ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Remarkable Life

Dhruba Narayan Ghosh (1928–2023)

Dhruba Narayan Ghosh, a distinguished citizen of India, passed away on 7 November 2023, in Kolkata, at the age of 95. At the time of independence, in 1947, he was just about 19 years old. The next 75 years turned out to be a remarkable life in our times of an extraordinary person who contributed so much to the public domain in economy and society. It is sad news and an irreparable loss for his family, friends, colleagues and admirers, who span a wide spectrum of age and straddle the vast geographical spread of India. He was held in great esteem by his peers and much admired by the young. Dhruba Ghosh was a man of many parts—a superb civil servant, a distinguished corporate leader, an innovative banker, a builder of institutions, a natural leader, a scholar, a columnist—with a razor-sharp mind—and, most importantly, a concerned citizen. For me, he was a close friend for more than four decades. And I have not quite come to terms with the reality that he has left us.

Dhruba Narayan Ghosh, a distinguished citizen of India, passed away on 7 November 2023, in Kolkata, at the age of 95. At the time of independence, in 1947, he was just about 19 years old. The next 75 years turned out to be a remarkable life in our times of an extraordinary person who contributed so much to the public domain in economy and society. It is sad news and an irreparable loss for his family, friends, colleagues and admirers, who span a wide spectrum of age and straddle the vast geographical spread of India. He was held in great esteem by his peers and much admired by the young. Dhruba Ghosh was a man of many parts—a superb civil servant, a distinguished corporate leader, an innovative banker, a builder of institutions, a natural leader, a scholar, a columnist—with a razor-sharp mind—and, most importantly, a concerned citizen. For me, he was a close friend for more than four decades. And I have not quite come to terms with the reality that he has left us.

Dhruba Ghosh was born on 6 August 1928 in Cooch Behar, in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, where he spent his childhood and went to school. He spent his formative years in Presidency College, Calcutta, studying for his BA and MA in economics. Ghosh was selected for the Indian Audit and Accounts Service in 1952. Over the next 33 years, his career in government was stellar, though in a somewhat different way from the usual. He served in the banking division of the Ministry of Finance as deputy secretary and joint secretary. As a deputy secretary, he was handpicked by P N Haksar, secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to draft the ordinance for the nationalisation of 14 private sector banks which turned out to be impeccable, for it withstood the formidable challenges mounted by private banks represented by Nani Palkhivala in the Supreme Court. On completion of his tenure with the union government, he spent two years (1975–77) on study leave in the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, with his former teacher at Presidency College, Calcutta—Tapas Majumdar—to work on a book about the nationalisation of banks. This book, titled Banking Policy in India: An Evaluation, was published in 1979.

In late 1977, Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and Finance Minister Ashok Mitra persuaded Ghosh to join the newly elected Government of West Bengal on deputation as secretary of Institutional Finance, which was most unusual for a central services officer. He served there for more than three years until the end of 1980. Following that, in 1981, he moved to Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Calcutta, where he spent one year as visiting professor of Economics.

There is an interesting story about this time in Calcutta. Chief Minister Jyoti Basu tasked him to persuade Ratan Tata to set up a new Taj Group hotel in the city. Ghosh brought Ratan Tata to Calcutta and showed him possible sites where the hotel could be built. Ratan Tata liked the spot opposite the zoo in Alipore. There were some procedural hurdles that were overcome and the land was allotted to the Tatas. The Taj Bengal, Calcutta, was inaugurated on 10 October 1989.

In 1982, he returned to the Government of India (GoI) as additional secretary, Ministry of Steel and Mines. In February 1985, he was appointed secretary, defence production, in the Ministry of Defence. The story of the next stage in his career is particularly worth narrating. Less than two months after his appointment as secretary to the GoI—an aspiration for most civil servants—the then cabinet secretary, Pratap Kaul, who had not only researched Ghosh’s past in the Ministry of Finance but also recognised his attributes of ability and integrity, sent for Dhruba. Kaul, who had served as finance secretary earlier, was always brief and to the point. In a brief meeting, the cabinet secretary said to him: “Given your talent and experience, I think you are the ideal person to be the next Chairman of the State Bank of India.” Dhruba was surprised and hesitant in his response. Kaul simply said: “I realise that you have only recently been appointed Secretary to the Government of India, but you will retire in one year and four months. What I am suggesting will give you four years. The choice is obvious.” Dhruba dropped into my office at Udyog Bhawan and repeated what transpired in the meeting. My advice was that he must accept. A month later, Pratap Kaul, whom I knew well, narrated the same story to me. In May 1985, Ghosh was appointed Chairman of State Bank of India (SBI), for a term of four years. This was almost four decades ago. Such an appointment based on merit alone, without any intervention from the political process, would simply not be possible now.

After retiring from the public sector, he reinvented his life in the private corporate sector. He served as the Chairman of Phillips India (1989–99), Founder Chairman of ICRA (1991–2013), Chairman of Larsen & Toubro (1990–91), and Chairman of Peerless Group (1996–2006). In addition, he served as an independent director on several boards, including HDFC and Birla Corporation. He was a trustee in the Sameeksha Trust (1992–2023), which publishes Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) and has established the EPW Research Foundation, where he served as the managing trustee from 1993 to 2019. He was also associated with management education. He was the first chairman of the board for IIM Lucknow (1986–91) and was subsequently Chairman of Management Development Institute, Gurgaon.

I first met Dhruba Ghosh in 1977 when I was teaching in England but was on a sabbatical leave as visiting professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. As it turned out, the intersections in our professional lives were almost continuous thereafter. I returned to India in July 1980, accepting an appointment as professor of economics at the IIM, Calcutta. Six months later, in 1981, Dhruba Ghosh spent a sabbatical year as a visiting professor at IIM Calcutta. Our offices were adjacent to each other. As we got to know each other better, we had engaging conversations on macroeconomics and international finance. I moved to Delhi in July 1983, when I was appointed Economic Adviser to the GoI in the Ministry of Commerce. Our interaction and association continued as he was also in Delhi with the government at the time.

I left the government and moved to JNU in January 1986. Soon after, I was appointed as an Independent Director on the Board of the SBI, at the time the only one from outside the government and Reserve Bank of India (RBI), in accordance with the stipulation in the SBI Act. As member of the Executive Committee of the Board, I worked very closely with Dhruba Ghosh as Chairman. It was a transformative period. Computerisation was introduced, despite the resistance, through persuasion. For senior management positions, the selection process was refor­med, moving from consideration of one batch every year, to considering three batches at one time, enlarging the pool of choice, and grooming those selected for leadership roles. The SBI sought and obtained a credit rating through Standard and Poor’s for international financial markets. SBI Capital Markets was created as a separate entity, entering the mutual funds business to challenge the UTI monopoly, and lay the foundations for investment banking. Such change and reform in the public sector were the beginnings of a renaissance way ahead of the curve. As one observer wrote: “Ghosh made SBI, the elephant, dance.”

Ghosh’s engagement with the financial sector continued. In September 1990, when I was Chief Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance and Secretary to the GoI, Dhruba came to see me and said that he was thinking about establishing a credit rating agency in India. He believed that there was no reason why this business should be a prerogative of the West, dominated by the big three—Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s and Fitch—from the United States. In this quest, he was a pioneer in the developing world. It was an original and ambitious idea. I encouraged him and said that he should not hesitate to reach out to me for any help that might be needed. A year later, ICRA was born. Ghosh was its founder Chairman. He was not content with being a mentor. He was hands-on, finding time not only for discussion with his analysts but also for chairing the Ratings Committee from 1991 until 2005. By then, ICRA was established. In 2002, he persuaded me to join the ICRA Board as an Independent Director. Moody’s recognised ICRA’s potential and acquired around 5% of its equity in 1996 and raised that to 20% in 2006. In 2007, following an initial public offering (IPO), ICRA was listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange, which was a source of joy and pride for Ghosh. ICRA’s growth spread its footprint. Soon, it matched CRISIL as the market leader. Moody’s attempted to acquire a majority share in the market but failed. Ghosh decided to step down as Chairman in 2013 but urged me to continue on the board. His dream of building a world-class rating agency in India had been transformed into reality. Alas, in 2014, Moody’s succeeded in acquiring a majority by a tiny margin. And I resigned from the Board soon thereafter.

The continuing engagement of Ghosh with the financial sector had one more chapter. At the behest of Jyoti Basu, who was keen to save a fading relic of enterprise and capitalism in Bengal, he accep­ted the challenge to serve as Chairman of the Peerless Group. It was a very difficult task with acute liquidity problems and multiple regulatory hurdles. Yet, over a decade, from 1996 to 2006, he turned it around.

My longest association with Dhruba Ghosh, for the good cause of EPW, span­ned three decades. In January 1992, soon after I returned from the Ministry of Finance to JNU, the Sameeksha Trust invited both D N Ghosh and me to join as trustees. At the time, the Trust comprised M N Srinivas (Chairman), H T Parekh, Ashok Mitra, K N Raj, S R Sen, K S Krishnaswamy, André Beteille and Krishna Raj (Trustees). The Managing Trustee, Hiten Chaudhuri, had passed away a few months earlier. D N Ghosh was elected as the Managing trustee in 1992 and I was elected as the Chairman in 2005.

Through these decades, we worked together very closely, and rarely, if ever, missed a meeting of the Sameeksha Trust, despite the hectic professional lives both of us led. When we joined, the financial situation of EPW was fragile as it lived a hand-to-mouth existence, and there was almost no corpus. Together, we mobilised resources, in which the development finance institutions were particularly helpful at the beginning, to create a modest corpus. At the same time, we launched a campaign for advertisements, where Ghosh was almost a magician given his networks in the corporate sector. We purchased office space in Kandivali in 1992. The EPW Research Foundation was established in 1993. The need to mobilise resources surfaced once again in the early 2000s, when we were asked to vacate the rented EPW premises near the RBI. We succeeded largely because of the enormous goodwill of two donors from the private sector and our efforts at raising matching contributions from the corporate and financial sectors. This enabled us to buy office space at Borivali in 2002, an apartment for the editor in 2006, and new office space for EPW at Lower Parel in 2007. Production processes were stream­lined and modernised. Subscription rates and advertisement rates were revised regularly. The efforts at financial resource mobilisation were sustained to help build a corpus.

The EPW entered the digital age, beyond the digital version of its print edition, with generous support from the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF). Ghosh was always most enthusiastic about this idea because he was convinced that it must be the future of EPW. As the Managing Trustee, Ghosh was an integral, indeed crucial, part of this entire process of transformation. In addition, as he was in Mumbai frequently for meetings of Corporate Boards as a Director, he spent time with the staff at the EPW office and helped in every way he could. The EPW and EPWRF staff had high regard and much affection for him. He had wanted to step down as managing trustee for some time but continued at my request and persuasion until 2019. Even thereafter, he continued as a Trustee, so
that we had the benefit of his wisdom and experience. He will be sorely missed by the Sameeksha Trust and the EPW family.

There were two other dimensions in our association with each other that deserve a mention. First, I read draft chapters of his memoirs as they were being written in 2009 and 2010, providing comments and suggestions. In doing so, I learnt much about his life that I was not aware of. Dhruba was a perfectionist. He continued to work on and revise the manuscript for some time. No Regrets, was published in 2015, when he was 87, and received splendid reviews. Second, he persuaded me to join the Board of Birla Corporation Limited in 2010, which he had joined three years earlier. His most powerful argument, which clinch­ed the matter, was that much like ICRA, there were only independent directors on this board which had no promoter or shareholder directors. This revived my old connection with Kolkata, renamed in 2001, and provided us with an opportunity to meet at least four times a year.

Ghosh continued to be active even after he turned 90. In 2006, he succeeded the then Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee, as President of the Satyajit Ray Society. Its objective was to disseminate Ray’s works, establish film archives and set up a Ray Heritage Centre in Kolkata. He stepped down from this role in 2021. He was also closely associated with the launch of Bangla Worldwide, a dynamic and interactive online platform to connect Bengali people in India and the world who had an interest in the literature and culture of Bengal. The portal is connected to 116 countries and 2,040 cities. The story would not be complete without noting that he was very active on Twitter in his 90s.

There were some attributes of Dhruba Ghosh that deserve a special mention. He had remarkable leadership qualities embedded in delegation, trust and loyalty. If things went well, he gave credit to those who worked for him. If things went wrong, he accepted the responsibility. He searched for and nurtured talented young people, just as he was egalitarian in his relationships. He was constructive in criticism and sought to find solutions to problems, drawing upon his experience, sagacity and wisdom. He had the courage of conviction, which enabled him to speak truth to power. People like Ghosh are a vanishing breed if not an endangered species. We will miss him. Even so, we must
celebrate his life.

 

 

Updated On : 30th Nov, 2023
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