Another day in 1998
From 1996 to 1998, I was an AGM and Member of Faculty at the Reserve Bank of India’s Zonal Training Centre (ZTC) in Mumbai. The ZTC was then on the fourth floor of the Bank’s Byculla Office opposite the Bombay Central Station. The story of my meetings with Dr Reddy starts on 7 October 1998. On my way home, I saw a tray next to a pillar on the ground floor. It always had letters addressed to the hoi polloi, staff not important enough to receive letters at their desks. Those were still snail mail days. Nevertheless, I always ignored the tray. But that day, my sixth sense indicated a letter for me.
As I rifled through the pile, my fingers fell on a white cover with the RBI logo in navy blue at one end. Turning it over, I found my name and address scrawled at the right end. On the left was printed, also in navy blue, “Reserve Bank of India Central Office Bombay”. Above it was another scribble: Dr YV Reddy, Deputy Governor.
Dr Reddy becomes Deputy Governor
I first heard of Dr Yaga Venugopal Reddy in the mid-1990s. When my boss returned from a meeting in New Delhi, he asked whether the Bank’s library had any books by Joseph Stiglitz. Dr Reddy, the Banking Secretary, was asking. About a decade and a half later, Dr Reddy would be a member of the Stiglitz Commission.
Soon, a rumour was rife that Dr Reddy was joining the Bank as Deputy Governor in place of SS Tarapore. But nobody was sure. Finally, I confirmed it on seeing an acquaintance entering the lift from the sixth-floor lobby, where the library is, with Reddy’s first book (on small scale industries?) prominently displayed under his arm.
There was much talk and speculation about the new DG. One association leader remarked that the new DG was the same Venugopal who was Secretary in the Office of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. I told him that was KR Venugopal, a different person. But, he argued that in Telugu the R invariably stood for Reddy. With Venugopal also matching, he was convinced they were the same. Despite old family links with Telugu speaking lands and my grandmother speaking Telugu, I had no claims to expertise here. Moreover, I learnt early in my career not to argue with two types, both repositories of immense knowledge in these matters. One was whoever passed as an association stalwart. The other were those who made a career out of being in administration and such support functions. So there ended the discussion. I let it pass that I knew KR Venugopal well at one point.
A digression is in order. KR Venugopal was also a close friend of Dr Reddy. He was from the 1962 batch of IAS. When he took a sabbatical from his Andhra cadre in the mid-1980s to write his ‘Deliverance from Hunger,’ he visited Kerala to study its public distribution system. He was my father’s guest during the period. We had a great time travelling to Kanyakumari over two days via the historic Sthanumalayan temple in Suchindram where Venugopal also joined in a Navagraha pooja that my father had arranged.
A fine and low profile gentleman, and terrific raconteur, Mr Venugopal was full of life with a fund of stories from his student days in old Madras. The title song from the 1982 Kamalahasan- and Reena Roy-starrer, Sanam Teri Kasam, was his then favourite song. An Autobiography of a Yogi by Swami Paramahamsa Yogananda was his favourite book. A life changer, he said, urging me to read it. And his favourite (so I presume) personal anecdote: when he told a girl in the college canteen not to add sugar to the coffee, but to stir it with her little finger. I am yet to complete the book. But, I did try the next one with no favourable result.
On a visit to Trivandrum with the Prime Minister in the early 1990s, I believe Venugopal made enquiries about my mother wanting to meet her. But, she had moved to Cochin by then. Venugopal’s daughter is married to the son of another Secretary in Narasimha Rao’s Office, the Late BN Yugandhar, also a batchmate. Satya Nadella, his son-in-law, is of course more famous today (I haven’t met either).
My posting in ZTC
In 1995, on promotion as an AGM, I desired a posting in the Regional Office of the Bank’s Rural Planning and Credit Department where I was posted. I thought this would give me more hands-on rural experience. After it was turned down, I looked around for more interesting pastures and applied for a faculty position. On being selected, the Training Division posted me to the Zonal Training Centre which was not what I hoped for. I had my eyes on the Bankers Training College which was more prestigious.
My boss felt that I was more of an operations person and advised me against going to the ZTC where he himself was an instructor many years earlier. He offered to get it cancelled. I politely told him that though Venkitaramanan (former Governor) lamented the lack of institutional memory in the Bank, one place where it was a firmly entrenched credo was the Bank’s administration. By December 1996, three months after Dr Reddy had joined as Deputy Governor, I was in ZTC, far removed from him by distance, rank, and area of activity.
Banking too narrowly
Between taking classes on the Reserve Bank of India Act and currency management for the umpteenth time, I found time to start some serious writing. My first article was a critique of the recommendation on narrow banking that was a highlight in the Report of the Committee on Capital Account Convertibility chaired by SS Tarapore. Surprisingly, Late MS Aradhye, General Manager who was in charge of the Byculla Office, permitted me to publish the article without any reference to the Central Office. This surprise was surpassed only by the decision of The Economic Times to put it on their edit page on 24 April 1998. The article did not create any ripple. But, the appreciation came from one source, Tarapore himself. Perhaps the only one that mattered. But, that is a different story.
Separating banking supervision
The second article took a few more months. This critiqued the Narasimham Committee’s endorsement of separating banking supervision from central banking, introduced in the UK with much fanfare and trumpeting. The chronic re-drafter that I am, this article saw more than 20 versions with no resemblance between the first and the last. Willingness to drop what you thought was a nice sentence is key to good writing, I always believed. But one sentence that I dropped in the last stage, partly to stay within the word limit, I would regret later. This was a prognosis that the UK could reverse its decision ten years down the road. This actually happened. Nevertheless, the end result was not bad. ET published this too on its edit page on 5 October 1998. This time too there was only one appreciation that mattered. That came from Dr Reddy, Deputy Governor, through that letter.
Dr Reddy’s letter
Dr Reddy’s letter was short. He was pleased to read my article and asked me to call on him whenever I was next in headquarters. He had presumed that as one posted to a Zonal Training Centre, I must be in one of the other cities.
Reddy had an excellent team in his Office. Dr A Prasad, his Executive Assistant, was known to me even before he had joined the Bank. As he was not available, I spoke to Venkatachalam, the kindly and amiable Secretary to Dr Reddy from Cherpulassery in Palakkad District. Dr Reddy would later take him to the IMF. Venkatachalam was aware of DG’s letter. I asked him whether the DG was really serious about a meeting or whether he was just being nice. He confirmed that DG was serious. As he was in his office and free, he encouraged me to meet him.
The first meeting…
The meeting lasted around half an hour. Behind the desk was an avuncular figure almost oozing with kindness and affection. I found that Dr Reddy had a very expressive face capable of different emotions. He would have made a great Kathakali artiste. He had the requisite facial features and prominent cheeks and chubbiness that matched the best in the art. But that would have been a great loss to finance and central banking.
Reddy asked me about my background and where I had worked. We discussed for some time the subject of my article. Finally, he wanted to know whether I was happy at the ZTC. I told him that I became a faculty member mainly to improve my public speaking skills. Finally, he enquired whether the objective was achieved and whether I would like a change. I said yes. At the end of the meeting, he advised me to leave my CV with his Secretary.
During the meeting, we got to establish various personal connections. Gopi Arora, my father’s batchmate in the IAS, was a close family friend of Dr Reddy. They must have been at the IMF/World Bank at the same time. GR Nair, my father’s classmate, and former Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh was Reddy’s boss. There were also Reddy’s batchmates in Kerala. My father’s friends/batchmates from the Andhra cadre, including the brilliant TL Sankar and SR Sankaran, the ‘People’s IAS Officer.’ But, Reddy added at the end, ours will of course be a professional relationship. Yes, sir, I replied.
…and the last
As it turned out, that was the only time I met Dr Reddy in his office. The day after he relinquished office, I told Prasad that I could not bid DG farewell as I was busy with various things. Prasad informed me that Reddy had come to the office. When I entered, Dr Reddy was segregating his books. At the end of the meeting, I expressed the hope to see him back as Governor. He just laughed it off. But, that happened a year and two months later when Reddy assumed charge as Governor on 6 September 2003. This was around the time my mother had a quadruple bypass in Chennai. A few weeks later, in October, the Administration was kind enough to transfer me back to Chennai, for six months, at my request. I would therefore never meet Reddy in his office as Governor.
Dr Reddy sent my CV to one of the Executive Directors (ED), but nothing came out of it immediately. In mid-December, I was about to handle classes on public debt management when the Currency Officer, holding charge that day, asked me to come down. On reaching his office, he connected me to BS Sharma, then ED, Administration. Mr Sharma informed that Mr MS Verma, former Chairman of State Bank of India, had joined as an Adviser to the Governor. They were looking for an Executive Assistant and many had suggested my name. He asked me whether I was interested. I said yes. He asked me when I could come. I sought time till the afternoon so that I could complete the classes that I was about to handle. He said okay and asked me to meet Sandip Ghose, then EA to Governor.
The Currency Officer was gesticulating from behind me all this while. After I put down the phone, he said what do you mean joining in the afternoon. It is a matter of your career. He suggested that I drop everything and just leave. I just smiled.
Sandip briefed me on what was expected of me and was always a positive figure always available for advice and consultation. He had arranged Room No 5 for me against, I believe, much opposition. Mr Verma was seated in Room No 1. In the next room, No 2, was SS Tarapore. The stories of my time interacting with them will have to wait.
I came to know later that ED (Sharma) spoke to me directly because nobody else was available in the administration that day. In other words, nobody who could have objected to my shift from the ZTC was present. That included Aradhye, my Manager.
A short article of 800 words had changed the course of my career.
Dr Reddy’s Laboratory
Dr Reddy had wanted to post me in one of his departments. But that was not to be. But, like a true and seasoned bureaucrat, he found a way around it. When he was appointed as the Regulation Review Authority (RRA), he informed Mr Verma that he would use my services as one of his Special Assistants. I would later, with much affection, refer to the RRA as Dr Reddy’s Laboratory, of course without his knowledge.
The RRA, maybe by oversight, finds no mention in Dr Reddy’s autobiography, Advice and Dissent. But, the sweep of its effect was phenomenal in making people down the line rethink regulation. This found resonance in the Better Regulation Project enunciated by the OECD around the time and implemented across the UK and Europe.
The RRA reviewed and consolidated regulations issued by the Reserve Bank of India over the years. This even extended to internal administrative circulars issued by the Bank. Dr Reddy was uniquely placed to be the RRA as he was in charge of neither regulation nor administration. He could take an independent view. Suggestions for review came from the staff as well as from bankers and the public. Dr Reddy was ably assisted by one Mr Shetty who unfortunately passed away during the recent lockdown.
I was one among around 50 special assistants, roughly two from each department. They would respond to suggestions relating to their department as well as process suggestions relating to other departments whenever referred to them. I was perhaps the only SA not attached to any department. But, I got mostly banking regulation related matters and also a few on administration. I will discuss one such case on foreign travel by the Bank’s employees.
Permission to travel abroad
The Bank used to have separate processes of permission for issuing NOC for passports and for each foreign travel. The actual procedure was cumbersome. Clearances were required from vigilance, total loan balances and overall liability were examined, source of income was scrutinised, and so on. The suggestion was to combine the two processes.
I argued that issuing NOC was a formality required by the passport authorities under the Passport Act 1968. Apart from identification abroad, the purpose of the 1968 amendment was to ensure that the government was not burdened by having to bring back Indian citizens of scarce means if they were stranded abroad. No Indian citizen wanting to travel abroad for bona fide purposes can be denied a passport. I suggested that the NOC be issued on demand by an officer in the lowest grade. Dr Reddy changed the word ‘demand’ to ‘request,’ to be made in a plain paper application. He further added that rejection can only be by a Deputy Governor. But, when I last got an NOC for renewing my passport, in 2017, I found that a printed form had wormed its way back.
As for permission to travel abroad, I argued that such permission should be deemed to be implicit in a leave application and permission to leave headquarters. Without these, nobody can in the normal course travel abroad. I further added that if a heavily indebted person wanted to abscond after leaving the country he could still do so without a formal application and approval. The cumbersome process of vigilance clearance and obtaining balance certificates from credit societies unduly burdened every employee. My suggestion to completely do away with separate permission to travel abroad was accepted and implemented.
Dr Reddy comes home
After my tenure with Mr Verma, I was posted to the Department of Banking Supervision, as there was some residual work relating to an Advisory Group on Banking Supervision that Verma was chairing. While there, I also became a Secretary to an Advisory Board that dealt with fraud and was chaired by SS Tarapore, former Deputy Governor. I will write about these later. When Tarapore’s tenure ended in June 2001, SP Talwar, also a former Deputy Governor, took his place.
Around this time, my friend and economist, Abhijit Banerjee, who was teaching at MIT, was visiting. He used to stay with me during his visits to Mumbai. But, on that occasion, he was staying elsewhere. He mentioned that he was to meet Dr Reddy over lunch. It was cancelled as Reddy was not keeping well. A couple of days later, Abhijit was coming home for dinner. Accompanying him were Esther, his student and future wife, and Shawn Cole, another student, now with the Harvard Business School. I told him that if he still wanted to meet Dr Reddy, I could request him also to join us for dinner. He agreed. Dr Reddy too happily agreed.
Over dinner, Dr Reddy complained to Abhijit that I was quite slippery. He said that though he had spotted me in ZTC, and wanted me in his department, first Verma took me, then Tarapore, and finally Talwar, who was not willing to even nominate me for a Visiting Fellowship abroad. And how he had to intervene. He lamented that there were certain things that even a Deputy Governor could not get done in the Bank.
Dr Reddy was referring to a Visiting Fellowship at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), Basel. Based on various factors, the training division had shortlisted a few names to be recommended to the BIS for the fellowship. I had stood first. There is a backstory to this.
When I was with Mr Verma, I once had a visitor in Mr AK Pandya, then General Manager in charge of training. Pandya was one of the finest gentlemen I had known in the Bank. He was briefly my boss in Madras during my early years at the Bank. He announced the happy decision that they were sending me for training abroad. I was the only one from my batch who the Bank had not sent anywhere, a fact which had escaped my notice. The nomination was for a central banking programme at the Centre for Central Banking Studies of the Bank of England. As a student of central banking from my undergraduate days, I was elated at this opportunity. But, I received the news with equanimity and chose to wait for something in writing.
A few days later, somebody else from the Training Division informed me that the nomination for the programme could go to somebody else. The suggestion was that I get Mr Verma to speak to the DG in charge of administration. I replied that there was no way I was going to talk to Mr Verma. Even if I did, there was no way Mr Verma was going to intervene. I believed that if this did not come through something else would. My lack of any prior foreign exposure was, I believe, one key factor in my coming first. Eventually, my first foreign training came in 2006, when I was a General Manager at the Staff College.
Meetings in Basel
Two names were to be recommended to the BIS. Governor had decided that the three DGs would jointly decide. Training Division officials later told me that the two available DGs dropped my name and recommended the second and third. This was because one of them, SP Talwar, was going to chair the Board where I was secretary. Finding this to be unjust, Dr Reddy later recorded having spoken to Talwar and had my name reinstated. BIS selected me for the Fellowship based on my detailed written proposal on operational risk, then a relatively new subject.
At the BIS, I was attached to the secretariat of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision for six months. During the period, Dr Reddy visited Basel twice. Reddy always stayed at Basel Hilton opposite the BIS, from where he would go for a morning walk every day. He also took time off to be with the central banking fraternity from India. We met twice over dinner, once at the residence of Gynedi Srinivas, my batchmate, now with the World Bank. Over one such dinner, Reddy was alarmed that from having cooked a non-vegetarian dinner a few months earlier, I had become a pure vegetarian. I still am. As he declared, recent converts were greater sticklers to their new faith. Once, Dr Reddy, Srinivas, and I went to MIGROS, the huge cooperative chain, for some personal shopping for Dr Reddy.
Overhang of administration
Over dinner, Reddy took turns to get feedback from us on what was the one thing that could be done to improve the Bank’s functioning. When my turn came, I put forward my pet thoughts: the bane of the overhang of administration across the Bank. In my view, this manifested in two different ways.
First, making the most senior officer the head of administration and designating him/her ‘Chief Manager’ as against ‘Managers’ of the same rank who headed the Regional Offices, the message was that administration was the most important function. As a student of central banking, I found the very idea repulsive.
Adding force to this perception was my second point. Though a central bank, a disproportionately large number of departments were engaged in non-core functions like administration. AF Ferguson, the management consultancy firm, also made a similar observation in the early 1990s. On top of this, the departments engaged in central banking both at the Central and Regional Offices also had big administration divisions. Even in such departments, the sections dealing with actual core functions also had people dealing with administration. My back of the envelope calculations showed that out of ten employees only about two were actually engaged in core central banking. This meant that an average employee spent a considerable part of his/her career in such non-core functions to the detriment of the Bank’s focus and efficiency.
Reddy was a great listener. But, it was perhaps a coincidence that during his tenure as Governor the practice of the most senior official heading administration was discontinued. I later changed my view when I found that a junior person in Administration could fancy chances of an earlier promotion if he/she could undermine his seniors. These are of course matters of speculation and take the story in a different direction.
My subsequent meetings with Dr Reddy were few. When he was Governor, I could have called on him at his Office. But, it never occurred to me and I never tried. I am sure he did not mind. Great leaders will never, as they are not burdened by insecurity.
The only occasions I met Dr Reddy during his tenure as Governor were when he visited the Reserve Bank Staff College. In the first such meeting, sometime in mid-2005, he did not express surprise to see me there though I had not taken leave of him when I left Mumbai. He suggested that I do a PhD. That idea was at the back of my mind. But, Dr Reddy’s suggestion gave it an added urgency. I registered for the next semester at IIT Madras, which incidentally he also had suggested. He himself would later become an Honorary Fellow there.
In my thesis, I acknowledged those who contributed to my research in some way. The first was Dr Reddy. I sent the acknowledgement pages to all those mentioned. Dr Reddy was the only one to reply thanking me. He also took care to mention that he particularly loved the last paragraph where I had acknowledged my parents.
In 2008, when the Board for Financial Supervision decided that bank inspection reports should be given an independent look, I believe Dr Reddy suggested my name. I was then at the Reserve Bank Staff College. Two other names were added. One of the present EDs later told me that if the recommendations of that report and another one that I had written a year later were implemented, the subsequent big exercises, of which he was a part, would have been unnecessary.
Delhi and Mumbai
Subsequently, we met in Delhi a few times. Dr Reddy always stayed at the Bank’s guest house in Rabindra Nagar. I also stayed in the colony.
When Dr Reddy was a member of the Stiglitz Commission, I emboldened myself to send a suggestion. It must have been inconsequential because I myself do not remember now what it was. But, Dr Reddy replied to acknowledge and state that the Commission would consider such a point.
Reddy always sent me invitations for his book releases whether in Delhi or Mumbai. This included his autobiography, Advice and Dissent. Our last meeting in RBI was in 2017/2018 over lunch when he interacted with the Bank’s History Cell.
Jaipur and after
We last met before the pandemic lockdown in Mumbai for the release of his book on fiscal federalism. A meeting in Hyderabad where I was during part of the lockdown staying with a friend from my pre-RBI days did not happen thanks to the lockdown.
But, more important was our meeting in Jaipur, where I was Regional Director for Rajasthan for seven months.
I am an irrational believer in nimittam, with no exact English equivalent. An omen or indicator, it suggests the next course of action. When the Staff College decided that those with no experience in banking supervision or Basel would handle an international programme on Basel II, I decided to move on. Having undergone a heart procedure, I requested a transfer to Trivandrum on health grounds. This was acceded to, but the destination became New Delhi. I secretly rejoiced as New Delhi was like a second home. Practically every road and locality, at least in Lutyens and South Delhi, were as familiar as my palm. Therefore, when a similar situation arose on 31 January 2019, my decision was quick. That evening, I received news that the Bank had promoted a junior over me as Executive Director. I decided it was time to move on and emailed my papers within an hour.
I mailed those who I thought were my well-wishers informing them of my decision. The responses varied from support to opposition. Some of those who opposed vehemently persuaded me to withdraw. CD Srinivasan, my colleague and Banking Ombudsman in Jaipur, spent a few hours with me trying to change my decision. DP Sarda, former Executive Director, also in Jaipur and who I never met before my posting in Jaipur, almost violently opposed the idea. Support came from Dr Reddy.
Dr Reddy fully endorsed my decision. And I am grateful to him for that. He mailed back asking me to speak. When I called him, he informed me that he would be in Jaipur on 16 February 2019 to deliver the first Vyas Memorial Lecture. He would meet me that day.
On the 16th, when I met Dr Reddy in his hotel room in the morning, he looked a bit touched on seeing me. At least, I thought as much. We spoke about many things. He asked about my future plans. I invited him to join a farewell that some of my staff had organised that evening at the Ashoka Club run by the royal family. He was non-committal as he had another dinner commitment at the same time. We met a second time at the Vyas Memorial Lecture. In the evening, at the Ashoka Club, Dr Reddy made a surprise entry into the hall where my farewell was scheduled to begin. He spent about an hour with us. I could not have asked for a greater honour than have Dr Reddy present at my last official function at the Bank.
We have been in touch ever since. As in the case of our first meeting, which followed his letter appreciating an article that I wrote, Dr Reddy continues to support and appreciate my writing. Whether it is on reimagining Indian currency, a quiz on the history of the Reserve Bank, or an anecdote on my father and his minister, the first word of encouragement almost invariably comes from Dr Reddy.
Till we meet again…
Come to think of it, I had only very few significant meetings with Dr Reddy, over the quarter-century since I first met him. I met him in his office only once, when he was Deputy Governor. I could add a visit to his residence when I was in Hyderabad to deliver a talk at a conference. Or his son’s wedding much earlier. The other meetings were few and never pre-planned.
There are people who one meets only a few times but their influence is disproportionately much larger, lasting far beyond those moments. A small act of kindness, a word of encouragement, perhaps just a nodding smile are enough to change your outlook and perhaps the course of your life. With Dr Reddy, like nobody else, it happened with me many times over. My movement from ZTC to Mr Verma. My visiting fellowship at Basel. Pursuit of a PhD. Did his invisible hand save me from a difficult situation at some point? I never asked, and he never told. The list goes on. And I am sure there are many others like me out there whose lives were similarly touched by Dr Reddy over the course of his life and career. But, that gift is only for the chosen few.
I look forward to my next big meeting with Dr Reddy.
© G. Sreekumar 2022
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