His predecessors include top bureaucrats Ashok Saikia, Bhaskar Barua and VS Oberoi (now with World Bank). But they couldn't do what Subhas Bhattacharjee, 54, did - energise North Eastern Regional Agriculture Marketing Corporation Limited (Neramac), a sick PSU catering to the geographically remote and psychologically isolated Northeast. Excerpts from an interview:
Neramac was considered to be one of many sops for the Northeast that New Delhi wasn't really interested in. How did you turn it into a happening PSU?
Neramac had a huge working capital constraint since inception in 1982 under the North Eastern Council. After being shuttled across various ministries, it came under DoNER. I inherited a legacy of loss incurred for more than 25 years. Besides, I had some 100 employees with no upward pay revision since 1996. When I was given the responsibility, I was told the sky was the limit. We focussed on tissue culture, consultations, facilitating infrastructure such as greenhouses and model floriculture centres. These have helped us up our brand value in the Northeast and expand to other parts of India. The 2007-08 fiscal saw us making a profit of R4lakh, the first time in 25 years. We kept bettering, and on 31 March 2013 our unaudited turnover was R 44crore.
How did you motivate your staff, who knew working harder might not be rewarded by revised pay?
It wasn't easy then; it isn't easy now at a time when prices increase almost every month. Neramac's employees and contractual workers were getting paid every 3-4 months, five years ago. My plans wouldn't have worked without their cooperation. Today, they get paid every month. We have brought down our backlog of dues to R 7.4 crore.
How difficult is it to work in a hilly, landlocked region with scattered habitations?
It is very difficult to understand the socio-economic dynamics of the north-eastern states, where no two states have the same issues. You need to be passionate about the region, travel in tough conditions to reach out to the remotest of areas, identify specific produce such as kiwi of Arunachal Pradesh, organic honey of Nagaland and ginger of Assam and Meghalaya for value addition. Also more importantly, since the terrain facilitates small plantation, farmers have to be motivated for forming clusters.
What is the road ahead for Neramac?
We are working with National Horticulture Mission and are targeting various agriculture schemes to sustain ourselves. We have submitted a R108 crore agri-horticultural project that the Planning Commission has agreed to in principle. We have also given proposals aiming to remove middlemen between farmers and consumers. We need to keep growing to earn our dues.