I was seven years old when I saw electric lights for the first time. Village Ratta Khera Bhai Gulab Singh had no such amenities — no power, the school was a single room and the nearest pucca road was 5 km away. You had to go to Firozpur, 20 km away, to catch a bus. That’s how we had left the village after the 1965 war, to come to Delhi. After the wide, open spaces of rural Punjab, our one-room-kitchen home in Delhi seemed very cramped but, it had electric lights!
As soon as the municipal school in RK Puram Sector shut for the summer, my family would be back in Punjab. Days in the village would start early — my grandfather would wake me up at 5 am and make me fetch water from the well. After I cleaned the poultry farm, I would head to the field to help with the paddy harvest. While my classmates in Delhi relaxed, I would be helping my grandparents and aunt look after our land. Dadaji had been a thanedar before Independence and was consequently, very strict; but even he relaxed under the kikar tree after lunch. That was a luxury, even though we had to shift our charpoy every time the sun changed direction and couldn’t have uninterrupted sleep for more than half an hour.
Despite all the hard work, life in the village was simple, uncomplicated. Labour was not easily available, so we turned to each other for help. If the canal near our house had to be cleaned, we would ask our neighbours to lend a hand. In return, we turned up when they needed something. This was simple barter of labour, called vagaar in Punjabi. The bonus was that if there was a chore at a neighbour’s house, they would feed you. And it was always fun to have a meal in other people’s homes.
There was only one large shop in Ratta Khera, catering to all 200 families in the village. The youngsters would be sent to Munshi di hatti to buy vanaspati, sugar and other provisions. After paying Munshiramji, we would hold out our hand and ask, Chunga kahan hai? (Where is the freebie?) And he would immediately give us some small treat, say an orange candy, a little extra for having run the errand.
As far as academics was concerned, I wasn’t a very good student. I preferred spending my time playing kancha, chaku, pithu and gilli-danda. I studied only when I was bored of playing. No one was surprised, then, that I scored only 55% in my Higher Secondary examination. I sat for the NDA entrance exam but did not make it. I did have a distinction in Mathematics, with 78%, which helped me gain admission in BSc (Mathematics) at Kirori Mal College.
A couple of days before college started, my friend Sanjay Mehta came home with a newspaper advertisement. It was for admission to an agricultural engineering programme in Udaipur. Sanjay egged me on to apply, telling me there was a quota for non-Rajasthan students. He wasn’t applying because he wanted to go to Canada, where his sister lived. Without any expectation of getting through, I applied for the course. Surprisingly, I made it through.
Knowing nothing about agricultural engineering or what it would entail, I made it to the College of Technology & Engineering in Udaipur. I was very upbeat as we were guaranteed a job on completing the course, the campus was beautiful and then, the icing on the cake — I was given a single room all to myself in the hostel! As the months passed, I also changed as a student— now I was working hard and had a grade point average of 3.25, placing me among the toppers of the 50-strong batch. In fact, I liked the course so much, I was keen on studying more, even if there was no job assured on graduation. My options included the M.Tech degree at IIT or the agribusiness course at IIM Ahmedabad. I didn’t clear the IIM interview — I think partly, it was because of my broken English.
Around the same time, IRMA released an ad for the first batch of its new course. On completion, there was an assured job of Rs.1,200 per month and also a monthly stipend of Rs.600 during the course. It seemed like a good deal, so I applied and got through. At 22, I had never interacted with girls socially and this batch had students from top institutes such as BITS Pilani and St Stephen’s College — both boys and girls! So, IRMA was a culture shock, but a welcome one.
The course was an interesting one and I even got to interact with iconic personalities like Dr Verghese Kurien and Tribhuvandas Patel. Many of my classmates joined IRMA only because they were so inspired by Dr Kurien. I remember asking him just before job placements what he looked for when recruiting for NDDB or the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF). He said, “I look for three things — integrity, integrity and integrity.” There was sound logic to that. Dr Kurien pointed out that all of us came from good colleges and were equally well educated. If we were to work for a farmers’ organisation, where many would not be literate, it was important to have people who would not manipulate them or take advantage of their illiteracy.
At the time, 1981, the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) wanted to develop a cooperative model such as Amul for which it had set up a team of experts in production, procurement and sales and marketing. From my batch, six people were selected for two months of fieldwork with the spearhead team.
We were placed in six different villages in Kolhapur district. I was assigned to Charan village where I had to help in developing the cooperative. I identified the problem almost immediately. There was a middleman operating in the village who procured milk from the farmers and sold it in Kolhapur at a huge profit. For the Amul model to succeed, he would have to be removed, which would not be easy. My village upbringing and a degree in agricultural engineering made me very comfortable working with farmers and I was able to get close to the middleman to learn everything about milk testing. He remained unaware of the Amul initiative even as I continued to work with the spearhead team. For those two months in Charan, my home was the local temple and my meals came from the sarpanch’s home. I would hold meetings almost daily with the farmers and talk to them about the Amul model. In around 25 days, the Amul model was ready and the middleman was eliminated.
A second fieldwork project at IRMA was in Punjab Markfed, on agri inputs and marketing. My job was to come up with an alternative structure. A survey was conducted and I prepared a project report— essentially, it was a single graph. I showed that while fertiliser sales were increasing every year, market share was falling; that is, sales were not growing as fast as the market. This was shown to the then MD, Rajan Kashyap. My recommendation was to open farmer centres at the taluka centres for fertiliser and agri inputs. Mukesh Bhargava, who was then my mentor, also liked my report. He later moved to the US to teach but would always say my report was a case study in his class. That project gave me the confidence to go after the big things.
Campus placements were on and I knew what I wanted. My desire was to work with farmers — besides, I thought, marketing was a bit Hi-Fi for someone like me. As expected, NDDB came to IRMA for recruitment. The position was for an assistant executive. I was confident I would be selected and did not apply anywhere else.
The interview went off well and I got selected. The panel asked me if I had any questions and I still don’t know what came over me. I pointed out that I was an agricultural engineering graduate, unlike my classmates who had only BA degrees. I was their senior by two years and should, therefore, get a better designation. The panel instantly said that would not be possible and asked me only one further question: “Are you then saying you will not join if you don’t get that seniority?” I said yes. Needless to add, I did not get the job.
It looked like one of the best students of the batch would be the only one without a job on graduation!. Then, my classmate Shrikant Purkar, who was from BITS Pilani, told me GCMMF had a vacancy in Jaipur. By now, though, I had also become a little smarter. My parents had recently moved to Banswara, 30 km from Udaipur. On the application form, I changed my native place to Banswara. That was enough to be selected. Only one problem — I had zero interest in sales and marketing.
GCMMF was going to open a depot in Jaipur and needed someone there. But my first posting was in Ahmedabad. It was a very interesting — even historic — time to join the GCMMF. We were the first batch of MBA’s GCMMF had recruited. There was a lot of work to be done. Those days, Voltas was distributing Amul products under its pharma consumer products (PCP) division. Dr Kurien wanted that to change and have GCMMF handle marketing and distribution. He had recruited a Voltas man, JJ Bakshi, for this. Bakshisaab was a Gujarati and he wanted all of us to adopt a similar, commercially-oriented mindset. “There are plenty of smart people but very few have the nose to smell money,” he always told us.
My job was simple — I had to set up the depot and take over distribution from Voltas. Those two months I spent in Ahmedabad straight out of IRMA were fantastic. My learning curve was so sharp; I moved from desk to desk, learning everything from accounts, invoice, stock, ledger, octroi and sales tax. It was learning by just observing; and I still have my handwritten notes from those days.
After my initial training in Ahmedabad, I travelled around the large centres in Rajasthan in the company of Bhargav, who was in charge of those centres. He would typically spend 20 days at the Ahmedabad office and the rest of the month in cities such as Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. What an experience the first tour was! I travelled by first class and stayed in a hotel for the first time. It was a pleasure to order food in a restaurant without even looking at the right hand column of the menu — I ate like nobody’s business.
This is the first of a two-part series. You can read part two here.