media report
Subir Raha was a great visionary
6/2/2010  |  A Personal Tribute by Raj Kanwar

Mr. Subir Raha died Monday afternoon in a private hospital in Delhi after a losing battle with his lung cancer. He was only 62.

Raha was undoubtedly one of the most dynamic and successful of the chairmen of ONGC. Some of his predecessors such as KD Malaviya, LJ Johnson, NB Prasad, Col. SP Wahi too were dynamic and successful in their own way, yet Subir Raha's five-year tenure as the head honcho of ONGC was the most innovative one.

Subir Raha was a lone Ranger who single handedly, on the strength of sheer determination and a vision, took ONGC to Himalayan heights, and made it a number one company. Raha often used phrases like "out of box" and "top of the class". He not only sincerely and solemnly believed in these two dictums but also practiced and preached them. He was not only himself a dreamer, but he also influenced his colleagues by his own example to dream likewise.

He was innovative, and introduced many new and inspiring ideas. He was very conscious of history, and sought to publish 50 years of ONGC history to synchronise with ONGC's golden jubilee celebrations. There were many wannabe writers including some ONGC veterans and prominent media persons who would have done anything to write this history book, but Raha was his own man, and picked on me, out of blue, to write the history of ONGC.

I was Raha's choice

At that point of time, Raha did not know very much about my background; he vaguely knew about my earlier association with ONGC that had terminated 45 years before. He also knew generally about my business associations with ONGC all these years. I had interviewed Raha on a couple of occasions, and he obviously liked what I wrote. He must too have made some inquiries about my credentials, and then announced my choice at a meeting attended by some of the retired senior ONGC chairmen and members, and the current directors. I was the only non-ONGC man at that meeting. Only director (HR) Dr. AK Balyan and Mr. MBR Rao were privy to this decision. The rest, of course, is history. Another lasting legacy that Raha left was the ONGC Golden Jubilee Museum at Tel Bhawan.

When Subir Raha joined ONGC on 25th May 2001, he had nursed no illusions about the intricacies of the job, and the challenges that he would face. He had brought to his new job 31 years of rich and varied experience in the downstream sector in the Indian Oil Corporation. That included a stint as the head of the Oil Coordination Committee which was a sort of cockpit of the oil industry. Though he was new to ONGC and the upstream sector, yet he was not a total stranger. Raha was, in fact, on the Board of ONGC for seven months as a nominee of Indian Oil Corporation after the two Navratna hydrocarbon giants had swapped equity. He had wisely made use of that opportunity to take a couple of trips to the ONGC's offshore installations and got a good feel of the organization that he was to head seven months later.

And he had also known that the country's most sought after position in the corporate public sector was not so cushy a seat, after all. Raha probably had had some inkling of what he would be landing himself into. But the ground reality that he later found must have far exceeded the malaise and the perception that he had had entertained of ONGC.

On the very first day in office, he sent an open letter to 40,000 - odd of his colleagues greeting them as the C&MD of this giant family. Raha had begun the letter by explaining his 31 year experience as a professional manager in the "downstream" hydrocarbon sector. Some of the recipients took the letter as an "apologetic" introduction since he did not have any experience in the "upstream" sector of the petroleum industry, forgetting that some of the most successful of ONGC's chairmen like KD Malaviya, LJ Johnson, NB Prasad and Col SP Wahi didn't have even a nodding acquaintance with petroleum. All of them had done their "home work" well enough to grasp the nitty gritty of oil business.

But unmindful of the skeptics and doubting Thomases, Raha had gone ahead in expounding his philosophy and his expectations upfront in the very first letter. He wrote that the twin evils of "corruption" and "complacence" must be shunned and finally eliminated. He wanted each employee to measure his or her "worth" in terms of what he or she created for ONGC.

His definition of integrity

Raha's definition of "integrity" was somewhat unorthodox. "Integrity", he had then explained was not merely shunning of bribes. "Professional integrity" required that one performed to the best of one's knowledge, experience, prudence, diligence and honesty.

Briefly, Raha had implored the large ONGC family in general and its middle and senior cadres in particular to incorporate certain essential characteristics in their daily work culture. And these characteristics included competence, commitment and integrity. For Raha, integrity covered personal, professional and managerial attributes. Thus these three elements of "integrity" were the sine qua non of a true and dedicated manager.

Despite Raha's sincere and sustained efforts, he could not change the then existing mindset and the work culture of many of the ONGCians. Traditional islands of lethargy and "dens" of corruption merely paid lip-service to Raha's repeated entreaties on "integrity and honesty". It is a pity that Raha's courageous battle against the cancer of corruption and his own lung cancer ended in failure.

Raha also introduced an element of transparency, and brought online all of its tenders and their processing. He also started the practice of organizing vendors meet at which both Indian and foreign companies were invited to openly express their views on the tendering procedures in ONGC. This laudable practice has since been reduced to a ritual, and has thus lost its original purpose.

Many "Firsts" to his credit

Raha has had many achievements and more "firsts" to his credit during his five year tenure as the C&MD of ONGC. However, his greatest contribution was giving a new life to then dormant ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) which then had just one property in Vietnam. OVL had acquired 24 properties in 14 countries when Raha retired, and became the second largest E&P corporate in the country in terms of reserves and production, next only to its own parent.

Acquisition of Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd (MRPL) was another feather in his cap, thereby making ONGC an integrated oil company. Surprisingly and ironically, this acquisition did not go well with the bureaucrats in the Ministry and Petroleum and Natural Gas, and they tried clipping his "wings of ambition". Though, everyone thought that Raha would get an extension after the completion of his five years term (he still had two years to go before reaching the age of 60). But the bureaucrats were bent upon humiliating him, and only announced the denial of extension to him on the last day.

Raha was, no doubt, an outstanding chief executive whose only fault, if it is so considered, was his total loyalty and dedication to the cause of ONGC. In the process, he stepped on many toes, and ruffled quite a few feathers. His two addictions were work and smoking, which would often go together. At that time I too was a smoker, but did not smoke in his presence as a matter of courtesy. Later, when we met alone on a few occasions in his hotel suite in Mumbai or elsewhere he would make me his smoking pal. He was a workaholic to a fault, and worked more than 16 or 17 hours; he would always answer his own emails, and some of his mails to me were sent as early or as late as 4 a.m.

In his death, the country has lost a great administrator whose services could have been utilized to much advantage in any innovative field involving new technology. But the petty minded bureaucrats are always jealous of men of outstanding ability, and instead prefer the mediocre.
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