A little after Rajiv Gandhi took over as Prime Minister, he rang up Ram Malhotra, India’s Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington. Malhotra had been posted there after a stint as Finance Secretary in 1980-82 when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. Rajiv wanted Malhotra to return to the country and take the job of Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.
So, in February 1985, Malhotra succeeded Manmohan Singh, who moved to the Planning Commission in Delhi. What the PM and his team had not factored in their calculations, however, was an assignment in India for Ram Malhotra’s wife, Anna, who had moved with him to Washington.
Anna Malhotra, India’s first woman IAS officer, was Malhotra’s batchmate from the 1951 batch. And because she belonged to the Tamil Nadu cadre, Delhi was in a fix over finding a Secretary-level post for her among the very few options available in what was then Bombay. Finally, it was suggested that Anna, who had also worked closely with Indira, should be told to take charge of a project that had been announced recently — a greenfield port close to the Bombay harbour.
By the late 1970s, concern had begun to be voiced about congestion at India’s ports. In 1980, the ports were handling 510 lakh tonnes, and policymakers had decided it was necessary to augment handling, and to take note of the global trend of containerisation. This meant planning and development of facilities for sea and land modes of transportation. The Bombay Port Trust, the leading port in India at that time, was in no position to do that, prompting the government to identify Nhava Sheva as the location for India’s first container port. Anna Malhotra, who had not handled such a project before, had to start from scratch in what was then marshy, salt pan land. It also meant starting early from the RBI Governor’s residence on Carmichael Road in South Bombay to catch a boat at 7 am from the Gateway to set out for Nhava Sheva, then just a deserted cluster of villages.
The chairperson met Chief Minister Sharad Pawar and explained to him that the state stood to gain from the Centre’s project. Pawar came on board, and got his senior bureaucrats on the job — monitoring progress and helping remove hurdles. Acquisition of land wasn’t much of a problem — there weren’t many activists around, and the economy was a few years away from being opened up. But an arm of the government put up resistance. The Archaeology Department objected, saying that explosions being carried out in Nhava Sheva during construction would impact the Elephanta Caves. When it obtained a stay on the construction, Anna Malhotra got a prominent environmentalist to visit India and say in his assessment report that controlled explosions would not affect the Elephanta sculptures.
Work re-started, and after the management team had wrestled away pressures on contracts etc., the port opened in May 1989, about seven months before the Rajiv Gandhi government completed its term. Rajiv visited Nhava Sheva a few times while construction was under way, and the only concern he had, apparently, was the less-than-delicious food that Anna Malhotra would arrange!
A year later, Malhotra was awarded the Padma Bhushan. Her husband, R N Malhotra, got the same honour soon afterward.
In a few days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the fourth terminal of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, or JNPT, as it is called now — signalling the progress made in opening up the port sector, building of ports by the private sector, and corporatisation. JNPT today handles a very large volume of container traffic, having topped four million TEUs over the last five years.