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Ex-IAS Atanu Chakraborty and a tale of two different Gujarat vision documents

By Rajiv Shah
The likely appointment of Atanu Chakraborty as HDFC Bank chairman interested me for several reasons, but above all because I have interacted with him closely during my more than 15 year stint in Gandhinagar for the “Times of India”. One of the few decent Gujarat cadre bureaucrats, Chakraborty, belonging to the 1985 IAS batch, at least till I covered Sachivalaya was surely above controversies. He loved to remain faceless, never desired publicity, was professional to the core, and never indulged in loose talk.
When he neared retirement, which happened in April 2020, first there were rumours in Sachivalaya that he would be appointed SEBI chairman, and then there was talk he would be chairman (or was it CEO?) of Gujarat International Finance Tec (GIFT) City (a dream project of Narendra Modi as Gujarat chief minister, which as Prime Minister Modi wants to promote, come what may). But, for some strange reasons, and I don’t know why, none of this happened, despite the fact that he has been considered a person with high competence by top policy makers close to Modi.
Be that as it may, there is something for which I have always held him in high esteem. It was late 1990s. Chakraborty at that time headed the high profile Gujarat Infrastructure Development Board (GIDB) when Keshubhai Patel was the state chief minister. That was the period when nobody talked about the need for private involvement in infrastructure projects. In fact, it was an anathema to talk about it. It was at this point of time that he ensured preparation of a three-volume Gujarat Infrastructure Agenda – Vision 2010.
An extremely well-written document, which he handed over to me before giving it to others, it proved to be a major source of several of my stories, which I did on what the state government was planning to with in different infrastructure fields, be it ports, roads, power, oil and gas, urban areas, or water resources. Envisaging an investment of Rs 117,000, this was perhaps the first document of its kind which admitted that the government cannot alone fund infrastructure projects without private involvement – in fact, it calculated how much the private parties would need to invest and what was the the state government’s capacity.
The report, a copy of one which I have still preserved in my bookshelf, identifies the spots where investments could be expected, even as rating each of the projects in order to help private players to find out where they could consider investing. And most important (which is what interested me more than anything else), it gave a realistic picture of the poor state of infrastructure in Gujarat, including major weaknesses, in each of the sectors as of late 1990s, and what policy changes would be needed to bring about changes for attracting investment and modernising infrastructure.
Even before Chakraborty handed over the three-volume document, he helped me prepare several stories for TOI between 1999-2000 on what the state government can do to enhance infrastructure setup in Gujarat. It used to be a pleasing interaction, in which sometimes the then “Economic Times” journalist Sunil Raghu would often accompany me. One may differ with him on several issues, but he had an amazing clarity of thought on policy issues. He was the first person who floated the idea in draft tourism policy to remove prohibition in order to promote the sector in Gujarat. 
The 2010 Vision document prepared under Chakraborty, interestingly, stands in sharp contrast to another similar document brought out a decade later under chief minister Narendra Modi, who came to power in Gujarat in October 2001. At that time, the person who headed GIDB was AK Sharma, a 1988 batch IAS officer of the Gujarat cadre, who later went to Delhi and was in the Prime Minister’s office till recently. In 2010. Modi made Sharma secretary in the chief minister’s office (CMO), and later he was given the additional charge of GIDB.
Like Chakraborty, Sharma also promised me that I would be among the very first to get a copy of the document – which was called Blueprint for Infrastructure: Gujarat 2020 (or BIG-2020). He kept his promise, ditto like Chakraborty. On receiving it, quickly scanning through its contents, page by page, on the very same day (it’s a huge volume, and not less than 1 kg!), I found a project proposal that attracted me the most. I told about it to my office, which asked me to send a story urgently.
This project proposal in BIG-2020 was about developing a Casino near Dholavira, perhaps the best Harappan site in India! I filed a story, and it was taken as a flier in the "Times of India". The story, published on July 1, 2010, had the headline “Now, a Las Vegas in dry Gujarat”! There was flutter in the CMO next day. Sharma had already sent across BIG-2020 copies to all top Gujarat government bureaucrats. He called these copies back, and pasted a white slip on the page that had the casino reference, and returned it to the bureaucrats.
To recall, the casino project for Rs 400 crore, also envisaged an 18-hole world-class golf course, facilities of “all types of gambling for entertainment” with the exception of “speculative activity, for example bets on cricket matches”. While restricting the activities within the “exotic zone”, the document promised bars “subject to the conditionality of the law”. It had plans to set up a seven-star hotel, embellished with other activities like discotheques, spa, theatre, library, and a modern hospital to encourage medical tourism!
Though embarrassed, Sharma wasn’t angry with me (it isn’t in his nature), but requested me to return the BIG-2020 copy which he had given me. At that time, Modi was running a campaign asking people to "gift away a book" to others in order to "sharpen" knowledge base of the state’s adult population. I quietly told Sharma, “Sir, I have gifted it away BIG-2020 to someone as part of the Modi vision…” He didn’t react, only smiled, and the book remained with me, that too without the white slip pasted on it.
Indeed, if the Vision 2010 document was meticulously prepared, with no such howlers, not even smaller errors like spelling mistakes, the BIG-2020 document was just the opposite. I remember, Chakraborty told me once how he personally read through all the pages of the Vision 2020 document to make sure it was as fool proof as possible. In fact, he was proud of its scholarly contents. As for BIG-2020, things were just the opposite: It not only has a large number spelling and grammatical howlers, there are several other major slips, all of which I cannot recount here.
However, one of them I do remember, about which I also did a story: While the Dholera port along the Gulf of Khambhat was dropped two years before BIG-2020 came out (I wrote a story on this, which also went as a TOI flier), the document prepared under Sharma still suggested (imagine!) the need to develop it with private help! I can understand Sharma’s limitations: He had to do his job in CMO, which must be taking a lot of his time. But how does one justify a roughshod document of this kind, which was full of all types of errors?

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