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  • The Ismaili community has long been a part of India’s fabric and continues to contribute towards the country's development and the advancement of its people. Gary Otte
    The Ismaili community has long been a part of India’s fabric and continues to contribute towards the country's development and the advancement of its people. Gary Otte
As builders of institutions, Ismailis are helping to forge a stronger India
Zaitoon Esmail
Aly Jagmagia
7 April 2015
  • Once seen as a trading community from Gujarat, today Ismaili women and men are helping to shape India’s future. Builders of some of the country’s premier healthcare and financial institutions, they are also strengthening government administration.

  • In the late 1970s, a young graduate returned to India after having completed his degree at the London School of Economics. Back then, a foreign degree was a ticket to green pastures overseas. Few economists and political pundits shared even half the enthusiasm for India’s future that they extol today.

    At that time the verdict was simple: return meant ruin.

    And yet, much to everyone’s surprise, Nasser Munjee returned anyway. What seemed a momentous decision at the time would help him to become the architect of some of India’s most well known financial institutions.

    Meet Nasser Munjee: Corporate chairman, economist, avid urban planner — and an Ismaili.

    Looking around the country it is hard to escape the contribution that Ismaili Muslims have made to India. Speed down one of the country’s super fast highways and chances are it was financed by Infrastructure Development Finance Corporation Ltd – an entity that owes much of its vision and founding success to Munjee. Check in at the head and neck surgery department of Sion or Nair hospitals in Mumbai and you’ll witness the benefits of a technology transfer programme — the brainchild of Dr Sultan Pradhan, Head of the Department of Oncology at Prince Aly Khan Hospital. Even in the Indian city of Cochin, you’ll find Reshma Lakhani, a high ranking officer of the Indian Administrative Service, who is the Commissioner of Central Excise, Customs and Service Tax.

    Once seen as primarily a trading community from Gujarat, Ismailis have spread through much of India and can be found in fields ranging from medicine, to financial services, and even government administration, working with their fellow countrymen and women to fashion the building blocks of a new India.

    Take Reshma Lakhani for example. Over half a million aspirants compete ruthlessly for the civil service exams each year and less than a few hundred make it. (There are better odds of gaining admission to Harvard!) For those that do make it, women constitute a minority, and an even smaller number of women actually climb the ranks during their career.

    Lakhani however, takes great pride in being a minority statistic. Over the course of her career, her work with the Indian Administrative Service has seen her posted in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Baroda and now Cochin.

    Perched on her Royal Enfield motorcycle and armed with a gun (a constant source of shock and awe when she attends Jamati meetings), she works through the most complex issues around tax assessment and adjudication. Chances are if you’re a large Indian company trying to lend “creative” interpretation to Indian tax laws, Reshma Lakhani will eventually head the team investigating you.

    And she isn’t alone. While Lakhani has helped build institutional capacity in the civil services and administration, others have moved the nation building agenda forward in different ways.

    Today, Housing Development Finance Corporation Ltd (HDFC) and Infrastructure Development Finance Corporation Ltd (IDFC) are two of India’s premier financial institutions. Both are national giants — the first, with $50 billion in assets is recognised for making mortgage lending successful, and the second, with $13 billion in assets, is widely acclaimed for facilitating private investment in Indian infrastructure.

    Important to the stories of both institutions is Nasser Munjee.

    “One of the first things I had in my mind is that I knew I would never work for a foreign institution”, asserts Munjee. When he returned to India after earning his degree in Economics from LSE, Munjee joined HT Parekh, the founder of HDFC. “Everyone thought we would fail”, he says, concealing a smile. “And now here we are.”

    “I was the first employee of HDFC Ltd and I actually drafted their first set of operational policies,” he says. “Now 32 years later, I am still on the board.” And there has been no looking back.

    After serving as one of the primary architects of HDFC, Nasser Munjee was hand-picked in the mid 1990s to envision an infrastructure finance agency for the country; hence IDFC was born.

    True to Munjee’s promise, IDFC spent its formative years transforming India, facilitating private investment and partnerships in a range of infrastructure assets including roads, ports and civil aviation. Today, almost a decade after its inception, IDFC reigns as India’s leading integrated infrastructure finance player.

    Clearly Munjee has a great deal to be proud about, but you’re not likely to see him or someone like Dr Sultan Pradhan revelling over their achievements.

    Dr Pradhan, India’s leading onco-surgeon, maintains a punishing schedule at Prince Aly Khan Hospital, while also working to get his own hospital project off the ground. For thousands of patients across the country, Dr Pradhan’s is the final word in the field of cancer treatment. In head and neck surgery, his reputation is equally formidable.

    “On average, head and neck cancers comprise almost a third of cancer cases in India”, says Dr Pradhan. “What’s worse is that 75 per cent of these manifest themselves in stages three and four. By far however, the biggest challenge is that nobody during their medical education is given any training in head and neck surgery.”

    Having recognised a looming capacity shortage in the early years of his career, Dr Pradhan set out to change the equation. In the late 1970s, he and colleague Dr Ashok Mehta travelled across the country delivering workshops on head and neck surgery. Dr Pradhan pushed for fellowships in the neglected field — first at Tata Memorial Hospital and then at Prince Aly Khan Hospital, where he now heads the oncology division.

    Dr Pradhan then turned his attention to building capacity in medical colleges and government hospitals across the country. He forged a public private partnership between Prince Aly Khan Hospital and the Municipal Corporation to transfer head and neck surgery technology to two major government hospitals: Sion Hospital and Nair Hospital, creating capacity to combat the disease for generations to come.

    And he’s not stopped there. Dr Pradhan’s institution building efforts are literally taking shape in the heart of Mumbai’s Dockyard Road, where his own Head and Neck Cancer Institute for India is scheduled to open its doors to patients in three years.

    For Dr Pradhan, capacity building is a passion: “To me, it is the most enabling idea to develop other institutions. After all, how much can you do as just one person or one institution?”

    Indeed, these Ismailis are also contributing to strengthening Jamati and Aga Khan Development Network institutions. Dr Pradhan has served as the President of the Board of Prince Aly Khan Hospital and Chairman of the Aga Khan Health Services, India. Nasser Munjee is currently Chairman of DCB Bank and Chairman of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, India. Reshma Lakhani, in addition to her civil service responsibilities, is an al-waez and has served on the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for India.

    Across the country, these stalwarts share two things in common: their desire to contribute to a story that is larger than their own and their undefeatable sense of optimism about India. Each has meshed together the best of their Jamati and public roles in ways that have helped move the country and its institutions forward.

    At the All India Financial Institutions Conference held in January 2014, Munjee reminded the delegates that India would “always be on the investor’s long term radar in spite of its short term problems”.

    “I am a big believer in the infinite potential of India” says Munjee confidently. “There is so much that can be done, and if we simplify things, it can be done with speed.”

    But speed and agility are functions of institutional strength, and India will need this in spades as the country forges ahead in its growth story. “A country is only as strong as its institutions and the character of its institutions”, asserts Munjee.

    Here’s to the nation’s institution builders.