The writer describes the impact of the devaluation of the rupee in 1966 following the first major financial crisis of the government. The second part of the epilogue that describes the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business
I had seen the front page of The Statesman early one morning, like all other newspapers in Calcutta, covered the big rupee devaluation story. As I cabbed down to Hare Street, near the GPO to reach our office, all that came to my mind was the 57.4% increased rupee income on our exports as I had a couple of shipments underway at the port, and the loading was going on.
It took me a little while to realise that my import cost would go up too by a similar amount. By about 9.30am I had the statement of shipments ready underway, import license in process (under issue) and those I would be submitting in the next quarter. By 11am, I had a call from Dr RK Singh's office asking for some leading exporters to come to his office for discussions, while he had already begun his talks with the ministry. I think it took two or three days before the ministry called for a discussion, seeking Council’s detailed recommendations to work out the revised incentive scheme to become operative.
A delegation was to proceed to New Delhi and to prepare what would be the best method to overcome the effect and to take advantage of the devaluation. I was one of the candidates chosen to join the delegation; others were drawn from the managing committee, including Dr RK Singh, Ram Lal Rajgariha from Calcutta; K Rajagopalan (DGTD) joined us in Delhi; so did PC Agrahari of EEPC Delhi office. There were couple of others who came and participated in the discussions but it was the final team of Rajagopalan, Singh and me who sat through the night to finalize the details covering some 300 items. These were the recommendations of the Council that were typed and submitted some 72 hours after the formation of the committee.
When I returned back to base, Kish Kapoor wanted to have details of the discussions which I refused to divulge as a matter of principle. I was hauled to the office of Jan Manekshaw and I repeated my stand, saying that it was of a confidential nature and it cannot be made public. Jan Manekshaw agreed with my stand, much to the displeasure of Kish Kapoor. It took a couple of months before the final announcement was made by the government.
Our exports, which slackened a bit due to the devaluation effect and scare, began to revive and our shipments continued to many countries in the Far East and Africa. Trips abroad were undertaken by my bosses and I was hurt. It was at about this time, a Drawback Sub-committee meeting was to be held in Madras by EEPC. I went there in the absence of Chandubhai Udheshi of Metro Exports, chairman of the panel.
It was during short this trip, when I paid a courtesy visit to our (Indian Cables) office, NV Sadagopan introduced me to one K Srinivasan, saying that he was one of the most accurate astrologer whose predictions had never gone wrong! After my experience, a few years earlier, I was sceptical, but gave in to temptation. KSV, as he was called, made some calculations, and on the next day predicted: “I will tell you the answer to the question you have in mind and that is when you will go abroad.” And, without waiting for my response, he proceeded to say: “You will not be sent abroad by Indian Cables; rather, you will be sent by the Government of India and that too, not before 22 July 1969”. I was too dumb-struck to respond, and, he promised to send the detailed chart and workings later.
When I returned back to Calcutta, we had received basic tender details from Arabi WLL, with whom I was corresponding, trying to achieve a breakthrough in Kuwait. The power cables enquiry sent by him was large (worth some $2.5 million) and it would tie up our capacity in some areas. Already, there was talk of forming consortiums to deal with large enquiries, and after a quick meeting, the first Power Cables consortium was established, with Indian Cables as one of the seven prospective suppliers. I was nominated as its secretary. Immediately, we formed another consortium for supplying (tendering) overhead conductors, with Peer Mohammed of Aluminium Industries as its chairman, and I was to be the secretary as well. We notified the Government and the EEPC, which backed the idea to the hilt and work progressed well.
After a great amount of work involving meetings of all power cable manufacturers, the final bid was made, and Indian Cables deputed SK Ghose, our sales manager, to proceed to Kuwait to submit and do his best to obtain the contract, with the help of Arabi WLL. It was RB Ghosh (commercial manager) and Ajit Kahali (technical manager), SK Ghose and myself went by train to Delhi (as there was a plane strike) and did the final work.
I was in touch with SK Ghose in Kuwait and after the tender opening, we were overjoyed to be the lowest and mostly likely to be the successful bidder, if the consortium offer submitted by
Indian Cables was accepted. We broke through for the first time with the cable contract with the ministry of electricity and water and many others followed later.
Back in Calcutta, I arranged with Amin Chand Pyarelal group to give us APJ Akash to carry the cargo from Calcutta (InCab and Fort Gloster cables). The same vessel picked other supplies from Bombay and delivered the first lot of the order before time in Kuwait, establishing firmly our foothold in that country.
As secretary of the consortium, I obtained railway concessions for all the exporters involved in the deal; part of our own shipment was carried by rail to Bombay to join the vessel (with our courier going in the train, with special permission). It was all done with military precision. It was a proud moment and achievement that can never be forgotten.
Meantime, Arun Basak had become MD of Indian Cables; Arvind Gersappe, an electrical engineer from GE had joined us, as did others like AK Sircar from Union Carbide; PK Mukerji ex-Dunlops, who was happy to meet me; and M Banerjee had taken over as personnel manager.
Jan Manekshaw continued as deputy MD of the company, but remained my idol. He was one of three people—Prem Pandhi and RK Singh being the other two—who shaped my life and future, and supported me right through.
I was in cloud nine when the first shipment took place from Calcutta, and we all had returned from the port, after loading the first consignment. On 28 February 1968, in an interoffice memo, an announcement was made, whereby Arvind Gersappe was made the manager exports, and no mention of my status, although, although I was in charge of exports. No doubt, Arvind Gersappe was (and is) a nice person, extremely hard working and pleasant, it was difficult to swallow this unexpected onslaught. I submitted my resignation and sought to be relieved as soon as possible.
Lala Bishan Swaroop Agarwal, the father of ‘Usha’ brand, who travelled by road to establish the name, had often spoken to Dr RK Singh, telling him that he had a place for me in his organisation whenever I wanted, which I was informed several times earlier. After I recovered from my initial shock, I spoke to him, and he asked me to join him as a divisional sales manager as soon as I was relieved.
My work with him lasted just one year; when the Council had a vacancy in Middle East. There were several candidates who could fill the bill, including myself, for they wanted someone who had good commercial and export experience in India. In the end I was the selected to be sent on a three-year mission.
I was sent on a Bharat Darshan, visiting offices and factories to get first-hand knowledge of products and services that India could offer. I was on the last lap of tour in New Delhi, on my first leg of the tour covering the metropolitan cities, when I was asked to return back to Calcutta, which was due anyway, on the following day. When I returned and was at the Bharat Batteries’ factory, I was asked to report to Girish Chandra, who went around with me to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and other offices, and was told that I was leaving for Beirut that night, on the first available flight, which was a Pan Am 002. I had no time to even say goodbye to my family and friends, but I caught the flight.
It was only some three weeks later, I discovered the detailed chart that KSV had made in Madras way back in 1964, about my trip overseas. I could not believe my eyes that he had predicted the very date on which I actually took the flight!
As I run through my life, I would like to pay homage to some of my friends, mentioned in the series, who have passed away, and pray that they may rest in peace. There are many others whose names I have not mentioned for no reason except they made a silent contribution and advice in my work and life, all which I cherish.
(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts; and later to the US. He can be contacted at [email protected].)