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Memoirs of a Mandarin

This book throws light on the evolution of SEBI and the Disinvestment Commission.

Arnab Mitra | Print Edition: October 21, 2007

G.V. Ramakrishna, a distinguished bureaucrat, retired from service in the late ’80s. It remains an irony that the really important positions—Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India, Chairman of the Disinvestment Commission and a stint with the Planning Commission—came to him after that.

Two Score and Ten, My Experiences in Government, which recounts his 50 years in public life, is interesting in parts. That qualification is important: chapters on his childhood and his early days in the bureaucracy can be of little interest to a wider audience. Ramakrishna would have faded into oblivion but for two important post-retirement sinecures. Soon after retirement, he was appointed by then Prime Minister V.P. Singh as the second chairman of SEBI.

That was a time when Indian stock markets were run by a cabal of powerful brokers. It was Ramakrishna who first tried to streamline the working of the bourses and bring transparency into their working. He will be remembered for banning badla, that uniquely Indian forward trading mechanism that lent itself to misuse and manipulation. Expectedly, this didn’t go down very well with the broker community and the latter mounted tremendous political pressure to remove the man who killed the bird that laid them golden eggs. In the end, he accepted “advice” from friends to move on to the Planning Commission with the rank of a Minister of State.

Interestingly, despite his efforts at portraying himself as a champion of stock market reforms, he admits that he opposed efforts to introduce free pricing of public issues. Young readers will find it hard to believe, but India had an office called the Controller of Capital Issues, which decided the premium that companies could charge from potential investors—allegedly to save them from being duped by unscrupulous promoters.

Fortunately, for India and the investor community, Ramakrishna’s concerns were ignored. This one instance shows how a large part of India’s reforms was engineered by a bureaucracy that had still not come to terms with the loss of its discretionary powers.

His stint with the Disinvestment Commission, during the tenure of the United Front government of 1996-98, was less eventful. But it is important because it set the tone for pick-up in the pace of disinvestment under the subsequent NDA regime.

Two Score and Ten is a good read for students of India’s reforms process as it provides an insider’s account of how events unfolded at SEBI and the Disinvestment Commission. But the huge number of newspaper and magazine clippings at the end of each chapter and the ponderous early chapters make large parts of the book heavy and reader-unfriendly.

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