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Rajshree Pathy: An ambitious entrepreneur

April 11, 2008 08:29 IST
She's neither a rah-rah feminist railing against glass ceilings, nor a retiring housewife, jasmine-studded oiled hair hanging down her back and a nominal interest in business.

Rajshree Pathy, a non-conformist all her life, is proud to be a small-town entrepreneur with big ambitions (she runs the Coimbatore-based Rajshree Sugars and Chemicals Limited, a company with interests across integrated fields such as sugar, distillery, power co-generation and biotechnology), but is obsessed about "doing the right thing".

That, of course, is the spirit behind her suit against Axis Bank for selling her company an exotic derivative hedge against forex losses -- Pathy's plaint, as well as that of others who've filed suits against the banks, is that they never understood the complex products they were sold but bought them in good faith. Estimates of the potential loss from such products, primarily in the SME sector, range from $3bn to $5bn, a figure large enough to wipe out many of those who bought these products.

Pathy defied a feudal family setup to become a professional woman. She became first woman president of the powerful Indian Sugar Mills Association (ISMA) in 2004-05.

She is currently the president of the South India Sugar Mills Association (SISMA) for a second term, from 2007 to 2009. She was named Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum at Davos in 1996.

Pathy is best known for her sponsorship and lobbying for the ethanol blending programme and under her presidentship, ISMA signed a tripartite agreement binding oil companies and sugar factories all over the country. Once the petroleum ministry bought her idea of blending petrol with 5 per cent ethanol, this forced all constituents to a common table.

But it is all the controls imposed by government on the sugar industry that consumes Pathy. She has some pertinent questions. When 67 per cent of all sugar is consumed by institutional buyers like soft drinks manufacturers, food manufacturers, the pharma industry, and so on; 20 per cent by average middle class households; and 10 per cent by the Public Distribution System, why should the sugar industry be forced to subsidise consumers? "We support the largest segment of organised industry-aided farming. Why is the government not supporting this industry?" she asks.

The industry is also up in arms against the very high weight of sugar in the WPI, which makes it the single most sensitive commodity supposedly contributing to inflation. "This needs to be urgently revisited as this figure is not relevant today -- the basket has widened," Pathy says.

She predicts that unless sugar prices are allowed to stay at realistic rates based upon the current sugarcane pricing of both the central and state governments, the industry will die and India will have to import sugar in future.

Pathy has a range of other interests: art, wellness, music and the revival of traditional craft, and her family's spirit of philanthropy. Delhi fascinates but also irritates her.

"Power is really about giving it away for a larger purpose," she says, but Delhi's self-absorption angers her. "The news you read about in Coimbatore? Well, if you're in Delhi you're part of those who make it," she says.

Pathy dreams of the day India can compete with sugar producers like Brazil where sugar producers don't have to ask government permission each they want to add to capacity.

With her, the personal is the political: "never put curbs, never exploit a handicap," she says.

Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi