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A retiring bureaucrat on the treadmill

A K Bhattacharya | June 23, 2003

The man who will be India's chief negotiator at the trade ministers' meeting at Cancun in September has already got his next job.

Commerce secretary Dipak Chatterjee has been named chairman of the Competition Commission of India, a new regulatory body responsible for eliminating anti-competition practices, promoting competition in Indian markets, protecting consumer interests and ensuring freedom of trade.

The commission will have a heavy agenda, partly because of its own mandate and partly because it will take over the functions of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission, which will then stand dissolved. But Chatterjee appears undaunted.

"I have not yet looked at the details of my new job profile," he says when asked how he would manage such a challenging job. Persist with your queries and he will point to the calendar on which he has circled, in red ink, the dates from September 10 to 14, which is when the Cancun ministerial meeting is scheduled.

His junior officers will tell you how focused he is on the forthcoming ministerial round. A mild-mannered bureaucrat, Chatterjee, however, plays down his deep involvement with the trade issues with which he is now grappling.

In many ways, Chatterjee is like A V Ganeshan, who also was commerce secretary in the early nineties and one of India's chief negotiators at the Uruguay round of trade negotiations. Like Ganeshan, Chatterjee does not betray the tension and excitement that accompany multilateral trade talks. The only difference is that while Ganeshan rarely passes up the opportunity to talk on trade issues  ad nauseum, Chatterjee is reticent.

Not that he ducks provocative questions. When asked whether the Cancun talks would flop as many suggest, he replied, "We cannot say that now. But it largely depends on whether the deadlock on agriculture is broken. Agriculture holds the key to Cancun."

And then the bureaucrat's natural reticence takes over with a soft counter-question: "What do you think India's stand should be?"

Is he also like this with his colleagues? His juniors admit that he is a non-interfering boss, delegates responsibilities to the section heads and expects them to deliver on deadline. No frayed tempers and no heated arguments.

Even as the mines secretary, Chatterjee kept his cool as he oversaw the most controversial of all privatisation deals to take place in the last few years -- the sale of Balco to Sterlite. Chatterjee, however, was able to handle the subsequent controversy with ease and composure. He even prepared the ground for the privatisation of Hindustan Zinc Limited, which eventually went through after he moved to the commerce ministry.

Looking back, Chatterjee has consciously maintained a low profile with no controversies right through the 37 years of his service as an IAS officer. A West Bengal-cadre officer, Chatterjee never worked in Writers' Buildings, the headquarters of the Bengal government. He had only two stints in Kolkata, but both were in directorates with offices outside the state secretariat. The rest of his postings in Bengal were in the districts.

His longest uninterrupted stint at the Centre was in the finance ministry from 1981 to 1987, dealing with plan finance, external commercial borrowing and even the Fund-Bank division for some time.

So many of his colleagues were surprised when they learnt that Chatterjee had showed no marked interest in returning to North Block as finance secretary. Indeed, he preferred to stay on in the commerce ministry to steer the trade talks till his retirement in June 2004.

Knowledgeable people in the government say that the appointment of Chatterjee as CCI chairman was a recognition of the man who stood out among the hordes of retiring bureaucrats queuing up to plead for post-retirement jobs.

An alumnus of St. Stephen's College, Chatterjee was among the eight physics post-graduates from Delhi University who later joined the IAS in 1966 and 1967(such as  N K Sinha, Pawan Chopra and Subir Dutta, who are all secretaries in different ministries at the Centre).

Today, he seems to have raced ahead of them with a five-year tenure as the CCI chairman. His only regret is that the tenure starts immediately after the Cancun meet ends. So, books, music and his pet dog will have to wait for some more time, before he can give them his undivided attention.

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