Few senior bureaucrats come from outside the IAS fraternity.
In that respect, R V Shahi, secretary, ministry of power, can be considered a rarity. He joins a select group of those who reached the top ranks of bureaucracy from the outside -- Lavraj Kumar, Mantosh Sondhi and D V Kapoor being some of the others.
The choice of Shahi has not been without controversy. Ahead of his appointment on April 13 by Suresh Prabhu, who was then power minister, Shahi headed BSES Ltd, the profitable Mumbai-based power utility. During his eight-year stint, Reliance increased its stake in the company.
Inevitably, everyone asked, sotto voce, when Shahi's government appointment was made: was he a 'Reliance man'?
Shahi unequivocally dismisses the notion when the question was put to him. "There's no such thing," he says, "In fact, till the time I was there [in BSES] the institutions were major stakeholders. It was only later that Reliance increased its stake."
It is said that Shahi pipped three other government-owned power utility chiefs and one bureaucrat to the post after his predecessor A K Basu retired.
This was mainly because his all-round experience was considered useful for a sector that seems headed for crisis, more so after the hard-working Prabhu stepped down.
Following a 10-year stint with the Steel Authority of India Limited, Shahi spent 16 years with the NTPC Ltd at a time when the utility handled both generation and transmission (PowerGrid had not been established till then).
In 1991, Shahi became director (operations) at NTPC, a post that also put him in charge of R&D and commercial functions. He followed this up with nearly eight years in BSES.
His BSES stint may have prompted Prabhu to consider Shahi for the post of secretary since the minister had identified distribution as a major problem area and started focussing on distribution reforms.
Among the high points of his career, Shahi remembers the turnaround of Unchahar power station, which NTPC took over from the UP government. "When we took it over, the plant load factor was just 20 per cent. We camped there and worked on the station. Within 100 days, the PLF touched 60 per cent; today, it is as productive as any of NTPC's plants," he recalls.
But it was BSES that taught him much that is relevant to his current beat. Shahi mentions the GDR issue of $125 million in February 1996, which was oversubscribed nine times.
The experience he gained when BSES tapped the domestic and external markets is coming handy now, he says, with all major state-owned power utilities planning to tap the markets over the next two years.
His toughest challenge? That was when BSES acquired three distribution companies in Orissa. "The sheer scale of problems -- from rural electrification, theft, technical losses and regulatory issues -- came to light when we took over the distribution companies in Orissa," Shahi remembers.
That experience is now proving invaluable since he has to advise the states on handling similar problems.
Has being an 'outsider' been a problem?
Not in his case, because, as he explains, "I must have been the only non-bureaucrat to have taken office who knew everybody in the ministry. I had dealt with each and every joint secretary and the previous secretary before joining the ministry and served with them on some committee or the other."
Certainly, bureaucrats in Shram Shakti Bhavan think he's the best man for the job, though the corporate world thinks he's not doing things fast enough. That's not for want of effort -- Shahi routinely puts in a 12-hour day, a fact that doesn't make him all that popular with his office staff.
Also, with new power minister Anant Geete still finding his feet, it is Shahi who is now carrying much of the responsibility of implementing the distribution reforms agenda -- a laborious affair that involves building a consensus with the states.
The big issue is whether Shahi's three-year contract is long enough to achieve this.