Book Review: Passport of Gujarat: Hazardous Journeys, by Alexander K. Luke, Manas Publications, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 374, Rs 795.00
Books can often be likened to cricket matches. A T20 game is light and frothy. The results come in a single setting. A test match is leisurely. You need to invest both time and energy, but at the end, more often than not, it is far more pleasurable as your sense of participation and involvement is far greater.
“Passport of Gujarat: Hazardous Journeys” best resembles a leisurely test match. You require to read it carefully. And you should. It is about Ethics: practical ethics, in management of state owned commercial enterprises. Also in institutions like the Gujarat Housing Board, Fisheries, Labour Commissioner (and his fight to ensure minimum wage act implementation), Water Supply (everyone loves a good drought!) and revenue appeals, Riots and Tribal Development and others.
Alexander Luke was a bureaucrat but more often called a ‘turn around’ specialist. He was associated with, and credited for the turnaround of a number of enterprises: Gujarat State Fertilizers and Chemicals Ltd (GSFC), Gujarat Alkalies and Chemicals Ltd (GACL) et al. As also, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL – the Dam!) comatose as it then was (in mid/late 90s) due to court cases and controversies regarding resettlement. The book is about these turnaround stories and about why they could not have happened, unless the executive, the CEO, the doctor had not first imbued himself into ‘Ethical Behaviour’ in the truest sense. Fair play is playing fair with all stakeholders associated with the activity, not with one’s own self.
Luke was successful but not as a bureaucrat. He could not be. He did not play fair to his self-interest, often rubbing seniors on the wrong side. He was not a good bureaucrat. So he never rose high in the hierarchy, and yet each time there was a distress call, he was sent in: And once in, secured fair play, efficiencies and stakeholder satisfaction. Perhaps a sinking ship is like having a stone when there are two birds available. Send an ethic mired person in. If the ship sinks… well it is an ill-wind after all that blows no good! But if he succeeds in reviving it, well… ‘That is a relief’. So wait till the storm has passed and it’s all clear. In today’s India, there are so many good bureaucrats around. Always ready to oblige. Send one of them in. And that difficult chap out!
But this is not a book about back-biting but about how to eradicate failure, to secure healthy organizations which are successful in meeting the stated objectives and benefit society at large, and as automatic corollary, eradicating corruption within the system. How do you build a healthy, successful, corruption free organization? Successful teams are built by empowerment, delegation and trust. By removing square pegs from round holes and placing them appropriately. Trust is possible, only if the CEO is aware, on a continuous basis of what is happening within it. In every square inch of it. He has to apply himself. All the time. Even if it involves visiting shops to compare market price of branded high quality taps/pipes etc., with that procured on considerations of ‘economy’ climbing up and down the stairways of a newly built colony to physically inspect each house or even scrutinizing the ice packs required for long distance transportation of fish! It is personal. It results in institutional change.
In the commercial enterprises, Luke recreated the famed Marwari system of daily balance sheets and cash flows; which costs were fixed and inescapable; which were variable and thus controllable; why sometimes it made sense to sell just above variable cost, but below ‘average cost’ just to get higher turnaround and thus better coverage of fixed costs. He ensured everyone in the organization was so made aware. If the organization knows where the money is earned and where it is spent, everyone works at securing efficiencies in areas under their control. Empowerment secured enthusiasm of marketing teams to sell at whatever was the best selling price, even if it fluctuated daily without feeling scared of making errors. Ditto for the purchase and production teams. Knowledge and transparency eliminates dark corners where corruption flourishes. Treating unequals differently, and yet transparently and fairly, eliminates unhealthy rivalry and practices. Transparency with vendors and buyers and other stakeholders and an unbending commitment to fair play and quality benchmarks builds reputations—in any organization, in all organizations.
Luke was posted as MD of the Dam Project (SSNNL) in January 1996. The Supreme Court stay at the behest of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) due to inadequate rehabilitation effort had resulted in a near paralysis. The staff was sitting idle and demoralized. Contractors had not been paid for months and had stopped work. He spent time and effort in trying to understand what the project was about, and the points of friction creating controversies. There were two parts of the project—building the dam itself. The disputes were regarding the permissible height and submergence differential. The second part was to build the canals to carry the water to the cities and farmlands. This was not under dispute. But all work had stopped.
Luke realized that the canal work was more complicated and time consuming. It had to cross roads and rail tracks and river crossings. At places it would be like an aqueduct going over the river but in other places it would cross as a syphon wherever the river bed was higher. The engineering both for the dam and the canals was complex. But the contractors were also world class. It could be done. Whatever the dam’s height, canals were required. He got it going. The book tells how. For the dam, ethical behaviour required full and honest appreciation of concerns. Rehabilitation had to be actual and transparently self-evident. The book describes how this was achieved, stage by stage, foot by foot/ court session by session. The project moved and Gujarat changed.
There are 23 chapters, each about different situations and organizations. Each is readable. In between, and in conclusion, Luke discusses and explores and evaluates the importance of ethical behaviour. And professionalism, work involvement and sustained supervision. Somewhat like how an ‘alaap’ by a skilled music entranced artist unfurls a ‘raga’. He distinguishes ‘ethical’ behaviour from the deceit practiced by those who loudly proclaim their honesty but are silent (or maybe even unaware) of their own incompetence/lethargy. He brings out that the negative impact of a thoroughly and ruthlessly corrupt individual is often no more adverse on society at large than that of an ‘honest’ but ‘incompetent’ and/or an ‘indifferent’ one. In a number of places he evaluates what constitutes ‘bureaucratic successes’ and how oftentimes it is consciously secured even at the cost of societal harm.
He talks about the annual confidential report (ACR) system, and how it is misused to promote mediocrity/ intra-service ‘tugs of war’ but also simultaneously exposes the myths bureaucrats create about ‘unbearable political pressure’ pointing out that it is used to explain away their own flexibilities oriented towards securing career (or other) interests and brings out that not once in his long innings did he ever experience even a hint of such a pressure. Only the willing are so pressurized! He brings out that ethical behaviour is both possible and viable for organizations, institutions, individuals and societies. And there are actually no costs attached. Only the will should be there. And the willingness to always proclaim: ‘follow me’.
There are two takeaways from the book: It can act as a useful tool kit for those who aspire to ‘serve’ while in public service. The second is implied. Luke was in service between 1975 and 2005. He feels, and so do others, that Gujarat was a well administered state. If the fun and games he describes took place there, what would have been the case in the ‘Ahem! Ahem! ’ states? The votaries of a large state could profitably ponder. The scale of the state has exploded manifold faster than population/economic growth during the last 40 years. As has been the distress and the problems. Are only politicians to blame?
Alumni, Delhi School of Economics, former chairman and managing director (CMD) of Exim Bank, is currently a freelance writer. This article also appeared in “The Book Review”, Delhi