotland. He was a faculty member of the Department of Power Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and later became Director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. In 1973, he was nominated by the Government of India as Government Secretary and Director-General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.
His research and publications covered a wide range of areas, including heat transfer, energy, construction technology, shelter, as well as urbanization and the development process. A measure of USG Ramachandrans’s illustrious work and contribution to the scientific and human settlements fields was the number of significant honours and awards that he received. In 2003, the Government of India conferred him the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award, for his services to the fields of Science and Engineering. Other awards that he received included the Sir M. Visvesvaraya Life Time Achievement Award, the INAE Lifetime Achievement Award, the World Federation of Engineering Organizations Award, the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Gold Medal, the World Habitat Trophy and the Heat Transfer Memorial Award.
His tireless efforts over the years to raise international awareness and support concrete national actions for the millions of homeless across the world were reflected also in the Millennium Development Goals of the UN and the WEHAB (Water, Energy, Health and Agriculture) plan of action adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.
An extensive collection of his policy addresses delivered during his years at the UN published under the title: The Urban Challenge (2003) gives a good glimpse of the multifaceted nature of the urban challenge facing the developing World and the diverse responses some of which were shaped under his stewardship at UN Habitat.
USG Ramachandran is remembered fondly by staff who worked under him, many of them now retired. For example, Mr. Daniel Biau remembers him as “… an adept of strict and vertical management … was fair with everyone, recognizing excellence and tough on mediocrity. Being a scientist, he knew how to count and was on top of UNCHS finance, never overspending, meticulous… He…was a good diplomat, firm and respectful. He was stylish, elegant … I was often impressed by his calm authority.” Mr. Biau further expresses his pride in having worked “…under this no-nonsense, humble and smart ED who established the solid foundations of UN-Habitat.”
USG Arcot Ramachandran is survived by two sons, Prof. Arcot R. Balakrishnan and Dr. Mahendra Ramachandran, and their families. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
Nairobi, 25 May 2018.