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'I feel if you believe in something, you don't retract just because there could be an adverse reaction' (Interview with Anu Aga)

'I feel if you believe in something, you don't retract just because there could be an adverse reaction' (Interview with Anu Aga)

Publication: The Indian Express
Date: October 13, 2004
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/archive_full_story.php?content_id=56830

Anu Aga, former chairperson of the Pune-based Thermax, built her company into a Rs 830-crore energy and environmental major. She has now handed over the baton to her daughter. Dubbed as India Inc's 'Ms Conscience' she tells SHEKHAR GUPTA, Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express, on NDTV 24X7's Walk The Talk that humanity must never be lost in the search for profit

Q.: If there is one person in corporate India for whom the name of this show is a perfect fit, it is my guest today, because not only does she walk her talk, she also stands up and walks the farthest when so many others, including the big boys of the corporate sector, prefer to sit and duck and hide. Anu Aga, it's a privilege to have you on our show. And how nice to do this in your city, Pune, in Koregaon Park on such a beautiful morning.
A.: I agree.

Q.: I'm glad you've got at least this part of Pune unchanged in a way.
A.: Yes, it's a beautiful part of Pune with lovely trees and each house with two acres. It's old-time gracious living.

Q.: Right. In some ways you've sort of stuck out for old-time honour. In fact, in your speeches, in the first para I almost always see the expression 'corporate conscience' or 'corporate social responsibility'.
A.: By training I'm a social worker. Maybe that's coming out. But I do feel that in a country where there's so much poverty and the corporate world has the resources - financial, manpower - we should definitely be reaching out to people more than just concentrating on our bottomline.

Q.: And managerial resources.
A.: Yes, managerial and just money is not enough. And I find some of the IT companies, the finance companies, have the ethos that 'let's reach out'. They, as volunteers and mentors, get involved in social activities whereas in our manufacturing sector, somehow that is not accepted. I do think we have housewives who could give the time, college-going children who could give their time. But unfortunately we are almost blind to the surroundings and don't bother about what's happening.

Q.: That is one criticism that has come after economic reforms started, that all of this seems focussed only on corporate profit and not on the larger public good.
A.: After the economic reforms, the competition is far greater and like the West, there is pressure for every quarter results. That's why the investors are pushing us and I'm not against profits...

Q.: The QSQT phenomena as they call it, quarter se quarter tak.
A.: Absolutely. Without profits, we have no right to exist, so I'm not against profits. But that's not the only thing. The simile I love to give is: without breathing you and I can't live, but if you ask me what is the purpose of my life and if I say breathing, it is such a narrow way to define it. Similarly, profit is a must, growth is a must but along with that what are you going to do?

Q.: With growth, you generate wealth, jobs and you pay taxes...
A.: That's right. I also feel in this madness for competition where people put in 18 to 20 hours, where's the human well-being? After all, we are doing everything for what? Is it for some financial figures? Seems a madness, a rat race where nobody sits back and says at the end of it 'what is it getting me?'

Q.: But let me add that you are not doing too badly on the financial end. You are increasing you turnover, your profits...
A.: Yes and I will. I push my company because as long as I choose to be in a public domain, I owe it to my shareholders, so there's no question of letting that go. But with that profit, with those resources, manpower, can we do something else is all I'm saying.

Q.: So there's a contradiction between seriously competitive corporate excellence and the larger public good.
A.: Not at all, both are possible.

Q.: If it has come about in public perception, it's an aberration?
A.: Not an aberration but I think people have a misconception, or people really haven't had a vision or experience, so they think maybe both are not possible. But I think Infosys has done it, so many other organisations have shown it's possible. Tatas have shown it for years. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive.

Q.: You are a risk taker, not just in business but also when it comes to your beliefs. When people got killed in Gujarat, you were the first one, and for some time the only one, who spoke out. You really took the lead at a time when it looked like the rest of the corporate world was hiding and ducking. And you linked it to economics in a way. You said that unless you have respect for the rule of law, equality, how can you have growth?
A.: I don't know whether I was the first, I wouldn't comment on that.

Q.: Well, I think you were the first and I'm not the only one.
A.: But I was in a fortunate position, I was the CII's Western region chairperson and Gujarat came under me. So before the Annual Day, I went and visited two camps. And once you visit those rehabilitation camps, I think if you don't get touched you must be very inhuman. You saw the condition in which those people lived, you heard their stories, so many family members raped, killed... It was just butchering of a minority that was helpless. I know people argue that riots take place everywhere so what is so different about this. I do make a distinction: during the Sikh riots in Delhi and the Gujarat riots, the government, if I'm charitable, condoned it, or if I'm not charitable, encouraged the slaughter. So then if we don't speak up, when will we? Today someone is affected, tomorrow it might be... Injustice is not to be allowed in a democracy.

Q.: And when there is injustice being done to the weak, those who are strong must speak out.
A.: Absolutely, I feel that's the least we can do, and not worry about the consequences. Frankly, nothing has happened to us, as a company, as an individual...

Q.: Nobody picked up the phone and said why are you doing this?
A.: I got a few hate mails but that to me is nothing much.

Q.: Our paper took a strong stand on Gujarat and did a lot of coverage. I used to get mails like 'you need a bullet in your bald head' etc, but you learn to ignore those.
A.: Maybe being a woman, I didn't get such strong ones but I did get some hate mail.

Q.: But nobody from the government called and said don't do this, you will have an Income-Tax raid.
A.: No, nothing.

Q.: As a reporter, I covered the 1984 riots in Delhi when Sikhs were butchered and one thing that stood out at that time, and this was not even a Hindu-Muslim riot, was that almost no industrialist, particularly in the North, ever stood up and said this is wrong, if this goes on we'll not be able to run our businesses here. This time in Gujarat - it is wrong to compare these things but in a way, in scale, a smaller calamity than say 1984, and yet some people spoke out. So we are evolving.
A.: I would think so. And would you say Gujarat was a smaller calamity?

Q.: No, that's why I say this with great circumspection, compared to what we saw in 1984 - more than 3,000 people killed within a five-mile radius of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
A.: This was spread over a few months and all over Gujarat. Yes, you are right.

Q.: You must never count the numbers, but in terms of just savagery and intensity, there were three quick days of slaughter.
A.: Let's not compare, but if we did, the kind of rape, killing, slaughtering, opening up women's stomachs that happened, we seemed to be a little savage in the way we treat other human beings. But leave that aside, I think most people consider that the business of business is business. I mean, don't look around, don't say anything. We don't hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil. Not evil but against any government, any authority and I think that's a wrong thing. I think collectively CII, FICCI, ASSOCHAM should voice their concern and if they do so what a powerful voice that would be.

Q.: Because no government today can brush them aside.
A.: Absolutely.

Q.: Were you disappointed that more people did not speak out?
A.: I must say I had such a lot of support in Pune and Rahul Bajaj, Ravi Venkatesan, Ganesh Natarajan, so many people wrote articles saying what happened was wrong.

Q.: Deepak Parekh spoke out.
A.: I'm talking of Pune, my friends directly. I would have liked more people to speak but I accept that that's the way the world is.

Q.: Did you sometimes get the feeling that the CII was running away, that it was hiding from issues at that time. I know that there was a lot of debate within the CII. I've said sometimes at CII functions that they hung you out to dry, that was the impression we got.
A.: I felt that CII gave me an opportunity and a platform to speak. I don't agree with the way they backtracked later but I wouldn't like to comment.

Q.: In so many ways, they conformed to Mr Advani's description of us journalists during the Emergency. He said, 'when asked to bend, they crawled'.
A.: I somehow feel that if you believe in something you don't retract just because there could be an adverse reaction.

Q.: Also when you celebrate reform, the economy has reformed to a large extent and you are profiting from it, then you must also give up your fear of the government, of the establishment.
A.: Absolutely. I think events in my life have made me bold. Maybe, I'm grateful for some of the things that happened which have taken away fear from me. Maybe everyone is not so fortunate so I wouldn't like to judge people. But I would like to educate people about the consequences of not talking. That I still continue to do. I talk to groups and say that there is a price we pay to be silent and what is that price?

Q.: Because once you enter the domain of enterprise, creativity, you must be willing to absorb change, absorb ideas, accept new thinking. So while what happened in Gujarat was a terrible thing, we see a new stream now, a new current of intolerance. We've seen this happen for example in the case of...

Q.: The Bhandarkar Institute in Pune and now the so-called foreign consultants in the Planning Commission. You know, we've never heard this kind of thing before, that Indians working with foreign companies will come and subvert India or its planning process. When was the last time you heard such xenophobia?
A.: In a democracy everyone has a right to speak, but they don't have the right to get away with demanding that what they want should be done. I think that is what's sad. That at Bhandarkar, 150 people - I don't think they even read the book, but even if they were against it they could talk about it, they could do a demonstration but they have no right to destroy those valuable books. Similarly, the Left group can voice their concerns but can't say you have to do this. It's a democracy, I think it's Montek's decision and most of the people, except one I think, are of Indian origin. They are IAS officers loaned to these institutions.

Q.: They could come back and become Home Secretary or Defence Secretary.
A.: Exactly and you know, in India, in my company also when we first brought in a consultancy, when you take help from someone outside, people feel that they are less. Or to show that you need help means you become small.

Q.: There is an initial defensiveness.
A.: I feel it takes a lot of greatness to ask for help openly, there's no harm. Because whatever you know, knowledge is growing so fast there'll be lots of it which you'll discover you don't know. Taking an outsider's view means bringing a world view and a lot of experience. You don't have to take everything they say.

Q.: One of the consultants you use, Arun Maira at Boston Consulting, is in the news right now for the way he is being put up for inquisition.
A.: But I like his guts, he didn't walk out, he stayed there.

Q.: He's a truly honourable man and a proud Indian.
A.: And he stayed there and said 'I've been invited and I'm an Indian and I'm going to sit there' and he sat through the consultation, he didn't walk out.

Q.: To have this coming from people who believe in an ideology that takes pride in diversity, that celebrates diversity, deference to other people's views, that claims to be tolerant. Isn't that disappointing?
A.: Yes, it is disappointing but look, the papers say that Bengal has been able to change thanks to consultancy help. So if the Left themselves were able to change their State, why stop consultants from helping the country?

Q.: The late Sitaram Kesri once gave me the best description of the Left's mindset. He came back from China - he had gone as head of the Parliamentary delegation - and he said to me that Chinese Communists are like drivers of Delhi Transport Corporation buses, they signal to the left and turn to the right!
A.: I've heard this, very true. You know I wish there would be less hypocrisy in public life and more genuineness, and we should not make non-issues issues - road name changes, don't have foreign agencies helping us - all that is irrelevant. Can we really reach out to the masses? To me, all these are non-issues. The real problem is our poverty, lack of employment. You have to create wealth, you can't distribute poverty. So if you stop reforms, if you stop organisations from making wealth where are we going to distribute what? Poverty?

Q.: Tell me about your own social conscience, you are now contributing one per cent of your profits towards social good, you are now going to be spending more of your time involved with many NGOs and their activities. Does it come from personal tragedies, what you've experienced in life and how you handled it?
A.: My father and my husband have instilled social responsibility in me, that was a very important value all along. Being a social worker, it was reinforced, and having lost my husband and my son in quick succession, I feel you are here for such a short while and if you believe in the Hindu concept of reincarnation, this is one of your millions of births, why not make it worthwhile.

Q.: But you are actually a Parsi.
A.: Yes, but I believe in that.

Q.: You are the minority of all minorities!
A.: Yes, a miniscule minority. But you can't take it with you, you realise that. Why not make a small contribution. Whatever you do is a tiny drop but that drop is important for your well-being. You may not be able to do anything substantive to the world but it's important because it brings you joy.

Q.: Anu, how did you handle this twin tragedy? I know that you took to Vipassana and meditation.
A.: I read a lot. My son used to jokingly say after my husband's death that you must be an authority on death. Vipassana has helped me, besides going for it twice, I meditate daily for an hour. I can't explain it, this is a very experiential thing but it has made me a person with more equanimity, a person with greater compassion, the negativity in me is far less.

Q.: You never ran away from your responsibility of running the company.
A.: No, I didn't run away. I was there by default. My husband died and the board asked me to take over, I wasn't equipped for it.

Q.: And you really fixed a company that was losing money.
A.: Well, I didn't fix it but I brought in a few initiatives which everyone ran with and did the work. So I get the credit, they did the work.

Q.: Now that you've handed over charge to your daughter, she'll be the chairperson of the company, tell me the two things you said to her, as a mother and as a boss.
A.: My daughter is very hesitant to take over, she's not at all keen to take over, she has self-doubts. So as a mother, I said don't give so much importance to this role, it's a role. Just play with it and you're allowed to make mistakes. Don't be afraid of mistakes, don't be afraid of saying I don't know, take help from others and I know you'll do a better job than I will. As a chairperson I said, keep the values.

Q.: It's a Rs 1100-crore company.
A.: A Rs 830-crore company, that's the market capitalisation. Keep the values, which I know she will as they are ingrained in her. The first value is never knowingly shortchange the customer. Keep a culture of employees where people can make a difference, they're not someone below us, respect people.

Q.: I believe we need a whole programme to talk about your company and your plans, but I believe you're really aggressively going in for exports now - to China, Europe - and want to double and triple your turnover and profits.
A.: Our aim is to double our turnover and triple our profits in three years. And the way my people are geared up, I'm sure it's going to be possible.

Q.: And if you triple your profits, you'll also triple your contribution to social good.
A.: Of course, and hopefully one per cent will also increase some day.

Q.: One to two and three maybe. Is that what you told your daughter... more in sort of social and public life - that increase your profits, increase your turnover, give more to your shareholders but also give more to charity.
A.: That's right, and keep the basic values which we have always stood for, don't compromise on those.

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