In Fertilizer Corporation of India (FCI), I was posted as Deputy Transport Adviser in the Corporate Office to assist the Transport Adviser Laurie VP Albuquerque. Dr SK Mukherjee, who was General Manager of the Trombay unit when I left FCI in 1968 was the Director, Operations.
Since then, new Naphtha based projects had been started in Barauni, Durgapur and Haldia, apart from Gorakhpur, and coal-based plants were in different stages of construction in Korba, Ramagundam and Talcher. Rourkela Fertilizer factory that had been part of the Rourkela steel plant was transferred to FCI. To deal with the transportation needs of the new units, traffic officers had been taken from Indian Railways on deputation. MB Taly (IRTS 1955), from Eastern Railway, had already joined in Trombay and his batchmate KB Krishnaswami at Ramgundam, Gautam Ghosh from South Eastern Railway joined Haldia, my batchmates DN Kaushal and VK Thapar joined Gorakhpur and Barauni respectively. YK Shivpuri from Central Railway was at Talcher. Mathur at Rourkela, MD Vembu at Nangal and Khan at Durgapur were directly recruited by FCI. Later, Jamna Singh (IRTS 1961) replaced VK Thapar at Barauni.
Soon after I joined FCI we travelled to Bilaspur to join the family for the wedding of my brother Babu (Capt AL Sharma AMC). For the first part of the journey to Nagpur, we got into a First-Class coupe in Grand Trunk Express bound for Chennai. We boarded the train in the evening and went to sleep with the windows open taking care to tuck away our valuables safely. Or so we thought. Sensing some movement while nearing Jhansi we woke up with a start and found my wife's purse containing my wallet with our passes and money missing. When I alighted at Jhansi to lodge a complaint, I met a young army couple travelling in the adjacent coupe. They had been robbed of everything but the underclothes they wore! At Nagpur, I had to get fresh passes issued for our further travels. A day before Babu's wedding, the wedding of Chinna (Surya Prabha), daughter of my uncle A Surya Prasada Rao, who was an advocate in Bilaspur, was celebrated. There was a gathering of most of the Annavarapu family. The group photo taken on the occasion is a rare family picture.
The corporate offices of Fertilizer Corporation of India occupied several rented buildings near the New Delhi South Extension (NDSE) market. Transportation Adviser’s office was in the ground floor of one of these buildings. Hitherto, LVP (Laurie) Albuquerque had worked all alone as the Transportation Adviser (TA), assisted only by an Assistant Officer drawn from the ranks of FCI. Assistant Transportation Officer HS Bakshi was quite efficient. Albuquerque relied on him, particularly in matters concerning the office. During my tenure in FCI, he was equally faithful to me and remained a steadfast friend throughout my stay in FCI. With the growth of FCI and the increase of activities in the transportation department, Albuquerque felt the need to augment his office. Accordingly, he got the approval of FCI Board of Directors for the creation of two posts under him, Deputy Transportation Adviser to assist him in operations and a Senior Transportation Adviser (Commercial) to deal with commercial matters. My batchmate NK Sinha, who was posted on South Eastern Railway, joined as STA (Commercial). NK Sinha had opted to join FCI in senior scale while the rest of us were offered the scale applicable to deputy heads of department. His wife Sunita was a teacher under the Delhi administration and he had been forced to live alone in Calcutta, so he was looking for an opening in Delhi.
I was familiar with Laurie Albuquerque and his way of working. Addicted as he was to playing cards late into the night almost every day, his span of attention to work tended to be rather short, although it must be said to his credit that he always came to office on time. He would spend much of his office time discussing the previous night's moves at the card table with his colleagues in FCI who were equally addicted to the game. But with his pleasant manners and charm he would get his old railway friends to solve the minor problems faced by FCI and thus keep his bosses happy. Every morning, I would meet him about the day’s transportation issues after which we would talk of other things including the previous night’s game. Sinha misunderstood my closeness to Albuquerque and thought I meant to boss over him. The position got worse when I got unwittingly involved in a case which was legitimately within his ambit of work.
When India's first chemical fertilizer factory was set up at Sindri in Bihar in the early 1950s, the railways had helped it by quoting a special rate for the transport of Gypsum from the mines located in Rajasthan. Over the years, the equations changed, with FCI getting well established and Indian Railways struggling to regain traffic lost to other modes of transport. One of the marketing strategies adopted by Indian Railways was to review special rates and withdraw those that were considered uneconomical. Special rates quoted for movement of gypsum from Rajasthan to Sindri were cancelled on this basis.
Fertilizer Corporation of India requested Railway Board to review the decision but when he request was turned down, FCI filed a case in Railway Rates Tribunal against the action of IR. The case came up for hearing soon after I joined as Dy TA. I requested Albuquerque to excuse from the case as it fell in NK Sinha's domain. There was nothing much for us to do as the case was being handled by a well-known lawyer called Jain, with the advice of Kalyanraman, retired Additional Member, Commercial, who was considered the last word in railway rates. Albuquerque asked me to accompany him to meet Jain and Kalyanraman but apart from that he left me out of the case.
A day before the hearing began, however, he told me that I would have to swear in a statement before the Tribunal. It was just a formality, he said. It seemed to be innocuous enough but there was much more than I had anticipated. When I had sworn in the statement, Sagar Chand Gupta, the Railway Advocate asked the Tribunal's leave to ask me some questions. An IRTS officer of 1955 batch, Sagar Gupta had resigned from railways to set up a lucrative practice, mainly as a railway advocate. He began by asking me the definition of wagon turn-round which I gave from memory. Then he asked me to trace the path of wagons loaded with gypsum on Western Railway up to their destination in Sindri, based on my knowledge of Eastern Railway operations. As he went on asking questions, I realised that he was trying to maneuver me to give an answer that would support the Railway's case. That would have been an act of disloyalty to FCI, since I was deposing on behalf of FCI. I took care to evade such queries despite Sagar's prolonging my questioning to the next day. At the end of my testimony, the chairman as well as the non-judicial member Sengupta declared that I was the best witness. But my performance inevitably drew me into the case, giving NK Sinha reason to believe that I was trying to undercut him.
When the hearing was over, I decided to mend my relations with Sinha. It was important because I had heard the boss making disparaging remarks about Sinha and I apprehended that it would end up in Sinha's getting an adverse Annual Confidential report. I first made Sinha understand that I was for him, not against him. I advised him to go on a tour to Sindri and submit a note on commercial work connected with railways. I took the note from Sinha and marked it to TA with a laudatory comment. As I expected, Albuquerque did not read Sinha's note and, relying on my comments, wrote a commendation. I began projecting the good qualities of Sinha at every opportunity but realised that I would have to do more to protect Sinha.
Sometime earlier, I had come across a resolution of the FCI's Board of Directors on simplification of procedures for writing Annual Confidential Reports (ACRs) of FCI employees. It had prescribed that the ACR of an employee would, in all cases, be initiated by his immediate superior and countersigned, with suitable remarks, by the officer immediately superior to the initiating official. I called for the file, made out a detailed chart showing who would initiate the ACR for each employee in TA's office and who would countersign it. I put up the chart to TA for approval and Albuquerque approved it without changing a comma. Since I was Sinha's immediate superior, I would initiate his ACR and Albuquerque would countersign it.
When the time arrived for writing the annual reports, I initiated Sinha's ACR and gave him an overall assessment of "Outstanding". When the ACR was put up to Albuquerque for his counter signature, he called me to his room and said that he was unable to accept my assessment of Sinha's performance. I defended my assessment citing instances of Sinha's work, not forgetting to mention Sinha's tour report of Sindri which Albuquerque had himself commended. But he remained unconvinced that Sinha’s performance deserved an "Outstanding" assessment. Eventually, Albuquerque said that he felt obliged to reduce the overall assessment to "Very Good". I agreed that he had the right to do so. Thus, Sinha got a “Very Good” remark in his assessment. If I had not intervened, Albuquerque would have initiated Sinha’s report and in all probability given him an adverse assessment. Sinha could not believe his luck and his wife Sunita never let him forget what I had done for him. That sealed our friendship for good.
Soon after taking up, the job I visited each of the units of FCI to familiarize myself with the rail transport conditions in them and the problems that needed our attention. It gave me the opportunity to meet the officers in charge of transportation in each unit. The three officers directly recruited by FCI had worked earlier in the private sector. ND Vembu was in Shaw Wallace and his experience and knowledge of railways was limited. He was assisted by RN Varma, a Northern Railway officer who had been picked by my batch-mate HJ Pavamani when he was in FCI on deputation. I noticed that Vembu was cold to Varma and relied more on a senior clerk in his office, although Varma was more experienced and knew rail operations better. Vembu requested Albuquerque to sponsor him for a short course in transportation at one of the railway training institutes. When the time came to spare him for the course, Vembu persuaded Albuquerque to ask me to take care of his work in his absence.
I would spend two days a week in Nangal and attend to important issues while Varma looked after day to day operations. I found lacunae in dealing with claims for loss and damage to fertilizers in transit and laid down the procedures to streamline the work. There was an audit objection about a claim settled when Pavamani was the Transportation Officer in Nangal. The office had accepted the objection, on the assumption that Pavamani had taken an incorrect decision as the original file could not be found. I disagreed with the office and insisted on searching the office thoroughly to trace the original file. When it was found, I was proved right. Pavamani had written a detailed note justifying his decision. The audit objection was withdrawn.
Khan, Transport Officer in the Durgapur Fertilizers had worked earlier in Dharamsi Morarji Chemical Factory in Kumhari near Raipur. He was courteous, soft spoken and industrious. The Durgapur fertilizer factory was still under construction. When I was DSO Asansol, in 1968, IP Srivastava (IRTS 1954) was on deputation there and I had noticed that the rail facilities planned for the unit were far in excess of requirements, thanks to insistence of Eastern Railway. I asked Khan to initiate action to get this rectified. Mathur in Rourkela fertilizers was adequate for the work.
Namrup fertilizer factory was the farthest factory in the east. I flew to Dibrugarh and travelled by road from there to Namrup. After visiting the factory, I travelled to Tinsukia to meet Sitesh Ranjan Sarkar (IRTS 1955), DS Tinsukia. Dada, as we called him, was good enough to accompany me to the airport, stopping en route to inspect some stations. The main problem in Namrup was the uncertainty in the availability of Sulphur for its Sulphuric acid plant. Sulphur had to be imported at Kandla port and moved to Namrup by the all meter gauge route to avoid transshipment en route. The transit time was anything from eight to ten weeks. While we tried to reduce the transit time, I thought it should be possible to import Sulphur through a port nearer to the factory. Kolkata port was the only such port in India, but it was on broad gauge and would involve transshipment. Moreover, conditions in Kolkata port were far from satisfactory both from the aspect of safety and speed of operations. With the liberation of Bangladesh, Chittagong port, that was on meter gauge, could have been an option. I spoke to KK Das, then posted as Railway Adviser to the Indian High Commission in Dhaka. “Forget it”, he told me, “conditions here are chaotic.”
Duleep Singh, who was my boss as Materials Manager Trombay during my previous stint in FCI, was General Manager of the Talcher unit, one of the three coal-based plants in FCI. He was not happy with his Transportation Officer, YK Shivpuri and wrote to Albuquerque to repatriate him to IR and ask for a replacement. I advised Albuquerque to let me visit Talcher to investigate before taking any action. At Talcher, I found that the main reason for Duleep Singh’s displeasure was that Shivpuri stayed at Bhubaneswar, instead of Talcher. He had good reason to do so. There were no schooling facilities for his children at Talcher. Moreover, it was easier to liaise with officers of Khurda Division of South Eastern Railway from Bhubaneswar than from Talcher. On the other hand, Duleep Singh felt aggrieved that Shivpuri was not at his beck and call like officers of other departments. Some of these officers also carried tales against Shivpuri to Duleep Singh. When I met Duleep Singh, he told me that he was disappointed with Shivpuri and wanted a change. I persuaded him to modify his stand about repatriating Shivpuri to IR. At the same time, I advised Shivpuri that his career on IR would be affected if FCI repatriates him for poor performance. I prevailed upon him to voluntarily request for returning to railways for personal reasons. Thus, I managed to defuse an ugly situation.
The spat between Duleep Singh and Shivpuri was typical of the relations between IRTS officers on deputation to FCI and their local bosses. Sinha and I were lucky to be working with one of our seniors in railways. I had the added advantage of having worked on FCI earlier. Compared to IR, most of the HODs and Dy HODs in FCI were a mediocre lot and suffered from an inferiority complex while dealing with IRTS officers. Since they were on deputation, the latter were outspoken in their response to attempts by their bosses to bully them. The GM of the Gorakhpur unit tried this tactic with my batchmate DN Kaushal and ended up saying, “You will realise my position if you sit in this chair.” Kaushal’s response was, “I don’t need to look forward to that prospect.”
I also visited the other two coal-based projects. In Sindri, coal was first used to manufacture water gas, a mixture of Carbon Monoxide and Hydrogen, by passing steam over a red-hot coke. Hydrogen extracted from this gas was combined with Nitrogen separated from the atmosphere to manufacture Ammonia which is the basic chemical required for manufacture of fertilizers. The water gas process was not economically efficient. A new process called coal gasification had been introduced that reduced the cost of conversion and avoided wastage. After setting up several naphtha-based plants, FCI had decided to set up coal-based plants using the new process.
In Korba the project was in its preliminary stage. At the invitation of the Project Manager, I accompanied Albuquerque for a visit to the site to determine the location of the plant. However, the project did not materialize and the expenditure on the project was written off. The Ramagundam project was running parallel to the Talcher project. KB Krishnaswami the Transportation officer lived in Secunderabad for convenience. These two projects went into production but were also abandoned a few years down the line for being unprofitable.
In 1973, FCI launched a new project in Nangal to set up a manufacturing unit based on naphtha. BS Kakkar, Project Manager of the Nangal Expansion Project and his deputy CL Kaul came to meet Albuquerque to discuss the transportation needs of the project. Kakkar explained that the project he headed was a turnkey project, scheduled for completion in 18 months. It involved construction of a new naphtha-based production unit in Nangal. Manufacturing equipment for the project was to be imported through the ports of Bombay and Kandla. Movement of these imported materials had to be ensured in time and to make that possible the project needed a good transportation officer. Kakkar agreed with Albuquerque's suggestion to have the post in the scale of a Deputy Head of Department.
I proposed the name of NK Sinha for the post, and he was duly introduced to Kakkar and Kaul. The final decision was to be taken after discussing with Directors in charge of Operations and Projects. When Albuquerque returned from the meeting, he was contrite. Dr Mukherjee had told Albuquerque to release me for the project and let Sinha take my place. Albuquerque had not been able to convince the Directors otherwise. I told Albuquerque that I had no objection to working for the Project, if I was permitted to work from Delhi. Kakkar accepted this and I moved to the Nangal Expansion Project.