June 04, 2009

CEO's woes

Yesterday, I posted here an article my father, JB D'Souza, wrote in 2006. As commenter "??!" pointed out, I had previously posted the same article.

So much for keeping on top of what goes into my own blog.

Anyway, by way of making amends for that goof ... As I mentioned in this article I did for the Washington Post, JBD helped run (as a reluctant CEO) a low-cost housing project in Goregaon for several years. The Nagari Nivara Parishad (NNP) was the brainchild of Mrinal Gore and the late PB Samant.

In early 2006, my father wrote the essay below as a look back at the NNP experience.


A Chief Executive's Woes

When Mrinal Gore and Baburao Samant came – I can’t even remember how long ago – to ask me to work for their large low-income housing project [NNP] it was a big surprise. They belonged to a political group that had regularly opposed most of what I had tried to do during the four years I worked for the Bombay Municipal Corporation, Mrs. Gore quite emphatically. During this long stint with NNP I was to discover that beneath their stern frontal appearance there lurked a kindness, a soft benevolence. A benevolence, a goodness that could affect the progress of the project, as I shall explain later

It was a huge project, the construction of some 6000 homes for people with low incomes, along with a school, a hospital and nursing home, and the necessary shopping facilities. I threw myself into it without asking whether I would be equal to its challenges.

We started with a major blunder, the choice of a building contractor who was quite inadequate for the task. In our innocence we took his time tables seriously, and based on them our promises to prospective allottees of the dates on which they could take possession of completed flats. None of our contractor’s time tables were honoured, and we had to terminate the contract with the work done on just 1040 tenements. This led to arbitration, in which the Trustees overlooked our proposal for choice of our arbitrator, picking instead an individual who turned out to be less assertive of our case than he should have been. The result, grossly unfair, had disastrous effects on our financial arrangements, from which it has been hard to recover.

So when we had to pick another contractor, we chose with care, and for the first time in my long experience with contractors, the choice was one that has given no cause for regret.

Apart from the quality of our earlier contractor, one of the factors that had added to the delays the project suffered was our inability to get quickly the innumerable clearances required from the municipality, the Collector, the Land Records department, and the State government at various stages. Layout sanctions, plinth dimension checks, shop development approvals, allottee eligibility verification – these were only a few of the obstacles that impeded work. Where plinths had to be checked, for instance, it took us a fortnight to bring the municipal official to the site; the private builder next door could get the officer to his site on the day following his request. The Collector’s checks too could drag on for months; meanwhile we could not ask allottees to pay up instalments of the purchase price. The reason was obvious: our Trustees were too upright to countenance even small outlays of speed money.

So when we called for offers for our second major contract, we inserted as an element in it a new item: securing clearances from the public authorities. This would leave to the contractor the task of lubrication of the official machinery. The quotation we got from the successful tenderer for just this item was about a crore of rupees. Putting aside our earlier qualms about such expediency, the contractor and I thought this was worth paying to secure speed; the extra cost of the delays we foresaw would far exceed a crore.

But our Trustees, well-known in Bombay for integrity and dedication, refused to go along with our ideas. They were much too proper and principled. They relied on their own ability and stature to work the system. It didn’t work. Our allottees’ period of waiting for possession stretched out while costs escalated, and the price we had to levy from them rose again and again. At one stage Baburao had to lead a dharna of nearly a hundred allottees to a public office to end a delay of several months. That clearance came on the following day.

Were we right to preserve our integrity, at no financial cost to ourselves, but at that of our allottees, who in the end had together to pay a price much higher than the crore, and who also had to overstay much longer than they needed to, in rented accommodation elsewhere?

The project is suffering clearance delays even now. One of the vital amenities it includes is a hospital, and the layout approved by the BMC provides a hospital plot. Yet detailed municipal clearance for it has been eluding us for some nine months. Six months ago Mrinal and I met Municipal Commissioner Joseph, along with his officers. At that meeting Joseph was good enough to overrule his officers’ objections. Yet six months later we still haven’t received clearance. Is it proper to let our perhaps legitimate scruples withhold for so long from a community of 30,000 a vital health facility?

I can’t help thinking that there are circumstances in which a regard for the greater common good justifies a compromise with evil.

Altogether, frustrations and all, the NNP project has been an exhilarating experience, into which the Trustees, and specially President PB Samant, have thrown themselves selflessly and with total dedication. For me it has also been a humbling experience: the project has progressed with only a tiny contribution from me. And one of my continuing differences with the Trustees has been my inability to convince them that my role has been no more than peripheral.


Deepak said...

This is a very nice article. I would bet that most people would just choose to pay the 'speed' money, and I would not blame them.

The only solution I can see is to cut through the regulation jungle - but that is something that the government and vested interests profiting off the current system would not relinquish without a fight - and who is to fight on behalf of the people ...

And so it goes ...

??! said...

Great stuff - thanks for posting this.

Any Indian knows about this kind of goings-on, but the sheer enormity and extent of it can still be breath-taking. And utterly depressing.

Anonymous said...

Most of us middle and upper class Indians take it for granted that all politicians are scoundrels. It is good to hear these stories involving people like Mrinal Gore which show us that there are exceptions too. What is remarkable in the story is that even though she disagreed with Mr. D'Souza often during his tenure in the Bombay Municipal Corporation, she still respected him enough to approach him for help in the housing project.

I am not a socialist myself, so I will probably find myself disagreeing with Mrinalji quite a lot. But like Mrinal herself, I would have no hesitation approaching her if I thought she could help.

Mrinal Gore was quite well-known throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Here's a profile of her published last year in Frontline:


P.K. said...

What has surprised me is that Mr.J.B Dsouza who was Municipal Commissionar did not know his staff !!.he was Out of Touch with Realities of Modern Democratic India!!. Had he known how BMC functions " Kaydyane Kam Kara" ( Kahi Dya ni Kam Kara"). these Socialites though well meaning were misfit in this Socialist Congress Rule. Sadanand varde was Minister but did not posses a house.--PK

clemde@gmail.com said...

and that was what made him great. The ability to see not just the big picture, but the bigger one.