Short in size, tall in stature. That aptly sums up N Sivasailam, the first special secretary to be appointed for logistics in the Ministry of Commerce on November 2018, the special arm created for the first time by the government. Though there has been a clamor for a sepa-rate ministry of logistics to catapult the Indian economy into a much higher orbit, it took the Narendra Modi-led National Democractic Alliance (NDA) regime almost five long years to berth this long-felt need. Why this 1985 Karnataka cadre was picked for this niche slot is a million-dollar question that remains unanswered to this day.
Having said that, he has been creating ripples with his no-nonsense as well as hands-on approach to the critical department. He’s the single window bureaucrat blue-penciling the logistics matrix to take the economy to the US$5 trillion trajectory over the next five years: Circa 2024, the doubling of the present GDP. Tough call. What’s the point of fixing an easily attainable goal, he asked during our maiden meeting in his spacious Room Number 241 in Udyog Bhavan, a stone’s throw away from Parliament.
Sometime in July 2019, I received a message from him via WhatsApp group consisting of members of the Chartered Institute of Logis-tics and Transport (CILT): Can we meet at 11 am the coming Monday in my office? By the way, both of us are members of this august body. He was responding to my recent posting about my road trip to Morbi in Gujarat, the ceramic capital of India, where I had gone with colleagues to find suitable highway dhabas to provide resting facility for long haul truck drivers on the Mundhra/Gandhidham-Mumbai via Rajkot or Ahmedabad stretch on the specific request of an Indian ceramic giant. The meeting lasted almost an hour wherein he wanted to understand how and why TransportMitra Services Private Limited, a start-up co-promoted by me along with an ex-Mahindra Logistics vice president, is focused on truck drivers. He felt enabling a better working environment for long haul truck drivers is quintessential as part of supply chain from the ease of doing business angle. “I have been hearing from various stakeholders, particularly the All India Transporters Welfare Association (AITWA), saying they have money to create wayside amenities but scouting for someone to operationalise,” he point-ed out. He saw a synergy between what was needed and what was available to fulfill this crucial gap. That explained his desire to meet me. One of Sivasailam’s favorite statements is: logistics is not virtual, but a real business. More than the Ministry of Road Transport and High-ways, perhaps he understood the vitality of truck drivers to realise the US$5 trillion dream.
TransportMitra’s on-ground experience in set-ting up truck driver-friendly highway dhabas, particularly in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for global oil giant Exxon Mobil, convinced the Karnataka cadre officer of our utility. What surprised me the most was the speed at which he moved in building bridges or connecting dots.
I met him on a Friday afternoon. At his request, I wrote to him the next day to take this initiative forward. Around noon, 48 hours after our meeting, my inbox saw a long mail from him addressed to the AITWA secretariat introducing TransportMitra and our dhaba adoption capabilities. Needless to say, AITWA President Mahendra Arya was on call the very next day on the basis of Sivasailam’s mail. Honestly, never seen such a fast forward action mode bureaucrat responding on a weekend. Well, that was not the end. A week later, another mail from him was addressed to a senior office-bearer of the National Logistics Committee of Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce (FICCI) introducing TransportMitra, highlighting its Dhaba Adoption prowess.
ONCE again, we were invited and inducted into that Committee to lend our support to build a better India, logistically speaking. By the by, neither AITWA nor FICCI were not unaware of TransportMitra and its promoters. Yet, it needed the good offices of the special secretary as a catalyst to knit us together. “Never underestimate the bureaucrats. They perform a lot of backbreaking good work. Side by side, they continuously upskill themselves,” says Capt. Pawanex Kohli, CEO and Advisor to the National Centre for Cold-Chain Development (NCCD) under the Ministry of Agriculture.
Contrary to general perception, they got through the Civil Service Examination, stuck to their job and rising through the ranks, they also take sabbatical to study further to enhance their skill sets. Sivasailam is no exception. The experienced senior civil servant has a history of working in government both dealing with law enforcement and development. He handled several large projects, trade and industry, healthcare and education, rural development. The Mumbai-born bureaucrat graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Then, he did a Masters in business administration and burnt the proverbial midnight oil to add a post-graduate degree in Social Policy and Planning in Developing countries from the London School of Economics. He did not stop at that. His knowledge hunger enabled him to acquire a post-graduate diploma in Intellectual Property Rights Law from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He thinks like a hardcore businessman, just not a paper pusher. He is skilled in Business Planning, Operations Management, Government, Feasibility Studies, and Management.
There is a huge fan club for him across India. It is no exaggeration. Why and how? Primarily, he is not stiff and rigid as bureaucrats have come to be perceived. Then, he is a no-nonsense warrior with a clear vision and mission to take India to the higher echelons, creating the right mix of logistical tools. He minces no words and has a in your face kind of approach. Recently, I watched him from close quarters at the Indian Logistics Retreat where he was the chief guest. He busts one of the biggest myths. For long, we have been fed with the notion that the logistics cost in India is very high: pegged at 14% vis a vis 8-9% in matured economies. The fact is: 14% is the contribution of logistics to the GDP. The higher percentage to GDP should be construed as eating into an aggregate of 100% GDP.
A lesser logistics contribution to GDP, ideal and desirable, would automatically enable higher contribution from other segments. Even the existing government documents on this issue lack clarity, points out GS Gireesh, Executive Director of Indian Supply Chain Management, based out of Mumbai. Yes, Gireesh again got his fundamentals clarified, courtesy the special secretary (logistics).
The experienced senior civil servant has a history of working in government both dealing with law enforcement and development. He handled several large projects, trade and industry, healthcare and education, rural development. The Mumbai-born bureaucrat graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Then, he did a Masters in business administration and burnt the proverbial midnight oil to add a post-graduate degree in Social Policy and Planning in Developing countries from the London School of Economics
“His talk was well-received,” avers S Mukundan, Head-Packaging Business Unit, TVS SCS Flexol, who attended the recent Chemlog conference in Mumbai and adding that the chemical industry was “pleased with your (Sivasailam’s} leadership that is timely and apt for their Big X growth”. Sivasailam’s ability to connect dots manifests again during his interaction with Mukundan referred above. The resi-dent of Udyog Bhawan writes in end September: “During our interactions yesterday, there was a mention of the Logistics players in the chemical logistics sector having designated stops for their vehicles every 100 km or so from the safety and (cargo) security point of view. I suggest that this is a ‘low hanging fruit’ for certain very passionate industry experts like Ramesh Kumar …and we could start it off with a bang with … several others in the Industry. We could rope in the Oil companies as well.”
Yes, he has copied me in the mail. Well, that is not the end of it. Continues Sivasailam: “Another matter that came up was to make things easy for the drivers. Can the forum send me a detailed resolution that they want the cabins air-conditioned?” Given TransportMitra’s focus on improving the working and living conditions of truck drivers, to see the government via Sivasailam and us on the same page gladdens the heart. It is pertinent to point out that at the recent Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM”) an-nual jamboree in Delhi, Sivasailam pointedly asked the big bosses assembled there as to why truck driver cabins are not air-conditioned which, in his opinion, will be beneficial all around. They responded that it would be a costly affair. Recalling that incident, he says: “They (heavy commercial vehicle manufacturers) sell each truck at Rs. 50 lakh. Air-conditioning of cabin will cost, they admit, additional Rs. 50,000! And … they give Rs. 5 lakh discount to potential buyers!” Ironical, isn’t it? That’s Sivasailam. He goes for the jugular.
HIS presence at conferences and workshops mean full time physical and mental presence. He is not that kind of bureaucrat who walks out soon after the short inaugural session where he reads out his prepared text. He mostly speaks extempore with facts and figures at his fingertips. He stays back, listens, reacts and responds. Each single syllable he utters from the podium or from the front rows in the logistics arena is a pearl of wisdom. No wonder, he is the most sought after by the logistics and supply chain fraternity. The “special” in his designation suits him perfectly.
His presence at conferences and workshops mean full time physical and mental presence. He is not that kind of bureaucrat who walks out soon after the short inaugural session where he reads out his prepared text. He mostly speaks extempore with facts and figures at his fingertips. He stays back, listens, reacts and responds
Less than a year is left to lapse before he packs his bag at the end of an illustrious career. The likelihood of retaining him as advisor in the newly minted logistics arm of commerce and industry ministry cannot be ruled out after superannuation. This is just not a wish, but something akin to an orphan finding a caring parent after a long time. The logistics fraternity is in such a situation. Prime Minister, are you listening?
The author is Co-Promoter of TransportMitra Services Private Limited and Editor of Drivers Dunia, an English quarterly focused on long haul truck drivers.