Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Shashi Rajagopalan: A Personal Essay

Shashi Rekha Rajagopalan, member of the Central Board of Reserve Bank of India, and NABARD and also a member of the Malegam Committee on MFIs, passed away on the 5th of August 2011. She had just crossed 60. I got to know Shashi as a young student from IRMA who had gone to do a summer project in Samakhya, where she was the Director. For somebody who was encountering an experience within work environment, quite different from the carefree student life, it was indeed a welcome way of transitioning. Me and my batchmate Shankar Raman had a briefing in the head office of Samakhya and then we travelled by train to Kazipet from where we would go to a village called Mulukanoor. Shashi accompanied us on that trip.

This was not my first outing in the village. I had already spent near to about 10 weeks in a village near Mysore, doing fieldwork. Compared to that village Kalale, Mulukanoor was much better. We were given two individual rooms on either sides of a godown. The room was decently furnished – a table, chair a bed and a functioning fan and geyser. The food was from a nearby hotel, which opened in the morning and would continue to function till about sun-down – or till milk lasted whichever was earlier. In the evening the co-op campus would close the large gates and it was indeed an eerie experience to be in such a large space alone.

However, as Shashi had briefed us, we had come there with a purpose. There was this efficient co-operative in Mulukanoor that took care of all the needs of its members and we were expected to do a costing system to understand the profitability of each of the lines of business. I was quite excited being in such a place and experiencing all the newness of being in a serene environment, with the added bonus of basic necessities taken care of. There were two theatres – one somewhat Kaccha with a single projector and another a fancy one by Mulukanoor’s standards – where the typist of the co-op was a ticket dispenser. In both the places seeing the movie was an experience in itself.

Shashi in her briefing had told us some basic non-negotiables. That we have to respect the views of the local co-operative employees and not talk down to them, keep to our appointments and generally be seen as responsible people. She also introduced us to Mr.A K Vishwanatha Reddy the President of the co-operative and almost a patriarch of the village [it did not matter that he never won an election beyond the Zilla Panchayat, but he had also never lost an election of the co-operative]. While one found Shashi to be overbearing, she also had an innate sense of humor, which diffused any misgivings one might have had. We knew that we could take some liberties with her we also knew where she drew the line. There was never any confusion on her expectation from us.

At the end, after several interim trips to Hyderabad to present the progress of our work, we were done with the project. There was a warm farewell for us, and the office gifted both of us a book each [Managers of Tomorrow for me]. I suppose I must have given the impression that I was the hardworking of the two, though there was no such reason. Shankar’s parents were in Hyderabad and he would go off to the city every weekend, while I, having nothing to do in Hyderabad would stay back in Mulukanoor and be happy with the Telugu movies in the touring talkies.

I took an instant liking for Shashi and Samakhya basically because of the general work ethic that the organization showed. She was accessible, willing to pick up an argument and also tell me clearly what she approved of and what she did not. There were no two guesses there. Mr. M Rama Reddy, the secretary of Samakhya, the super-boss was an enigma. He never spoke much, and it appeared that Shashi was in charge of the day-to-day operations and only she and a handful of others reported to him. She would be the face of Samakhya in all public forums – the funders, the visitors and the government. Shashi and Rama Reddy seemed to enjoy a good working relationship, but we would often find her arguing with him as well.

When I got back to Anand after the project, I remained in touch with Shashi. During those days, I used to write letters and keep in touch with people much after the engagement was over. There was nothing deep in this practice, but I somehow felt the need to remain “linked in”. In case of Samakhya, it was also more than just being linked in, but also possibly wanting to work there. Fancying myself as a writer of fiction in Kannada, I thought this organization would not only provide me the necessary exposure to rural India, but also give me “plots” for my stories. Being a small organization, and I having a management degree, I fancied that I would be a part of the senior management soon. So I did write a letter of thank you to Shashi, but was really surprised to get a nice letter from her, appreciating the work we had done. Not only was the work appreciated, a shorter version of the report was published by them with illustrations from a brilliant artist, Karunakar who was working with Samakhya during those days. The icing on the cake was that the report was also translated into Telugu and later used in some of their training programmes as well. This was sufficient for us, as upstart students to be on cloud 9.

At the end of the stint at IRMA, it was placement season and Samakhya was listed to interview us on the first day. I took the interview, and in the evening Shashi called me in to tell me that I was selected. Having taken the interview of two other jobs that day, I had the luxury of three job offers. One was in Karnataka Milk Federation based in Bangalore – my hometown, another in NDDB, in Anand. Something in me told me that I should go and join Samakhya in Hyderabad, even though that was paying me the least. I did not regret that decision.

The two years I spent at Samakhya was quite exciting. During those days, we were replicating the Mulukanoor model in other co-operatives. That meant that, we were helping the primary agricultural co-operatives to become like Mulukanoor – a multipurpose co-operative. The model was that every co-operative offered credit, input supply, technical advise/equipment hiring, marketing of output, consumer and welfare services. In addition, these co-operatives were to be trained in book keeping, internal audit, planning, governance. Each of these training programmes had a non-negotiable component of teaching in detail the co-operative principles. My baptism to the concept of co-operation happened through such hands-on training and capacity building programmes. In addition we used to fill up a checklist of things when we went to each co-operative – things like does if have a sign board, does it have its own office, telephone connection, was the general body held within three months of closure of the year, was the annual report printed etc., which basically looked at internal management of the co-operative. A lot of this detail was usually looked into by Shashi – the success of a co-operative not only was in the big picture of governance and planning, but also in the smaller details of housekeeping. How important it was to straddle both the worlds. This could happen only because of the thought given to the intervention by somebody as insightful as her.

Somewhere down the line, I was inducted into a new exciting project of Samakhya. This project was an ambitious project of strengthening the co-operatives along the command area of the Sriramsagar Project. A dam was built at Pochampad on the river Godavari and distributory canals were under construction. The idea was that by the time water from the project came to Karimnagar and Warangal districts, the co-ops would be strong enough to absorb the changing cropping pattern [from maize to paddy] and set up their own rice mills so that the farmers could get a better realization. They had also planned a federation that would process by-products and co-ordinate the levy and market information aspects. This was a project of mammoth scale that was not seen by Samakhya earlier. AF Ferguson was hired to do the feasibility report and based on the report, I along with a colleague Krishna Kumar were assigned to gather more data to operationalize the dream. For me personally, this was a project of a mammoth scale, which had the potential of doing an Amul on the paddy-rice sector. Naturally I was quite excited. However, disappointment was to follow soon.

In the run up to the assembly elections I had seen the iconic NT Rama Rao come on his famous ‘Chaitanya Ratham’ to Mulukanoor, when I was doing my project. The speech that he gave at the ZP School premises was not only full of drama, but was equally moving. He had talked about the pride of Telugus and how Delhi was humiliating the aspirations of the local people. By the time I joined Samakhya NTR had won the election and become the Chief Minister. One of the early decisions that the NTR government took was to supersede the boards of all the primary co-operatives – a usual tactic used by many a political party to gain control over grassroots organisations. Possibly NTR’s icon, MGR had already done this in Tamil Nadu, which was famous for co-operatives run by government.

However, this move affected CDF significantly. Suddenly I found Shashi and Rama Reddy abandoning the work that we were doing on the paddy co-operative federation. Their argument was that these co-ops were no longer co-ops because they were run by government administrators, and until the basic democratic nature of these entities were restored; we should not work with them. My argument was that, by the time we fight the battle and come back to this constructive work, it might be too late. Water would have flown and the districts would be dotted by private mills. That has partly happened in Warangal and it would happen in Karimnagar as well. It was frustrating to see the work we had done during the past months come to a nought.

However Shashi and Rama Reddy vehemently believed that this was the time for protest and litigation. The office started looking like a war room with district level strategies being drawn up for street protests, advocacy and lobbying. In addition Samakhya also took the route of litigation by challenging the supersession in the court. For a young professional trained in Management, this looked too impractical and too ideological a position. However, I could do nothing but sulk. That was the time I think I had deep differences with what Samakhya was doing as well as with Shashi, and my reaction went to the extent of writing a letter to the editor of Eenadu against an article written by Mr. EV Rami Reddy, the then President of Samakhya. Hell broke loose after this, because Shashi was not happy with what I had done. My own frustration in the organization grew and it was time to leave.

I quit, and while we had fundamental differences, the parting was good. It takes a great deal of maturity for Shashi to have the magnanimity to respect my views on the strategic directions that the organization should have taken. She did tell me that she often found me arrogant, and that was the feedback from the co-ops as well – that he is good, sharp, but a bit too full of himself. The sense of self-righteousness that I had as an upstart was something that could have been curbed by an intolerant boss, but Shashi was made of different material. She allowed me the freedom of expression but finally called the shots. It is to her credit and her magnanimity that I enjoyed a good relationship with her and Samakhya many years after I quit.

While I went on to join IIM Bangalore for my doctoral work, the initial seeds that Shashi and Rama Reddy had sown in my about the co-operative sector continued and I ended up doing my thesis on co-operatives, and went back to the same co-ops with whom I had worked for data collection. Shashi was magnanimous enough to give me office space, put a computer at my disposal and allow me to use their facilities when I was doing my data collection, including an occasional ride in their vehicle if I were to go in the same direction.

Eversince, I have been in touch with Shashi and Samakhya. I watched the metamorphosis of the organization from Samakhya to Cooperative Development Foundation, from an organization that evangelically believed in the multipurpose co-operative model to an organization that excelled in advocacy and moved to promoting single purpose co-operatives. I also watched the next generation of professionals pass through the organization. I was engaged with them off and on including on a small consulting project on doing their accounting manual for the paddy and thrift co-operatives sometime in 2000.

In the later years I watched her take CDF on a dual path of [a] advocacy for a better co-operative legislation that honour the principles of co-operatives; and [b] working with structures that followed the co-operative principles but not necessarily incorporated as co-operatives. As a result of intense work on the co-operative law – a work that started in 1983-84 they were able to pull through an enactment in the state of AP, which gave genuine co-operatives a chance. A decade of work with the AP Government of conducting workshops, educating bureaucrats, engaging with elected legislators and using the press led to the passing of the seminal AP Mutually Aided Co-operative Societies’ Act, a legislation that respects the autonomy of co-operatives and the co-operative principles. [The civil society members working on the Lok Pal Bill must possibly pick a lesson or two in the modes of engagement from the experience of CDF]. Ironically the new legislation was passed under the same NT Rama Rao, who triggered the advocacy work of CDF by assaulting the democratic nature of the cooperatives. The new Act provided a framework for Shashi to work with the womens’ thrift groups to organize them under the new act. In addition, the unfinished agenda was also to get such Acts passed in different states across the country.

During this phase of CDF’s work I saw one more face of Shashi, which for me was an enduring picture. While she and Rama Reddy worked relentlessly for the for the new legislation, right from drafting an alternate legislation to the advocacy, the face of this entire effort was a Co-operative Initiatives Panel headed by Dr.Kurien, with Mohan Dharia and LC Jain as members. Shashi and Rama Reddy who were very adept at reading and interpreting laws [though not trained in law] kept a very low profile and did not even claim credit for the work. They were happy shedding the spotlight on the luminaries.

When I look back, it appears that the choice of abandoning the Paddy Federation in favour of fighting for legislation was indeed a correct decision. This was not only practical given their capabilities at that time, but also gave them the moral high ground to say that they stuck to the principles at all times. CDF at that time did not have the management bandwidth to pull off something on the scale of a large federation in the classic Kurien style. However, being non-compromising on principles, it was possible for them to doggedly work for change of laws, while continuing their grassroots work in the two chosen districts of Telangana region.

In the last phase of her career, Shashi withdrew from CDF and evolved as a person who worked equally effectively as an independent consultant. The growing differences with Rama Reddy had made her position in CDF difficult. For long she was the face of CDF – being articulate and aggressive. However, there was a growing sense that CDF had achieved its purpose. Indeed today as a reflection of this, the entire management of CDF has been handed over to the community who run it from Warangal without the involvement of any of the English-speaking professionals.

After Shashi quit CDF, we were more in touch, essentially because there would be an occasion to meet outside of Hyderabad as well. In addition, she was on a wider canvas and we had many more things to share. I remember that once she quit CDF, she started sending in her personal annual report, a delightful read on the assignments she had undertaken, the reasons why she undertook some assignments and her own take on how the year had progressed. Her transparency went to the extreme of her sharing her accounts with the readers as well. I did try to emulate this when I got out of employment about a year and a half ago, but it has been a tough act to follow. It is not easy to tell to others, let alone justify to oneself as to why one is doing some assignments, and how well it is progressing. The process of introspection and then sharing this with the outer world is so complex that my failed attempts at writing my own annual report made me appreciate her annual reports even more.

Shashi was a fiercely independent person, usually making a point by vehemently arguing for it, but also demonstrating it in life. Sometimes she was outspoken to the extent of being rude. In training programmes, she would embarrass Bank Managers who came in late by making the entire room clap in celebration of the late arrival of the “royalty”. In spite of this she would emerge as a favourite at the end of the programme, which she achieved through a great sense of empathy and by connecting with that person immediately and putting every person at ease. She had learnt not only to speak Telugu, but could effectively put together training manuals.

Shashi continued to work with small organisations and in the spirit of transparency that she always espoused. In the last few years, she was suffering from cancer, but refused treatment. Her research had shown her that in 90% of the cases the harm that the treatment did to the body was greater than the relief it gave. I wondered if this was a right decision for her. But never questioned her, nor brought up this issue with her, because I knew that she would have had a much stronger reason to take that path, than what I could suggest. She battled pain but was up on her feet till the last moment, trying to keep her faculties alive and lead a fiercely independent and professional life.

Shashi as a person was a full time professional. She remained unmarried and insisted that her parents be with her. She juggled between her travel schedules, her mother who needed full time caring with a sense of joy and righteousness. She constantly had this inner urge to prove that there were no gender differences – insisting on taking to the wheel on a huge Standard 20 or the organisation’s Jeep while she made the driver sit at the back. She was a person who loved to build conspiracy theories. Her favourite was a theory that anybody who put on too much of weight had turned corrupt! However, none of these came in the way of her professional engagement.

Of course, the most enduring memory of Shashi was when she had invited us all for a get-to-gather on the occasion of her 60th birthday in late July. It was one of the most gracious events that I attended, with Shashi full of life, eating a full meal and delivering a great thankyou speech to all her friends whom she valued very much. When I heard her passing away 10 days later, this was the picture that emerged and got etched in my memory. It was as if she was waiting for this occasion to bid all of us a goodbye.

If Shashi is not as well known as her counterparts and has not been honoured with the usual Padmas and the Magasasays it is because she worked as a loner, worked for effect rather than publicity, was happy to be in the background when others celebrated success of her work as their own. It was not that she did not enjoy the spotlight, it was just that she did not work for it. If she is unsung and unheard of today in the sarkari co-operative circles, it is just because she worked more for principles than for structures. In losing her we have lost one of the best advocates for the spirit of co-operatives. And in her I have lost somebody would be my talisman on the correctness of a decision. When I heard that she was no more, I wrote to some of my batchmates: In knowing her I had gained a tough boss with whom you could argue, fight and still smile. In her death I have lost a mentor, guide and a dear friend.

I still feel her presence…. she is somewhere around. Possibly this is what I could call the spirit of Shashi. That spirit is with me!


Anirban said...

Read all your articles with interest. This one was particularly nice

Nitin Pai said...

I did manage to get hold of your MTS report in the IRMA library when i was doing my PRM. It was the most bulky of the lot.Must have been a task to make all those tables in days without computers.

Nitin Pai,
PRM 30

Anonymous said...

I came across this piece more or less by accident. Having known and worked with Shashi, and having learned more than I can tell from her, I truly enjoyed reading and recalling what a wonderful person she was. She brought an extraordinary wisdom to her work and life and a personal and professional integrity that was so well-defined that it often made people very uncomfortable. When she found evidence contrary to her own views, she was honest enough to acknowledge that and take a different stance. When she was right she was tenacious in arguing her case. But at the heart, she cared deeply about people and finding ways that they could improve their lives through their own efforts. I, too, miss her greatly and feel her presence.

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