Chandra Shekhar Ghosh has come a long way - from Tripura to Bangladesh to West Bengal to now the national scene. The microfinance organisation Bandhan, which he founded in 2001 and helped grow, has won the right to become a full-fledged commercial bank that can and will have its branches from Srinagar to Thiruvananthapuram in the not too distant future.
A couple of years ago, when I first met him and asked why he was not tomtomming Bandhan's journey to the top of the microfinance league, he said he preferred to maintain a low profile and get on with the work. When on my first visit to Bandhan's multi-storied head office in Kolkata's information technology hub in Salt Lake, I noted he had some of the best-known global names as neighbours, he readily admitted that the real estate was a bargain he was able to pick up when the property market plummeted after 2008.
Ghosh, now in his mid-fifties, started his professional journey after postgraduate studies in Dhaka University with one of the best known and oldest non-government organisations of Bangladesh, BRAC. If that was an introduction on how to get things done at the bottom of the pyramid, on moving to West Bengal he got a real idea of what needed doing to address the poverty all around.
As with all those who are able to turn great ideas into reality, Ghosh was hardly realistic when he started off in 2000 on his own by taking out Rs 2 lakh from the family business to partner a brace of NGOs. Getting them to scale up was a problem and so next year he took a momentous step, set up his own NGO with loans from in-laws, sister and even a moneylender at 7.5 per cent monthly interest.
Ghosh and Bandhan have had three lucky breaks which speak of both the earthy soundness that he exudes and the ability of these organisations to spot and recognise it. The first lucky break, which literally saved his capital from the moneylender, came from the Small Industries Development Bank of India (Sidbi), which, after countless visits by him, eventually delivered a Rs 25 lakh loan in 2002. Bandhan's work then acquired minimum scale and viability and Sidbi is now a shareholder.
The second lucky break came in 2007 when Ashoka, the global organisation founded by McKinsey consultant Bill Drayton that promotes innovative social entrepreneurship, selected him as an senior fellow. The fellowship stipend helped, but vastly greater was the value of such peer recognition. The third lucky break came in 2011 when the World Bank's affiliate International Finance Corporation stepped in with funding and eventually became a shareholder in Bandhan, now a non-banking financial company.
What sets Bandhan apart is the roots it has in the world of the rural poor. Its field staff stay in little dormitories tagged on to Bandhan offices, enabling it to achieve a cost structure which hardly any other large microfinance organisation can match. In contrast, commercial banks are staffed by city folks who consider a rural posting as time you need to serve in order to get ahead.
What is fascinating is that Bandhan, a sound financial operation with reserves exceeding Rs 1,000 crore, began and grew out of West Bengal, which has not only been struck by long-term industrial blight but where the hazards of commercial lending are highlighted by the current plight of United Bank of India.
Keeping costs low in a viable business that has been growing at 20 per cent plus owes much to the earthy business sense of Ghosh. But he combines this with a personal touch, which prompted him to call me early in the morning, before the papers arrived, to say, "Dada, so many friends congratulated us yesterday, but not you." I was ashamed to admit that this is what happens when you do not follow news on TV!