The scrupulous banker

His image seemed tailored for his profession: serious, resolute, thoughtful. His persona radiated the stickler that he was. But to those who knew him, there was another side: a genial banker with a well-grounded point of view, offered with a laugh or a fund of quirky, humorous tale. Everyone knew and understood that he was one of a kind, rather special, with an old-world charm that makes life itself so meaningful and special for everyone around such a person. Here’s a small tale: He retired as Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India on October 10, 1996. He came out of that modern-day headquarters building opposite Mumbai’s Horniman Circle, hailed a taxi and went home. The official car was not to be used that evening because he had retired earlier in the day and the car was not his to use; it was duly and immediately returned.

Savak Sohrab Tarapore was one of India’s most outstanding career Central bankers. He joined the RBI in 1961, and rose to become the Deputy Governor, a position he held from 1992 to 1996. He sat in high office, served many committees and panels with distinction and made his mark the old fashioned way – quietly, almost unnoticeably, behind closed doors and in private meetings where he stood tall as a champion for the ordinary citizen. The higher he rose, the lower he looked and the more fiercely he fought for the cause of the common man, two words which he wrote with a capital ‘C’ and a capital ‘M’.

He sat in high office, served many committees and panels with distinction and made his mark the old fashioned way – quietly, almost unnoticeably, behind closed doors and in private meetings where he stood tall as a champion for the ordinary citizen.

It is a tribute to the depth of his knowledge, his well-articulated point of view for the common man and the expansiveness of his heart that four years after he passed away, Savak Tarapore’s words and writings continue to shine through and offer light and wisdom even today.    

The former RBI Governor Dr Y V Reddy said it well in his tribute when Savak Tarapore passed away in 2016, “I have lost one of my best friends, philosopher and Guru".

Consider some of what Tarapore wrote, words that have become legendary and standout to be quoted again and again.

Writing as a part of the Chairman of the Committee on Procedures and Performance Audit on Public Services (CPPAPS), Savak Tarapore noted: “The banks’ offerings are generally opaque — what is not charged is mentioned, but what is charged is not mentioned — high hidden costs appear rampant and unjustified, thus banks enjoy undue enrichment. If a small customer goes to a bank and has a technical problem, anecdotal evidence suggests that he runs into enormous difficulties. The Committee notes with some sadness that there is substance in the widespread impression among the small depositor community that one needs to know someone higher-up for getting his/her job done. Intense depositor loyalty is the only plank on which the Indian banking systems is surviving. The banks providing poor customer service have to understand that depositors are at the end of their tether.”

Who speaks in this clear and succinct voice today?

To get this insight, Savak Tarapore had visited bank branches wearing, yes, a torn shirt, to mimic the poor who are often shunned at bank counters. He was treated as shabbily at the counter as the poor are treated by the banks. He told this writer that the so-called bankers warned him: “Don’t be seen here again.” He was literally thrown out. This is the story of one banker or one branch treating one poor person, or one in the garb of a poor person in this case. But it is also the story of the glitz and glamour of India – the shining India – treating the India that is of grime, dust, and dirt, very differently. The class divisions that in some ways define us, break us, and pull us apart have made our growth story as unmanageable as some fear it has become.

Savak Tarapore had visited bank branches wearing, yes, a torn shirt, to mimic the poor who are often shunned at bank counters.

Tarapore often spoke clearly and loudly on the need to beat and fight inflation, which is a burden on the weakest and the poorest. In a column dated November 13, 2014, he wrote, “The history of India’s inflation is replete with instances of taking the foot off the brakes just as the RBI is about to slay the ‘inflation monster’, thus giving it a breather to claw at the entrails of the economy.” For Tarapore it was a case of war against an enemy called inflation. As he went on to say in the same column. “I will never tire of repeating ad nauseum the telling statement made by economist PR Brahmananda, a former president of the Indian Economic Association: ‘Not caring about inflation is like going into battle without caring about the wounded, the dying and the dead.’”

What is the significance of this legacy in our current troubled times?

What lessons does Savak Tarapore hold for a new generation that must deal with even more complex issues of banking at a time India is at one level said to be poised for growth but at another has an underbelly that is as much if not more prone to exploitation over the last several decades?

He remained steadfast against increasing government deficits and the RBI accommodation of them. He held price stability supreme as inflation hurts the poor the most.

And more importantly, what are the leadership lessons we might learn from the life of Savak Tarapore?

For one, Savak Tarapore lived a life of high achievement, fulfilment, and contentment. He was fired by a purpose, he was anchored in humility, he always served the Institution he worked for well and never failed to live up to first principles that he worked with. With such a high life, even the designation mattered little. For his hundreds of columns, he signed off with the end-line that described him, quite simply, as an economist, not a former Deputy Governor of the RBI.

One of his prime concerns was one that would define Savak Tarapore: his concern for the common person. His focus on championing the cause of the common person went beyond his RBI days to the post-retirement syndicated column that he authored. In these writings, Savak Tarapore was the insider who continuously looked at issues from the perspective of an outsider. No one knew these issues better than this dyed-in-the-wool Central banker, but he used this knowledge and understanding to argue the cause of the common person. A person who could scarcely understand the issue and was voiceless in the world of finance and economics that ran his or her ordinary life. And this shone through in all his writings, and the arguments he essayed in column after column.

At the Reserve Bank, and in circles beyond it, he is remembered for his dogged honesty and integrity. In a tribute to Tarapore after he passed away in 2016, retired central banker K. Kanagasabapathy writing in the Economic and Political Weekly recalled “I was told Tarapore was a strict disciplinarian. Later, I realised that he was ruthless in applying discipline to himself. According to this legendary piece of information within the RBI and also outside it: Nobody dared to offer him even a pen as a gift.”

Evidently, this extended home where Farida Tarapore recalled that her husband didn’t appreciate anyone using anything that emerged from and “belonged” to the Reserve Bank, “even a pencil”!  Amid many amusing tales in the warmth of the Tarapore drawing room, emerged the concept of building a syndicate of columns that would give voice to the ordinary person, to positions and perspectives less seen or heard in the media. It started from the idea of his own syndicated column and grew to the non profit media organisation that we now run from Mumbai. The Foundation of The Billion Press launched with the Union Budget of 2016, but sadly without Savak Tarapore who passed away days earlier.

"Nobody dared to offer him even a pen as a gift”

Till the end, he was a simple person with high moral values, clear conviction and unquestionable integrity. His position in monetary policy formulation will always be remembered. He remained steadfast against increasing government deficits and the RBI accommodation of them. He held price stability supreme as inflation hurts the poor the most. His thinking influenced many governors. Though he didn’t make it to the post of governor himself Tarapore didn’t mind, pointing out that when things went wrong, it was RBI guv who took the fall!

His distinguished career at the Reserve Bank, included a stint at the International Monetary Fund in the late 1970s and culminated in his appointment as RBI deputy governor in 1992. He headed or was at the controls during some of India’s most turbulent times. Among them, the emergency air-lift of gold as collateral, the steep devaluation of the rupee, interest rate deregulation, moving to market-determined rates for government borrowing, the Harshad Mehta scam and thereafter. They are all battles he led in some part. His sterling but stolid and muted innings, as deputy to the Captains of RBI, has been called a “Gundappa Vishwanath” role by RBI’s historian T C A Srinivasa Raghavan. Not without reason!

Over the past two decades he duelled unceasingly for higher deposit rates, transparency on bank charges and for better services from banks.

To collate and recant Savak Tarapore’s contribution to India, to Indian banking and monetary policy would require several tomes. Over the past two decades he duelled unceasingly for higher deposit rates, transparency on bank charges and for better services from banks. That was his unyielding war on behalf of the common man.

He may have retired as a central banker over two decades ago, but in the corridors of the RBI Tarapore is a hallowed name Though he served over 35 years at the RBI, he never again used the name, refusing to be referred to as even a former Deputy Governor. He preferred to be called an economist, and that’s what his columns said.

A rare person and an even rarer central banker. India has never seen a central banker like Savak Sohrab Tarapore. And probably, may never see one.

(The writer is Managing Editor of The Billion Press)

(Image courtesy: RBI)