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Book Extract: Back To School

How Chandra Shekhar Ghosh reinforced discipline and punctuality among Bandhan employees. He was both right and wrong. Indeed, there has been virtually no competition as most Indian banks do not see any business opportunity at the so-called bottom of the pyramid

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Somebody who has been associated with a large microfinance organization in Bangladesh once told me that Ghosh could have sent truckloads of branch managers and credit officers anywhere in West Bengal. There was no need for any feasibility study; the market was as fertile as it could be and there was almost no competition for microfinance.

He was both right and wrong. Indeed, there has been virtually no competition as most Indian banks do not see any business opportunity at the so-called bottom of the pyramid.

However, merely unloading sackfuls of money to the creditstarved poor cannot help them in the long run. The capital has to be accompanied by an extremely tight monitoring system, which is what Bandhan did.

The key to Bandhan’s success as an MFI was its 2003 manual, which was the bedrock of its operations. The first edition of the manual, called ‘Programme Strategy and Operational Guidelines’, was published in April 2003, when Bandhan’s headquarters was a 550-square feet, one-bedroom flat, at BA 74, Sector I, Salt Lake City, where the hall was the reception area, the kitchen housed the accounts department, and the bedroom was Ghosh’s office. The manual was in Bengali. Even before that, Ghosh had circulated a slim version, a few cyclostyled pages stapled together. The five-page draft, a summary of a few Bandhan circulars distributed among the field workers on the dos and don’ts of the MFI business, was dictated by Ghosh and written by Nilima. Ghosh himself typed it. Both BRAC and ASA working norms were reference points for those circulars.

Ghosh was the editor of the first official manual, developed by ASA’s Roy and a few others, including Runu da, Samanta, Satyajit and Bera.

The manual laid down every rule of Bandhan, ranging from what kind of furniture a branch could have to the process of appointing employees and their promotion, and even how to form a team of borrowers and give loans.

Let’s take a close look at the manual. It says that a branch would have three to four COs, a peon-cum-cook, and a branch manager for overall supervision. Every CO would handle 360–400 group members. This meant every branch would have 1,200–1,600 members.

In the early days, it was a three-tier structure. A CO was responsible for 360–400 members, a branch manager for 1,440–1,600 members, and a regional manager for five to eight branches. The regional manager, however, would not have a dedicated office; he would be attached to one of the centrally located branches that came under him.

The office time for branch employees was between 7.30 a.m. and 3.30 p.m. between Mondays and Fridays; for field visits, the same hours but with one-hour lunch breaks, between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. On Saturdays, the branch would remain open till 1.30 p.m., without a lunch break.

For the head office, there was no half day. The office functioned between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day, with half an hour lunch breaks. Every branch would have two registers: one for recording attendance, and another called ‘movement muster’, which keeps tabs on employee movement while he or she was not in office.

Attendance is something that has remained sacrosanct at Bandhan, even after it became a bank. In the first week of August 2015, barely three weeks before the bank’s launch, Ghosh made a surprise visit to a Bandhan branch at Survey Park, near his house, before coming to the office. He was there at 8.55 a.m. and watched the branch manager walk in at 9.15 a.m. Ghosh asked him where he lived. The branch manager came from Baghajatin, in the southern part of the city, about a half-an-hour commute from Survey Park.

Ghosh gave the branch manager two choices: one, he could quit his job and stay at home; two, he could be transferred to Krishna Nagar, in Nadia district of West Bengal. If he were not coming from home, surely he would be punctual in reaching the office. The manager begged him for a last chance.

The branch manager’s job is to meet five of these customers and call up another ten. By meeting them personally, the branch manager would know if there is any communication gap between his colleagues and a prospective customer, in which case, he could step in to rectify it.

Discipline is the key, and Ghosh does not compromise on this for anything. Maneeta Rathore, now communications head of Bandhan, who joined the group in June 2004, vouches for it. After her final-year BCom examination from South City College, Rathore was looking for some sort of an engagement. She had also enrolled herself for a diploma in public relations at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, at Salt Lake City. She saw a classified advertisement from Bandhan in the Telegraph, seeking an office assistant.

About a dozen girls were interviewed. There were very few chairs and only one table; the candidates had to take turns to write an essay on ‘Your Life’. Ghosh and another gentleman interviewed Rathore. It went well, and Rathore, fairly sure that she would bag the job, mustered the courage to ask Ghosh whether she could come a little late to office.

The office hours were from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan class would start at 7 a.m. and end at 9 a.m. She was seeking a ten-minute grace period. But Ghosh’s response was curt: ‘At Bandhan, nine means nine, but six can become seven.’

That’s how the interview ended, and Rathore thought she had messed up her chances. However, a few days later, Swapan Saha, who was looking after HR at that time, called at her house to tell her the job was hers. She was offered Rs 3500 per month. When she dropped in at the office to collect her appointment letter, Rathore haggled for another Rs 500, but Ghosh was firm—she could take it or leave it; a hike could come only after six months.

Even if someone reaches the office one minute past 9 a.m., it is counted as being late, and three such instances lead to losing a day’s salary. Initially, it was a ten-minute grace period but soon, 9.10 a.m. became the de facto official time as people started reaching after nine. So Ghosh removed the grace period. Then, employees started running, begging autorickshaw drivers to speed up, and tumbled upon each other to come in by 9 a.m.

Walking on the pavement near Bandhan’s office in Kolkata in the past fifteen years—it has changed four buildings before moving to the current headquarters at DN 32, Salt Lake City, Kolkata—around 9 a.m. was always a risk for the others, as Bandhan employees would do a sprint to be on time.

There were some smart people who would hoodwink the system—they would come late but sign the register and enter the right time; there would be overwriting also. But Ghosh was even smarter. At Bandhan’s third headquarters at AB 48, Salt Lake City, he introduced the card punching system for employees. And at DN 32, CCTVs were installed, apparently to detect theft, but that was an excuse. He wanted to keep a close watch on people.

Ghosh would have a monitor on his table showing who was doing what. Suddenly, one department head would get a call via the intercom from Ghosh: ‘Doesn’t your team have any work? Get out of your work station and look at what’s happening around,’ he would say. He also plays other tricks. For instance, he would come earlier than 9 a.m. and wish ‘good morning’ to a senior employee, a habitual latecomer. After this, the person would be so embarrassed that he would never come late again.

Through the CCTVs, Ghosh would watch everybody— how much time they spent gossiping and doing things other than work. Reading newspapers and magazines during office hours was not encouraged in the MFI. There was no television except in Ghosh’s room. Smuggling in newspapers was tough and only the communications division was allowed to read newspapers.

Of course, there was an annual picnic of the employees of the headquarters, which would be a family affair. For this, every employee would contribute for the food, and Bandhan would hire a bus. Many a time, they went to Shantiniketan—a university town near Bolpur, in Birbhum district, approximately 160 km north of Kolkata, established by Rabindranath Tagore. Between December and February, on every Sunday, there would be many such picnics, organized by every division of Bandhan. Till recently, Ghosh would attend every picnic; on certain days attending two or three picnics, having starters at one place, lunch at another and tea at yet another. He used the picnics as an opportunity to reach out to every employee directly. In all such picnics, there would invariably be quiz competitions to test the employees’ knowledge of the Bandhan ways of work. One would have to read the manual thoroughly to win the quiz competition.

... The picnic would always be on a Sunday, because Ghosh would never allow anybody to lose a working day. In fact, he would tell all his employees: ‘Give me your Sundays, I will give you future,’ à la Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s famous slogan, ‘Give me blood, I will give you freedom.’ Those who stayed back at Bandhan (and most of them have done so) today find those words of Ghosh prophetic.

Until recently, no Bandhan employee, however senior, was allowed to go directly to a railway station to catch a train or the airport to take a flight for office work, unless the train or flight was early in the morning. The person would need to drop in at the office first, sign the register, and only then proceed to the station or airport.

He would him or her at such a place that would force that person to quit. However, as a CEO, he does not believe in firing people. He tries out the person in every department till he or she fits in. Ghosh does not like people taking leave. ...He would ignore them for a few days, would not call them to the meetings in his room. This was his way of showing displeasure. However, this would last for a few days after which it would be business as usual. Also, he does not like people leaving at 6 p.m. If one leaves office at 6 p.m., Ghosh would politely ask him whether he has not been keeping well. Till about a few years ago, it was mandatory for everybody to bid him ‘bye’ before leaving, every day.