Shashi Rajagopalan

(Shashi’s friends continue to pen their recollections. In this post, I am appending the text of the obituary written by Sanjeev Chopra, a joint secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture I got to know via Shashi. This was published on 15th August in the Garhwal Post, Dehradun. You might also like to see former IIM-A professor M S Sriram’s post on her. And here is a link to a letter that EPW published about her.)

A tribute to Shashi Rajagopalan (21.7.51-5.8.2011)

who has taught me much more than co-operatives and policy advocacy

Readers may recall that two years ago, I had dedicated   AgriMatters (a collection of essays published in this column) to her. She had told me, in a matter –of-fact way that she was down with breast cancer, but that she would try to lead a ‘normal life’, and that she did till the last three months, as an active member of the Board of the RBI and NABARD besides guiding several NGOs and CBOs, attending seminars and discussions, and even participating in field visits.

My interaction with Shashi started when I took over as the Vice Chair and co-ordinator of the CCRD (Centre for Cooperatives and Rural Development) at Mussorie in 1996. I was then trying to understand how co-operatives could be made more professional, and how they could be freed from the yokel of the Registrar’s office.  The experience as CEO Himul was still fresh, and the faith in the infinite possibilities that the co-op form of organization was firmly grounded in experience.  The Academy   had established the CCRD to   undertake case studies, document best practices and assess the impact of co-operatives on agrarian economy. The NDDB had given a grant of Rs 1 crore ( a substantial sum in 1995) for this purpose,  Dr Kurien as  Chairman was keen that young entrants should look at the co-operative form of enterprise as a viable option , not just in dairying sector, but for other sectors as well : labour, housing, credit, fertilizer, fisheries, marketing, agro processing  etc.

Shashi was then working for the CDF (Co-operative Development Foundation), Hyderabad and had played the ‘salient’ role in bringing about the first progressive legislation on co-ops in the country: the Andhra Pradesh Mutually Aided co-op societies Act – which was hailed as an exemplar.  She would organize annual consolations on the Self Reliant/Mutually Aided C-op Societies Act, and take us for extensive tours to the women’s thrift and credit co-ops, as also to the Mulkanoor Multipurpose Co-op society to sow us the real potential of what people can do by them.

The core message of Shashi was:  trust people, especially women with their money, extend professional support and training for basic accounting and management techniques provide exposure to the opportunities in their sect oral domains through value addition, marketing and support services – and let them learn from their own mistakes.   A co-operative was a co-operative only if it adhered to mutual help and self help: the moment it accepted government equity and patronage, and accepted its role as an ‘agency’ of the government, it lost its independence forever to the Registrar and his minions. Unfortunately in our country, the vast majority of the co-operatives had been organized by the state, as it suited the state to deliver services – credit, fertilizer, and marketing support through co-operatives.  The AP example was followed by Bihar, Karnataka. J&K, Madhya Pradesh, Odhisa, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and in varying degrees by many other states. The Centre at Mussorie was an active protagonist of this reform, and the J&K draft legislation was discussed at length at a workshop at the Academy.

When Uttarakhand was carved out of UP, Dr RS Tolia wanted a new legislation for co-operatives in the state, and Shashi’s services were again requisitioned to assist the state. The USHA   Housing society, where yours truly stays with many of his colleagues is registered under the progressive legislation drafted with Shashi’s help.  Shashi also led the CECI-CEBED study on self Reliant co-ops in India and yours truly was a part of that team.  Her insights and her vision were, to say the least exemplary.

Shashi’s imprint is visible in all the publications of the CCRD, especially, “ Creating the Space : Disengagement of government from co-operatives’, a seminar conducted by her in which the general consensus was  that co-operatives must draw up a plan for the redemption of government equity, and that governments on their part may not take ‘equity’ in co-ops. Easier said than done, for co-operatives have been used by all governments to meet their short term interests, that the long term vision was often lost. She was the most popular speaker at the SAARC Consultations on Co-op Policy, and her fan following grew by leaps and bounds.  In fact, no seminar in the co-op/SHG/micro finance/empowerment circuit was complete without her ‘words of wisdom’. She encouraged so many of us to take the debate forward…Amjad Afridi, Gopi Ghosh, Sudhanshu Dhulia, Rajiv ID Mehta, Gopal Saxena, and Kabita Bhattarai, among others.

A few years ago, she left the CDF, and became an independent consultant, and would send her friends an annual report on her activities for that year. She would list all her assignments , the sources for her funds, and would also give  her take on the ‘learnings’ from each of these assignments – ranging from  women’s empowerment to  access for people  with special abilities and  issues of reproductive health and  awareness about HIV. Her elevation to the RBI Board was an acknowledgement of the pioneering work done by her in her chosen domain, and though she did not have an advanced degree in public finance or economics, she had understood the finer nuances of fiscal and monetary policy, and her colleagues held her in the highest esteem.

Did I accept everything she said unquestioningly? No. We disagreed on the restructuring of the ‘sarkari co-operatives’. While she was skeptical of them, I felt that they performed an important task, and till FPOs or JLGs or self reliant co-ops came up, we had to work with them.  She felt strongly that it was virtually impossible to reform them from within- something I have now begun to accept as the managing Director of Nafed.

On the personal front, Shashi was a member of our family. She got on famously with Rashmi, Sanandan and Yauvanika. Yauvanika could spend more time with her than Sanandan, especially during her visits to Kolkata for the RBI Board   meetings. Invariably we would dine out (at her expense), try out new cuisines, talk philosophy, the state of the nation, in fact everything except cricket and Hindi movies. She shared Rashmi’s strong aversion to allopathic mode of treatment, and lived with her cancer, valiantly with naturopathy and homeopathy. She had lost a lot of her weight, but none of her spirits, or her sharp intellect and wit, and the ability to connect people across different spectrums to work on themes that were of mutual interest.

Rashmi and I met her last on 24th July at Hyderabad. She had organized her own ‘farewell’,(with a little help from her affectionate niece Sonia Iyengar) for her friends and family – and we were proud to be part of that intimate circle. After a proper Iyengar meal on a banana plantain, she got us together and thanked us for the ‘most precious gift’ anyone could have given her:  the gift of our time….

How one wishes one had more of it with her!

MFI Regulation, Part four. Why states should have a role

all right. so, here is something puzzling.

Microfinance practitioners insist their embattled industry should not be regulated by state governments. State governments, they say, do not know how to regulate financial organisations. Keeping microfinance institutions (MFI) under the purview of the state government, they add, will leave microlenders vulnerable to political pressures.

It is a set of arguments that has been accepted by an expert committee that wrote the draft microfinance Bill. The draft Bill, put up by the finance ministry, promises to override state laws. It also proposes that state advisory councils be set up to, among other things, monitor MFIs’ field-level conduct and give a feedback to the central government. Further, it says that if the RBI feels an MFI’s actions are hurting clients, it can issue orders to stop the functioning of the organisation.

It is not clear, however, if these measures can protect the MFIs’ poor and vulnerable borrowers.

think about it. the RBI is overloaded. and, even otherwise, incapable of monitoring field level conduct of MFIs with their poor borrowers. the state advisory councils are pointless. the bill is silent on how complaints will reach them, on how they will be investigated, and on how grievance redressal will take place.

all these are functions that only state governments can perform. they must have a role in regulating the mfis — at least their conduct with the borrowers. the whole argument, here.

on the latest cabinet reshuffle

the latest cabinet reshuffle underwhelmed most people. no big heads rolled. the larger ministeries stayed untouched. and parts of the media swiftly wrote it off as minor and inconsequential.

in this article, my colleague devika and i argue that there are at least two significant moves in this reshuffle. jairam ramesh moves from the environment ministry to the rural development ministry. and kishore chandra deo enters the cabinet as the minister for tribal affairs and panchayati raj.

why so? because it looks like an attempt to win back the rural and tribal votes the Congress has progressively ended up alienating in the past few years.

There’s a bit in common between what the two new ministers represent and the task ahead of them. Both men are associated with the landmark legislations of the UPA-I, both of which are suffering from implementation problems: the employment guarantee programme in the case of Ramesh and the Forest Rights Act in the case of Deo. The reallocation puts them in charge to fix this.

in this story, we look at the tasks in front of them. i wrote the bit about deo and the tribal ministry. much of this is stuff i should have written a long, long time ago. more precisely, on the day the MoTA rejected the NAC’s reccos on how to better implement the Forest Rights Act (FRA) saying FRA implementation was going super. yet another in the long rich tradition of ministeries/bureaucracies more accountable internally, to superiors and institutional imperatives, than to the country around them.

Deo also needs to increase the relevance of the ministry of tribal affairs. Every central ministry runs its own programmes for tribal welfare, which Deo’s ministry has to monitor. In addition, the ministry has its welfare schemes-like hostels and scholarships for tribal-being implemented by state governments. The ministry has been taking a narrow view of its responsibilities.

In his critique, (NAC member NC Saxena) writes: “…(the approach of the ministry has been to) confine its attention to its own budget and schemes under its control.” The Parliamentary standing committee on social justice and empowerment, in 2010, had said the coordination of the tribal ministry with other ministries “was not at the desired level”…

…another example is the decision to disallow Vedanta’s mining project in Niyamgiri, Orissa. It was the ministry of environment, under Jairam Ramesh, that intervened to check whether the rights of the Dongria Kondh tribe in the proposed mining area had been recognised under the FRA. “The ministry of tribal affairs should have issued that circular,” says Y Giri Rao, executive director, Vasundhara, an NGO implementing the FRA in Orissa.

i had met deo earlier during the glory days of working on the FRA paper and had been impressed back then. am curious to see how the ministry will behave under him. am also wondering if implementing FRA and PeSA will put the ministry on the warpath against the PMO et al. let us see.

So long, Dr Rajagopalan

shashi rajagopalan passed away on friday morning.

i have written about her earlier here. and, over here, you can see the complete transcript of that interview. the transcript is a must-read, i think. do take a look.

on friday, i added an obit to that small list. which you can see here.

Her stories — and stories about her — from this period are legion. Rajagopalan, a small, slender woman who was fond of driving, would routinely drive off in CDF’s jeep to check on her co-operatives. Once at a co-operative, she would not interfere in the decisions the members made. That was non-negotiable. Every decision was best made by the locals. Years later, she would recall with great amusement (I should  have said ‘relish’), incidents when village women demolished her critiques of their decisions.

Later, as political meddling hobbled co-operatives, forcing several to shut down, she became one of their most ardent defenders. She fought for the creation of new co-operative laws — first in Andhra Pradesh and then in other states like Karnataka, Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand, MP, Chattisgarh and Uttarakhand. Next, as times changed some more and co-operatives began to be seen in larger policy circles as an outmoded idea, she kept fighting — first from CDF, and then as an independent consultant.

i got to know shashi last jan while working on my first story on the mfis. a year and a half of knowing her. not long by any stretch of imagination. but, god, she was — to use one of her favorite words — wonderful!

i will miss her.

(photo source: Economic Times)