Sunday, February 6, 2022

The journey through time 1947 to 2001 (Vijay Hariyani)

Vijay Hariyani became a friend by chance when his son, Rahul Hariyani (CFO, IAL Group, Dubai) was my colleague. His rhetorical way of describing his deep experiences of the yesteryears impressed me and I became a fan of his stories. Other than our meets in Kutch when I travel for work, it has been routine to meet each time he comes to Dubai.

Vijay Hariyani with Ravindran Raghavan
Today's coffee chat at Paul Cafe (Deira City Centre) took me on a journey through the Kutch Kori (native currency pre-1947), coalfields of Uttar Pradesh (1979), salt fields of Kandla (1986), and a live narration of the mega earthquake of Kutch (2001, 15 mins before the Republic Day flag raising). His stories had enough material for a good history book with a presentation of emotions and a storyline that match the quality of Discovery Channel.

Kutch Kori

It looks like the British left Kutch undisturbed during their rule of India. The place being barren and with no tangible commodity became just a royalty-paying "region" where the maharaja pays a royalty to the British and remain cordial. Kutch Kori, the currency of Kuth, was in play as a parallel currency at that time with coins of silver and copper. This was later replaced by the Indian rupee after 1947. 

Coalfields of Uttar Pradesh (1979)

Vijay's career as the Commercial Manager at a Chemical Unit in Barabanki UP took him to the coalfields of Uttar Pradesh where he was sent through the town of Banaras into the jungles where coal was being mined, and his employer was looking for 10 loads of coal every day. The complex haggling for prices with the brokers in Banaras was tough. At premium prices, coal was readily available in required quantities and the right quality too but that was not optimum for the company.

Being a "Registered Coal Consuming Industry," the company was eligible to get government approval for sourcing coal directly from surface coal miners in Vindhyachal, the hilly jungle areas at the border of Uttar Pradesh-Bihar. But transportation would be a challenge. Vijay has never done such sourcing before and this was a "national geographic" kind of challenge!

Vijay's efforts to track deeper and reach the source of coal was through one of his transport vendors in Banaras. Having reached the Vindhyachal coalfields on a four-wheel-drive jeep and met Mr Singh, the ex-military Punjabi "controller" of the field, he understood that the task of getting 10 loads of 12 MT a day was much more difficult than what was explained by his contact in Banaras! His purchase order of 500 MT of coal was not going to be useful unless there are trucks to carry them to town.

Mr Singh, the controller, introduced him to the twisted-moustache-bearing tough gentleman called Tej Balisingh who was the de-facto contractor of the workers in the field. He promptly agreed to place sufficient workers to load the trucks. But then the next day was going to be the "test of fire" to see if the promised 10 trucks were going to arrive to pick the coals. As with most promises of the day, 3 trucks arrived with a load of empty promised that saw no more than 3 coming to load the coals each day thereafter. Vijay's employer was losing patience and a sure-fire solution was needed to address the backlog. Mr Singh's experienced advice was to seek the help of Tej Balisingh to secure more trucks. 

Having heard the story of the new city executive who has come to the jungle with a purchase order but no trucks, Tej invited Vijay to dinner. And to add misery to Tej, his guest was a vegetarian who consumes none of the freshly hunted deer meat nor the carefully cooked lamb. Aloo Tikki (a potato dish) and roti (local bread) settled the dinner fare. And now Tej invites Vijay to join him for hunting that night. They get onto his jeep, drive deep into the jungle where the sound of the jeep was louder than the roaring tiger. Apart from that, the silence was as good as wearing a noise-cancelling earbud. After reaching the selected spot, conducting a small prayer ritual with whiskey, and serving small shots of whiskey as blessings of the day, Tej was ready with his gun. As envisaged by Tej, the deer appeared as though the whiskey sprinkles has drawn it to the bull's eye of the hunter's gun! There goes a loud shot and a sprawling deer. It was not a sight that Vijay could stomach nor forget for several days.

After the non-customary vegetarian dinner, jungle prayer of whiskey and the successful deer hunt, tej became a good friend. Now he promised to look into the truck fiasco. True to the twists of his moustache, Tej secured 10 trucks a day and saved the target delivery for Vijay's purchase order. My thoughts - that must have been a major feeling of success when Vijay managed to crack the "code" and achieve the delivery. A total of 3 purchase order cycles of 500 MT each was executed during his engagement at this coalfield, by which time the normal supply of coal resumed.

In his days at the coalfields, he had his share of witnessing Tej beat up a misbehaving driver who disturbed a local lady and also face an angry driver who drew a knife to kill him! As the driver who cut the queue and refused to go back in line reached the weighbridge, there stood Vijay blocking him from entry. And that awakened the sleeping cat causing the driver to release a movie standard dialogue " Do you know who am I? I have murdered two people before this and am familiar with the punishments. This is nothing new to me" ... and he drew his knife. Vijay has an option to think of his wife in town and back off, which would mean that he is defeated forever. Or stand the ground and get killed! Vijay decided to release his version of a movie standard dialogue "Go ahead commit the third murder!" Viola!

Fortunately, the news of the fight had reached Mr Singh on high ground and by the time the knife-wielding driver grasped the handle of his knife, he was manhandled by Singh's men and brought to "justice". 

Earthquake of Kutch (2001)

I am going to zig-zag into this timeline as I want to end the story on a positive note. This is a sad history that is absolutely necessary to pen down but not pleasant to dwell on. The earthquake was a very sad episode that resonated all the way to Malaysia where I lived and we had friends who organised aid and supplies to Gujerat at that time (my other memory was when I was involved in the aids to the Maldives during the tsunami incident).

Going by the day's flow from sunrise to 08:45am, combining some news stories into our conversation and "seeing" the picture of the day ... this is how the day played in my mind as Vijay was talking about it ...

While all preparations for the Indian Republic Day was underway on 26th January 2001, the flag-raising in various schools, office buildings, government complexes and business premises was planned for 09:00am. Hemlata, Vijay's wife, was away in Mount Abu for a Rotary Club function while Vijay had to cancel his trip at the last minute due to the visit by his company's Director. The company Director, Ms Bhartiben Shethia and her daughter had checked in to a hotel the day before while Vijay was reading his papers in the morning lying on his easy chair.

Unknown to Vijay at that time, some 300 school children were walking in a long line weaving through narrow lanes between buildings to get to their school ground for the flag-raising. Vijay's fellow Rotarian friend cancelled his visit to Mount Abu since Vijay could not make the trip and he went to the Chamber of Commerce building on that morning.

Opposite the lane, Vijay's neighbour, a retired colonel was going about sipping his coffee on a slow morning, while Vijay's driver was making his way towards the house to fetch Vijay to the hotel where Ms Bhartiben was staying.

At around 08:45am Vijay heard an eery rumbling sound combined with a violent swing of his ceiling fan which was standing motionlessly till then as it was switched off due to the cool winter weather. Within seconds his cupboard in the living room crashed to the floor, things in the house started tossing around and as he ran out of the back door the fence wall collapsed right beside him while he saw a whole apartment building collapsing in the foreground at a distant. It dawned to him that it is an earthquake but there was no time to think or grasp the intensity of the 90-second magnitude 7.7 shakes that destroyed Kutch.

As it came in the news later, sadly, the 300 schoolchildren who were parading in the narrow lane died being trapped under the collapsed buildings near Anjar township. What a morning, that turned into mourning so quickly!

Scores of people were killed under rubble and Vijay found out that his friend at the Chamber Of Commerce building was an unfortunate casualty. Vijay's driver tried to drive off to safety only to realise that there was no "safety" zone anywhere within the next 50km. 

He finally reached the house, fetched Vijay and they went to check on Ms Bhartiben at the hotel. Fortunately, most of the hotel occupants has escaped but were shaken from the incident. They could not go back to Bombay since all roads to Kutch were cut off. There comes a challenge for their stay and meals till connections are restored. Fortunately, Vijay's neighbour, the ex-colonel gave a staying place to Ms Bhartiben and her daughter till roads were re-opened several days later when they could travel to Ahmedabad and fly to Bombay from there.

A charged-up morning filled with the enthusiasm of Republic Day turned into mourning just 15 minutes before the flags were raised. This incident will stay in the memories of the people here for years to come.

Salt fields of Kandla (1986)

After the successful adventure with Tej Balisingh in the coalfields of Uttar Pradesh, Vijay's career took a turn towards the salt fields of Kandla where the company was having a yield of 60,000 metric tonnes from a salt field covering 4,300 acres (well, that is the size of 4 small towns!) when the benchmark was 200,000 metric tonnes annually. The salt fields were financially strapped and continuously reaching out to their offices in Mumbai for funds. The mission was for Vijay to get the operations to stand on its own feet without "begging from head office"! That was a pretty steep expectation on his shoulders for the new assignment where he had no experience whatsoever. All he had was the experience of dealing with the knife-wielding driver and managing the trucks organised by the twisted moustached Tej Balisingh.

Upon landing on the salt plains he realised that there were 2 units where the company operated its salt production, the 4,300 acres plot at Kandla and another smaller plot on the western side, Jakhau. The Jakhau was not operating for almost 8 years due to financial and logistics problems while staff were being paid wages! Their wage has been on a backlog of 6 months with an occasional payout when the head office sends funds. That operation was totally unsustainable due to low yields. Vijay took control of the operating plot in Kandla and began his new adventure of learning from ground zero. His walks along the bunds and talks with the lower level workers slowly gave him the awareness of what was going wrong.

Further analysis of the financials to see the amount of money spent for different purposes revealed that the company has been spending on wages, transport, logistics, and also bund repair. But the bunds were in a dismal condition causing saltwater to zig-zag its way the spill off into wrong pathways as well as slip back into the ocean. So, this time when money was allocated to repair the bunds, Vijay decided to walk there himself and stand there to see why the repair was not working. As expected (or unexpected) the truth revealed itself - the repair was being sub-contracted to a contractor who was supplying 3 workers for the job while claiming the costs for 10 thus the work was in theory only 30% done. When this was fixed, the bunds had better efficiency while slowly increasing the yield.

Meanwhile, the bank had to be appeased. There were 200,000 metric tonnes pledged as inventory while the real inventory was less than 20,000 metric tonnes. Previously the bank had been briefed that the salt layer is deep so the remaining inventory was "underground". Now the bank caught up with the truth and was becoming restless with the arrears of loan payment as well as the "missing" inventory. Vijay would have no choice but to own up to the correct numbers and find a way to streamline the loan repayments.

What the place needed was a champion to support the activities and Vijay's investigation pointed towards an ex-employee, Mr Chothani*, who had left some years back who was said to be a good technical person. Re-hiring him was a challenge because Chothani had left the place when the place was in a hopeless condition. His mind clearly remembers the place and he refused to re-join a "place with no hope and no future". It took some convincing to bring him back and then the conversation of technically improving the bund height and layout began.

*Mr Chothani became a good friend of Hariyani and his wife Indiraben became his God-sister. Chothani moved to Kenya in 1995 for a salt field development assignment and later passed away in Kenya. His wife, now 84, is now living in Adipur with her son and family.

With all the changes and efforts the yield rose to 220,000 metric tonnes annually and added yet another feather on the cap of Vijay. As the yield improved, sales management was moved to Vijay's portfolio for better control of local selling prices. The combination of positive changes moved the plains into self-sustenance very quickly.

The restless bank agreed to deduct 15% of each incoming payment that was banked in the recover the loans without squeezing the capital. With that, the loans were cleaned up within the next 9 months.

The donkeys of the western salt plain

Don't get me wrong, I am saying "donkeys" to mean real donkeys and not humans being called donkeys!!

The western fields at Jakhau were in a point-of-no-return when Vijay approached the senior man in that area, Mr Hussensha Bawa**, and decided to revamp the workforce. This required the option to retrench the existing workers who have a backlog of months of wages and hire a new workforce. With a circus of union leaders playing in the background, this task was going to have some fireworks in the sky. As the retrenchment benefit package was being announced the sleeping union leaders woke up and coaxed the workers to reject the offer. And now Vijay is in another situation like the knife-wielding driver of the coalfield weighbridge. The question to the union leaders was "Where were you when these people were not getting their salaries?" and he told the workers "You have a choice to accept or to continue with your salary dues which you can go and ask the union to pay!" With that, the conclusion became as clear as daylight.

**Mr Hussensha Bawa who was working in Jakhau since the start of the saltworks during the 1950s, had vast knowledge of salt activities. Though he was Hariyani's assistant, he evolved to be a mentor who guided Hariyani with his skills in understanding the local geographical and political aspects. He passed away in later years but his children are well settled and are in close contact with Hariyani till today

Now, where does he go for the money? he needed Rs 400,000 for the settlement and the head office was not in a good mood to dish out that fund. The senior fellow at the plains came up and gave Vijay a piece of breaking news. Gypsum is a byproduct of salt harvesting. Usually, salt fields would mine the gypsum and sell for an added sideline revenue. The senior says that this plain has never been mined for gypsum thus there should be enough gypsum deposits to cover the Rs400,000 requirement.

The company's head office would be more than glad if funds can be raised internally at the plains with gypsum. Just like the story of the coal and the trucks; finding a buyer who would purchase the gypsum on an as-is-basis was not going to be easy. Buyers were offering Rs65 per MT when the cost of harvesting and heaping was Rs95 per MT, so that was a crazy no-deal. This cycle of hide-and-seek with buyers went on until the man with the donkeys appeared. He offered an option to first investigate the viability then make an offer.

This man had 50 donkeys and 4 workmen! He placed a few donkeys in his logistics plan to transport the gypsum 3km from the site to the heaping ground. With his test, he found that it was indeed viable and offered Rs25 per MT for the job. Now the whole deal became happily viable. Vijay grabbed the opportunity and agreed to pay him Rs30 per MT instead with an agreement to speed up the work. The donkey owner now introduced the main buyer who was in Porbandar, who in turn was supplying the gypsum to cement plants. Now the Porbandar man becomes the next good friend of Vijay and remained friends for years to come.

Meanwhile, the troop of 50 donkeys carried the gypsum diligently for 3km in multiple trips to create heaps at the loading bay. the buyer paid Rs400,000 as advance and that solved the worker's benefits package. Surprisingly, the donkeys were operating without any human intervention on their 3 km journey!! When the bag was mounted on the donkey, filled with gypsum and with a tap on the back it walks all the way to the heaping area. Upon unloading they walk back to the starting point. At the end of the day when the bag is removed they hop off to the feeding spot! That would have been an amazing 50 donkey logistics team to shoot a video if it was now.

Now, with the earnings from the huge quantities of gypsum deposits generating good cash flow, the Jakhau salt field restarted its operations in 1989. Another "success father" on Vijay's cap.

... our next adventure

By the end of the stories, we had finished our Americano and cappuccino with a host of soft bread, almond croissant and chocolate pastry. And now we began planning a visit to Expo2020. 

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