Hasmukh Shah (1934-2021) was many things: He held many official positions under various administrations, but was not a bureaucrat; he was a senior public sector manager, but was not a professional manager; he held politically sensitive appointments and was a confidant of many politicians and industrialists, but was himself neither; he sponsored numerous artists and writers, but he was neither. So, I fall back on the title of Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More, much used, but seldom rightly, to describe this great friend and mentor who passed away on December 3.
Hasmukhbhai, as he was universally called, grew up in a small princely state in Saurashtra and Ahmedabad, enjoying an unhurried education. He thought he might pursue a PhD in anthropology, because people in the Northeast fascinated him (this interest in faraway places and people stayed with him), but joined the editorial team of Gandhiji’s collected works, which took him to Delhi in the early 1960s.
Vadilal Dagli, the renowned Gujarati business journalist, suggested that he might see Morarji Desai, who was looking for a personal secretary. He stayed in that position until Desai’s sacking as deputy prime minister in 1969. He came back to serve in the Desai secretariat when the former became prime minister in 1977 and remained until Indira Gandhi’s second term. Sensing the discomfiture of the new political set-up with him, he returned to Indian Petrochemical Corporation (IPCL), which he had joined in the early 1970s. He eventually became its chairman and successfully managed its privatisation into the Reliance fold. In his own very modest words, in his Gujarati memoirs Dithu Mai (As I see it), “I first became a teacher, researcher and editor. Thereafter, I sojourned through politics and public life. I later became a link in financial and policy realms.”
His years with Desai were a walk on eggshells. The ever-principled Desai, seen as being cantankerous, needed Hasmukhbhai’s tact and manifest people skills to get most things done. He describes most sensitively Desai’s troubled elevation as prime minister and his even more troubled eventual departure in brief chapters of his memoirs. I tried to persuade him to write a full-length book on his years with the ramrod-straight disciplinarian. He followed the idea briefly but then abandoned it because he could not do a tell-all book.
His narration of his years with IPCL is equally self-effacing. His lasting contribution was not just in profitably expanding the public sector giant, but also imbuing it with a sense of what we now call corporate social responsibility. Some examples: He was to procure land for expansion at Dahej, then a backwaters barren area adjoining the Gulf of Khambhat, some 70 km south of Vadodara. The salinity-affected land fetched as little as Rs 6,000 an acre. Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation thought it could get 2,000 acres at Rs 18,000 an acre. Hasmukhbhai held a meeting with landowners, keeping the brokers out. The farmers’ anger was palpable. He encouraged them to ask for a higher price, but they went no further than Rs 50,000 an acre. He finally settled the deal at Rs 56,000 an acre for 2,000 acres and created great goodwill among farmers. He said that even at this price, land accounted for less than 2 per cent of the project cost, while it made a huge difference to the farmers, whose total capital it was.
Later, during the Manmohan Singh government, there was considerable thought about land acquisition and pricing. He wrote offering to share his thoughts and experiences. That letter was not even acknowledged.
Hasmukhbhai organised artists’ camps on the sprawling IPCL grounds every winter. This was perhaps the first instance of a public sector company turning a patron of the arts. Vadodara already had a considerable reputation as an arts centre. IPCL’s initiative helped cement it further.
His successful effort at privatising IPCL attracted the attention of Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat. Modi tasked Hasmukhbhai with working out plans for disinvestment in four leading state public sector enterprises. Hasmukhbhai went at the assignment with his usual zeal, only to meet a solid wall of resistance from administrative service members who normally were the chief executives of such companies. Modi abandoned the plan, but not before counting Hasmukhbhai among his closest advisors.
He and his wife Nila were inveterate travellers. Every winter, they went to far corners of the world. They were easily the most travelled people I have ever known. He had planned on writing someday about these lands and their people, thus partly fulfilling his ambition of college days.
He was the moving spirit behind countless cultural, artistic, ecological and heritage initiatives, especially Darshak Itihas Nidhi, in Vadodara, which has perhaps far more such bodies than any other city of its size. His name often sufficed as a fund-raiser. His last public appearance six weeks ago was at the release of a book on the ecology of coastal Gujarat under the aegis of Gujarat Ecology Society. Hasmukhbhai had told me two years ago that he considered this work to be the capstone of all his efforts.
Sitanshu Yashaschandra, the well-known Gujarati litterateur, says in his afterword to Dithu Mai, “I am afraid that [the trend of such engrossing books] may end with this book.” That fear is now applicable to all the various activities this multifaceted man took on as an active participant, generous mentor and benevolent patron.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 6, 2021 under the title ‘A man for all seasons’. The writer taught at IIM, Ahmedabad and was the founder-director of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand