Friday, January 15, 2016

S H Khan - soft voice, hard talk

In 1998, when Serajul Haq Khan retired as the chairman and managing director of Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI) he said in an interview that he looks forward to contribute at the macro level. Apparently, this did not go down well with some of the industrialists who asked him whether working in the private sector would be tantamount to not contributing to the economy or the country. But Seraj uncle's philosophy was clear – after being at the helm of IDBI, the premier development financial institute (DFI) which was also the promoter of other remarkable, path breaking institutes like CARE, NSE to name a few, he wanted to stay clear of executive positions in the private sector.

Till his sudden passing away on January 12, he was associated with few companies as an independent, non-executive director. In fact, he was in Pune in connection with his role as chairman of the audit committee of the Bajaj group when he died. He was 78. He was brought to Mumbai, a city where he build his career and had his family, and was buried at the Bada Kabrastan on Wednesday (January 13) afternoon. In his illustrious career he had been on the boards of several companies like UTI, Air India, LIC, Indian Airlines, Exim Bank, IDFC. 

Born and brought up in dusty and remote villages of UP’s Ghazipur district, Seraj uncle was a consistent topper all through his academic life. After attending the local school, he went on to do Masters in Commerce from University of Bihar where he was a gold medalist. A famous line about him was that he was inseparable from books even while on the football field! I am not sure if he had planned a career in banking but after a short stint as a lecturer in a Bihar college he came to Mumbai and joined the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) as a probationary officer in 1961. For young budding economists and bright commerce graduates, the RBI in those days was a magnet. In 1965-66, he became a part of the newly established Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI), which grew under the shadows of the RBI. I am sure he must have had considerable difficulty explaining to people that one couldn’t open a savings account in the ‘bank’ where he was an officer!

Over the years IDBI, which was formed by an act of Parliament, became the premier DFI in India. After being a subsidiary of RBI, it ultimately became a wholly-owned undertaking of the government of India. Seraj uncle too rose in the hierarchy. He became executive director in 1986, managing director in 1992 and chairman and managing director in 1993. The legendary S S Nadkarni had spotted the talent of Seraj uncle and favoured him to succeed after his retirement. This spoke volumes of the talent and industriousness of Seraj uncle because, as is well-know, IDBI at that time could boast of the best, which included most notably Dr R H Patil – NSE’s main architect.

But there was a minor hiccup to his elevation. While he had the internal support from IDBI, there was a possibility, which quickly died down, of an outsider pipping him to the post. In 1993, after the retirement of Nadkarni as chairman of IDBI, he became the acting chairman. While it was widely believed that he would ultimately succeed Nadkarni, who had groomed him for the takeover, there was a possible coup in the making. Taking advantage of its close proximity to certain key politicians of the day, a business house began to actively lobby on behalf of the chairman of another bank to head IDBI. But ultimately merit ruled over politics, and Seraj uncle was appointed to the much deserved post of chairman in December 1993. By this time a whole generation of people, at least in eastern UP and parts of Bihar, had become aware of IDBI - and why one couldn’t open a savings account there. 

I do not have any early memories of Seraj uncle, as he seems to be always present from the time I can remember. He was a good friend of my late father and I vividly remember several evenings in his flat. On some occasions (perhaps on Eid) he would come to our house and then my father would accompany him back. Those were the days of VCRs, and a distinct advantage of going to his house for the kids was the access to a well-stocked video library in the neighborhood. During the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai, he came to our house suggesting that children and the women accompany him. We didn’t go at that moment, but the situation deteriorated, and the very next day we shifted to his house, where we stayed for a good 10-12 days.

Seraj uncle at a reception
In the next few years, under his dynamic leadership, he took IDBI to greater heights in terms of productivity and profitability. In its category, IDBI was among the top 10 in the world. Most importantly he strongly believed in the transformation of DFIs into banks, a thought that had first gained currency during Nadkarni’s reign. The RBI constituted a committee under his chairmanship known as the Khan committee to look into ‘universal banking’. This report stands out as one of the highlights of his career. It was this committee, which had as its members K V Kamath and M S Verma among others, that first proposed the conversion of DFIs into banks. But ironically, it was ICICI that beat IDBI in the game and moved ahead. Of course, one of the reason for the quick transformation of ICICI was that it was not tied down, as IDBI was, to government regulations and had more flexibility.

One outcome of this overarching government control was the comparatively low salaries of the staff at IDBI. “If you pay peanuts you will get monkeys,” he reminded the government. Being an insider, he tried his best to delink the salary scale at IDBI to government norms. This certainly added to his popularity and respect at IDBI. He was also very happy with the fact that it was IDBI that acted as promoter to institutes like SIDBI, NSE, and the rating agency CARE. He was also the chairman at both NSE and CARE and always spoke of how the NSE convincingly left BSE way behind.   
In 1998-99, when I was at Elphinstone College, Dr Sonu Kapadia, the editor of the College magazine and the last of the distinguished names at the college, was looking for contributions from students. I had few articles in my mind, and was fine-tuning them, when I read in The Economic Times how Seraj uncle completed his innings at IDBI without knowing his successor. I suggested Dr Kapadia an article on the importance of HRD and her first reaction was that it should not be related to the optional paper I was studying! I told her it would be a journalistic piece and was very excited to see the magazine carrying the article mentioning how governmental indifference and politics was clouding the naming of successors at key institutes, along with other issues. (During the same period the announcement of a successor to another key post was delayed).

Seraj uncle’s career was seen in remarkably different ways by different people. Some would label him as only among the few from UP/Bihar to occupy a high position in the financial and banking sector. For many he was representative of the fact that Muslims too can reach coveted positions. For votaries of Hindi he was a good example of why convent or English education was not the only way to success. And there indeed was a powerful message in the way his career shaped. It epitomised the importance of hard work and meritocracy. His refined manners and good looks added to his charming personality, which also at times confused people. A foreign pink paper once described him as ‘aristocratic’! 

Despite his busy schedule and travel, he always found time to visit his native village. He never lost touch with his roots and took a keen interest in the affairs of his extended relatives and the community. He fondly remembered his friends from his school days hailing from different villages. In the later years he patronised an NGO working in the field of education and social empowerment in Mumbai. “Hasib sahab (Abdul Hasib Siddiqui, former executive director, RBI) told me about them. They are doing good work,” he told me after I asked him about his picture with kids in the NGO's newsletter. In the last few years I would occasionally call him. “So now you have become an NRI,” he would say. When I met him during my last visit to India I asked him that he should write about his life and career. “I have never thought about it. Also, if I write one it has to be an honest account, but considering that several people I worked with are still alive I don’t think I will be able to do justice. So it’s only better that I do not write.”

While he may have chosen not to write about his experiences, any serious volume on the history of project financing or financial institutions in the post-Nehruvian era will be incomplete without the mention of IDBI and his stewardship. He had a soft, very distinct and distinguishable voice - which is difficult to forget. Sadly, that voice will never be heard now.

He is survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mansur Ali Khan: A railway man and social reformer

Khan Bahadur Mansur Ali Khan 1873-1934
Social reforms in India originating in the 20th century have followed various trajectories. Some initiatives metamorphosed to tackle the more pressing challenges while some continue to be as relevant as they were when initiated. This post is about the endeavour to fight dowry and minimise wasteful expenditure in weddings that began at the turn of the 20th century in a cluster of villages (called Kamsaar-O-Bar) in Ghazipur district. The prime mover, a century ago, was Khan Bahadur Mansur Ali Khan, who was an employee of the Oudh and Rohilkhand Railway. I realised that while people in the region do remember him, there is no clarity about his career, postings and other related details.

It was to fill this lacunae that I turned to the archives in London expecting to gather some information about Mansur Ali Khan. He gained prominence in the area as he was the first in the 'biradaari' to have secured a well paying, established job, certainly by virtue of good education. But as mentioned earlier, it was his efforts to awaken his brethren of the need to do away with wasteful and unnecessary customs during weddings that he is best remembered for. These customs and traditions would worsen the financial condition of households but such was the apathy and hold of ignorance that nobody was interested in taking any initiative. Here, I attempt to provide a glimpse to his farsightedness and love for the community.

According to official records, Mansur Ali Khan was born on September 18, 1873 and belonged to village Godsara. While not much is known about his education (it's not clear whether he finished graduation) he joined the Oudh and Rohilkhand Railway as goods clerk. The Oudh and Rohilkhand railway was established in 1872 and in 1888 it was taken over by the British government. It is my understanding that being in a transferable job, he must have spend considerable time in bigger cities and towns like Moradabad, Allahabad, Barabanki, Hardoi, Lucknow, Meerut. This must have made him realise the backwardness in Kamsaar. Being in government service, he was aware of the importance of education and its linkage with social reform. But the situation in Kamsaar was far from satisfactory. Most of the people were engaged in agriculture or found employment in Bengal police or the army.    

Convincing village elders turned out to be much more difficult than he had thought. His major aim was to get their assent to do away with dowry and focus on education. To do this he would visit the adjoining villages and conduct meetings. The response was not promising. To discard old customs was easier said than done. But Mansur Ali Khan persisted. He kept on the meetings at regular intervals and finally in 1910 a body named Anjuman Islah Kamsar-o-Bar was established. This created an environment of awakening and people saw virtue in Mansur Ali Khan's arguments. But sadly, the area continues to be beset with the same problems, although education and migration has increased the general well-being. After Mansur Ali Khan, there were some notable individuals who carried on the good work, but had limited success and the problem persists. Farms are mortgaged/sold and loans are taken out to meet the wedding expenses.     

After joining as goods clerk (possibly in the 1890s), he continued to progress in his career. He became traffic inspector after few years and in 1913 he was promoted as traffic superintendent. As a superintendent, his duties and responsibilities increased and much of his time was spent in Lucknow which was the headquarters of the Oudh and Rohilkhand Railway. By 1921, he had already become District Traffic Superintendent (claims) and appeared before few important railway committees, including the famous Railway Committee headed by William Acworth whose aim was to reorganise the railway system in India. 

In Jan-Feb 1921, Mansur Ali Khan was asked pointed questions about station masters and clerks receiving payments/commissions for the allotment of wagons. He replied that this had become a 'custom' across the country and that both, the railway staff and public, were to be blamed for this. Those were the days of restrictions on goods and commodities in the post-war period. Sugar and grains could command stupendous prices for the merchants provided they reached their destinations on time. And this was dependent on the availability of wagons. Then there was the question of goods being undervalued to escape higher charges. Mansur Ali Khan told the committee members how he ordered the deduction of Rs 10 per month from the salary of a station master for one year. This station master was found to be undervaluing the merchandise being transported.     

One of the committee member was the Bombay industrialist Purshottamdas Thakurdas who seemed to take umbrage on the casting of aspersions on the merchant community by Mansur Ali Khan. Despite intense questioning, Mansur Ali Khan continued to hold fort and made his points unambiguously. He died in 1934, and I haven't been able to find out whether he was promoted any further. But one thing is clear it must have taken a giant effort on his part to straddle both his professional and personal commitments. By one account it was after more than five years of regular meetings that the Anjuman Islah Kamsar-o-Bar was formed consisting of members from the villages around Dildarnagar. His third son Mahmood Ali Khan too took interest in empowering people through education. He started one of the earliest English-medium primary school in Dildarnagar and also stood for Assembly elections in independent India but was unsuccessful.  

An Islah committee is still in existence but it can be only through increased participation and co-operation that dowry and wasteful expenditure can be stopped. Only Allah knows how long will this movement, started by Mansur Ali Khan a century ago, continue as it seems to be a very slow work-in-progress.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Saiyid Hamid's death is huge blow to Indian Muslims

"But for the media, people like me do not represent Muslims because we are too progressive; we don't have beards nor do we wear the peculiar white caps. The Muslim stereotypes do not fit us. If a Muslim demonstrates backwardness it is news; if he exhibits progressiveness, it is not news." These words written by the late Rafiq Zakaria comes to mind in the wake of the passing away of Saiyid Hamid, former vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and retired IAS officer. Except few cursory comments and platitudinous condolence messages, the national media seems to have largely ignored his death.

Born in 1920, Saiyid Hamid completed BA and then MA in English followed by another MA in Persian at the Aligarh Muslim University. He got selected to the United Provinces provincial civil services and worked in the districts of Uttar Pradesh and in 1949 graduated to the IAS. After being in service for more than 30 years, he then became the vice-chancellor of AMU. This was the start of his second innings and his stint at Aligarh turned out to be full of challenges. After leaving his mark as an able administrator, Saiyid Hamid plunged into ameliorating the educational backwardness of Muslims. He focused on increasing the number of Muslims in civil services and worked tirelessly towards it. With the passage of time, the tumultuous Aligarh days were behind him, and he emerged as a towering personality and a kind of father figure for Muslim social activists.

He kept away from politics but continued to be at the forefront of Muslim issues till his last days. His moderate approach, high integrity and clear thinking added to his forceful personality which was embellished by his love for literature. His association with Jamia Hamdard as the vice chancellor brought immense laurels and respect, but it was the establishment of the Hamdard Study Circle that earned him the gratitude of the community. The study circle conducted coaching classes for Muslim students aspiring to get into the civil services. (It seems this was a passion that Saiyid Hamid had for long. Here is a piece by senior IAS officer Naved Masood that throws more light on his personality.) 

In 2010, Shah Faesal topped the UPSC exams and brought into limelight the works of Saiyid Hamid and Hamdard Study Circle, where he received coaching. The fact that Shah Faesal was from Kashmir made the achievement more noteworthy. Saiyid Hamid told "We are also proud of the fact that this has happened in respect of a candidate from Jammu and Kashmir where condition has not been favourable for serious study and yet the young man has proved that despite of all difficulties in the way one can be successful and eminently successful." It was perhaps such work at the ground level that gave immense satisfaction to Saiyid Hamid.

Another project close to his heart was the magazine 'Nation and the World' which unfortunately did not do well. There would hardly be a major Muslim educationist or activist who must have not benefited from his advice and guidance. His stature was such that he was beyond seeking any publicity or laurels for himself. He was a man of principle who never shied from putting across his views even at the risk of going against popular notions.

At the height of the Babri Masjid episode, Saiyid Hamid sought to engage the community to discuss the statement of L K Advani. In August 1990, Advani had said that if Muslims agreed to a respectful removal of the mosque to a site close by, Hindus may be persuaded to withdraw their claim to other disputed places of worship. He got support from Badruddin Tyabji and Col Bashir Hussain Zaidi but to their "disappointment and surprise" their stance did not get much support. He wrote: "It seems that on all religio-political issues it is extremism along that gets credibility. Moderation and even exploratory attempts at mediation are spurned. No one can afford to essay a rapprochement, not even a leader of of Mr Advani's stature, for fear of losing ground with his followers.The folly of this writer's response to an offer that never was has been doubly established."     

The driving force behind this endeavour was the belief that Hindu-Muslim relationships would stand transformed and would give breathing space for "social and educational reconstruction". But such thorny issues were always beyond the honest approach of people like Saiyid Hamid. Yet it was an earnest desire to work towards the larger good of the community that lay at his heart.

At 94 years of age, Saiyid Hamid lived an extraordinary life. He saw the British rule, witnessed the Partition, immersed himself in the difficult task of Muslim empowerment and as Afzal Usmani writes managed to build a "sound academic record at a moment in India's history when Muslims were afflicted with uncertainty." His work will be remembered by generations to come.