A people’s man

What stops a high profile career bureaucrat from leaving the power corridor and stepping into the lucrative boardroom of the private sector? The reasons could be wide ranging, but for Ashwani Lohani, new chairman of the Railway Board, and former head ITDC, MP Tourism and Air India, it was only the genuine warmth and affection of his staff, especially the frontline that stopped him from making that move

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Ashwani Lohani

“When a sea of people, your precious staff gather to bid you a tearful farewell, (during my previous posting with the Railways), you clearly know deep down that you are doing something right and that you are responsible as a bureaucrat to give your people their due and credit. No top paying private sector offer can be compared to this unadulterated warmth,” shares Ashwani Lohani, chairman, Indian Railways. Putting the right value systems in place is the hallmark and foundation for the success of any organisation, says Lohani, who firmly believes in decentralisation. He has a few interesting nicknames to his credit with one of the most popular being ‘the turnaround man’ . It is no news that he was hand picked by the PM of India to turn around the loss making Air India. His two years with the national carrier did well for the Maharajah. From staff morale to clearing debts, he did his bit and more before leaving the wings for the tracks.

Apart from Air India, he was known for his exemplary work at ITDC, which was steeped with challenges. His work as the leader at Madhya Pradesh Tourism, at different times in his career, made a huge impact on that tourism board. The  transformation of MP Tourism is worth writing about. It can easily qualify as a case study of a team and its leader who worked relentlessly to transform a near shambles, loss making unit into a swanky, profit making organisation that proudly invites people to ‘Hindustan Ka Dil’. In 2004 MP Tourism called a small dingy space in a shopping complex in Bhopal, it’s home. The office was depressing, the company was running into losses, the hotels were in an unpleasant state, and the overall morale rather dampened with just about a `12 crore turnover. However, the destiny of the unit changed when Uma Bharati, who was the tourism minister of Madhya Pradesh then, decided to bring in a bureaucrat who was known for his no nonsense attitude with his previous performance at the ITDC and Indian Railways, to revive and rejuvenate a place that was hidden behind the cobwebs of regular bureaucratic lethargy. Lohani took up the challenge positively with a single minded mission to get the place up and running in record time. He made changes on a daily basis that was visible and he worked from the grassroot level which reflected in the performance. This created a buzz that he was here to deliver as action could be seen happening actively within the corporation. “The first thing I did was actually get down and clean up the place literally. How can one sit and ideate on tourism in a place that was unclean and depressing? I cleaned up my office and my chamber and then went on to chalk the MP success story steadily and surely,” says the former MD and commissioner of MP Tourism.

Complete decentralisation and power to his people is what he firmly believes in and implements. This gives him time to think on bigger plans and strategise for the future. Empowering his staff and making them feel proud of their work and the company was crucial for the success of the organisation and he says this with absolute clarity. Change has to be brought about by one person who can lead from the front, following which trust and team work is highly vital for the success of any organisation. “I want my corporation to work better than a private sector one and I am confident we will achieve that,” Lohani had said.

His vision was clear – to bring in year-on-year profit for the organisation and aim for a 40 per cent growth across businesses. MP Tourism also runs its own hospitality properties across the state. Hotel Palash in Bhopal was also refurbished by the corporation and converted into a profit making venture. Other units like the one in Bhimbetka, was also redesigned in record time to make it functional for tourists along with quality F&B service. He changed loss making ‘Dhabba’ units into successful businesses through quick decision making. He works fearlessly towards his goal. He is a bureaucrat who does not believe in sitting on files. His quick thinking and clear decision making ability helps everyone in the organisation. ‘File called for, case quashed’ is a famous term in the organisation.

“I believe in doing the right thing the right way with respect and dignity. For me my people are very important and I feel HR is very critical in an organisational set up. If your people are happy, it will reflect in their work. I am here to work and bring about change that is concrete. Even in my previous tenures I have worked diligently and was also sacked for my best performance ever when I served in ITDC. But, I have no regrets and only believe in walking strong,” asserts Lohani. Now he is back to where he belongs, to get the Railways running without much delays and derailments.

(Excerpts from a tete-a-tete in 2015, when he was MD and commissioner tourism, Government of Madhya Pradesh)

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