Free Press Journal

Meera Sanyal: Wearer of many hats

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Photo Credit: Girish Bhaskar

Trust Meera Sanyal to take up the cudgel for every cause which will help the mankind in general and Mumbaikar in particular. She’s no doubt one of the most loved public figures of the city, says Ronak Mastakar.

Meera Sanyal is a name to reckon with in Mumbai political circle but she’s not just a politician. This former banker – her stint in banking spans over two decade – has been working hard for the upliftment of socially and economically backward sections of our society through her social work, non-profit organisation and her public service. Sanyal’s unwavering focus on women empowerment is both inspiring and praiseworthy. In a tête-à-tête with The Free Press Journal, she shares her story and views on many aspects of our society.

From a Banker to social activist and now, a politician. How did this journey happen?


I was fortunate to have a very happy and successful career as a banker. However, the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, were a big shock to me, just as they were to our entire country. My office, just behind the Oberoi hotel was directly impacted. My mentor and senior colleague in banking, Mr Ashok Kapur was murdered by the terrorists. The attacks were a turning point in my life. I decided that if I wanted things to improve in my city and my country – whether it was Governance or safety, then I had to participate actively -not just criticize and complain from the comfort of my home. So in 2009, I stood for the Lok Sabha election as an independent candidate from South Mumbai. This marked the beginning of my journey into Public Service and Politics.

During your term as the CEO and Chairman of the RBS, you mentored the micro finance program, which helped over 650,000 lakh rural women. What were the reasons that pushed you for the micro finance program?

My career with ABN AMRO/RBS (ABN AMRO was acquired by RBS in 2007) spanned 21 years. From the time I joined the bank in 1992, I was privileged to be given many opportunities to start new areas of business for the bank – from Project Finance and Investment banking, to setting up the Bank’s Global BPO. Our work in the Micro Finance program, and with the ABN AMRO/RBS Foundation was amongst the things I enjoyed the most. The MF program was actually started by a young colleague who was inspired by Mohammad Yunusand Grameen. She persuaded us that this could be a transformative program in empowering thousands of women, while still being a good credit risk.

And she was absolutely right! We started Micro Finance when it was not obligatory for banks under the priority sector commitments – and were a very significant bank in the field. Some of my happiest memories are the visits to our women beneficiaries in remote parts of the country and seeing the successful micro-enterprises with which they had transformed their lives and that of their families. Our staff and clients loved the work we did – and in addition to empowering women and having a clean, break even portfolio – our Micro Finance program contributed greatly to both staff and client engagement with the bank. It was a Win-win, in every sense of the word, for all concerned!

Today, you are working with the MBpT, for development of the Eastern Water front (Portlands), what are your views on developing eastern water front?

I firmly believe that reclaiming Mumbai’s PortLands is the key to the re-jeuvenation of our Great city. This area measuring approx. 1000 acres in the heart of our city can provide the much needed social infrastructure and public amenities that we are starved of : schools, colleges, hospitals, libraries, sea facing promenades, parks, arts & cultural and centres, entrepreneurial incubation hubs and more. This was the core agenda of my 2014 Lok Sabha campaign. At the time I promised my constituency in South Mumbai, that irrespective of the outcome of the elections, I would work tirelessly to ensure:

  1. That the 2 million tonne high Coal mountains at Haji Bunder in the heart of Mumbai would be removed, and that further coal dumping stopped : we won a landmark victory through a PIL in Mumbai HC in 2016, in which MBPT committed to remove all coal stacked at Haji Bunder and to stop further dumping!
  2. That the highly toxic and polluting ship breaking activities in Darukhana would either be stopped or conducted as per the norms of the Shipbreaking code : Though sadly the magnificent Vikrant was cut up for scrap in Darukhana in 2015, MBPT have orally agreed to phase further ship breaking activities out, and polluting activities there have reduced significantly
  3. To stop further wasteful expenditure on the disastrous Offshore Container Terminal – and to persuade MBPT to deploy his infrastructure on which Rs. 1200 crores have been spent more efficiently. MBPT have stopped dredging and started using the OCT jetty for break bulk shipping of autos etc
  4. To create a citizens movement to bring together all stakeholders for the development of the PortLands, so that this agenda can be carried forward in an apolitical and bi-partisan manner : we have formed a citizens NGO called APLI Mumbai, headed by Vice admiral IC Rao (Retd) and formed a strong partnership with Mumbai’s business leaders through the IMC’s Urban Development Committee.
  5. To reclaim the PortLands area for use by the citizens of Mumbai : we have forged a strong working relationship with MBPT and have had several design charettes which have been translated into concrete action with tenders being floated for the development of the Eastern Promenade, Sewri Eco Park, clean up and modernization of Sassoon Docks etc.

You have also successfully managed to up a stop to the coal dumping near Sewri. What motivated you to take up the cause?

Speaking with some young doctors at KEM hospital in 2012/13, I was shocked to learn that respiratory diseases such as lung cancer, multiple drug resistant TB, emphysema, COPD, Bronchitis and asthma were now the leading cause of death in Mumbai. I struggled to understand the reason – as we no longer have any major polluting industries in Mumbai. Moreover, as an island city one would think that the sea breeze would carry away most pollutants. Discussing this one day with Admiral Rao, who was a close friend of my late father, I discovered the reason. He took me to see the Coal mountains at Haji Bunder in Sewri – which was really a shocking sight. Since 2005 – approx. 2 m tonnes of coal a year, imported from countries like Australia and Indonesia were being dumped at Sewri. There was no proper coal handling equipment or storage facilities and the entire area was covered in thick black sludge. Google map images through the timeline show that the land and sea which was green / blue in 2003 turns completely black by 2006 and gets worse each year till 2016 (when we stopped the dumping after a battle in the High Court). These coal mountains were within a 6 km radius of almost all of Mumbai – Colaba, Nariman Point, Malabar hill, Worli, Bandra, Dadar, Sewri, Matunga, Sion – and responsible for destroying the health of our city.

Please share with us your journey of stopping coal dumping near Sewri. How long have you been working on it? Were there any obstacles/problems you faced? How did you manage to overcome the problems? Did you receive any support/help from the residents of Sewri?

We started working on the Coal mountains in 2014. Initially we tried meeting and writing to the authorities, Ministers, MPs and MLAs of the area. But sadly no action was taken. Through a series of RTI’s we were shocked to discover that none of this coal was meant for Mumbai – it was being offloaded here and then transported by open trucks and rail wagons to a Mahagencoplant in Bhusaval 455 kms away from Mumbai. In addition to polluting all of Mumbai and much of Maharashtra, Mahagencowas also losing almost 10-15% of this precious imported commodity through theft, spillage and wastage along the way! Equally shocking was that the MPCB, MBPT and local authorities had taken no action against the hundreds of desperate complaints filed by local residents, the Koli Samaj and and even the Govt’s flagship Marine engineering Institute MERI whose students and staff were suffering terribly as a result of the pollution at their doorstep. Finally, Admiral Rao and I decided to file a PIL in the Mumbai High Court with the help of our excellent Advocate K Kaushik. We got great support from the local residents and also many journalists, especiallyAnahita Mukherjee – who received a Sanctuary award for her excellent articles on the “Killing coal mountains of Sewri” Admiral Rao has written a book on our battle for the lungs of Mumbai – which is well worth reading for young civil activists who wish to battle successfully for Public causes.

Your working isn’t just limited to the Indian soil. You have been a part of several forums and platforms abroad, spoken for and on women rights and emancipation. Please share with our readers your work with organisations outside the country.

Though the context and geography differ, I have found that many problems are universal – and we can all learn from the experiences of each other. In addition to issues of women empowerment an area very dear to my heart is children. I am privileged to serve on the international board of Right to Play, and organization that works to heal the lives of millions of children around the world affected by war, violence and poverty through the power of play. They are doing yeoman work in Africa, with Syrian refugees in the middle east and Europe, children in Afghanistan etc.

Coming to your work abroad, how can one miss your association with Hillary Clinton. What role did you play for her organisation (could you also name the organisation). And are you still a part of it?

In 2012, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton invited me to join her International Council of Women’s Business Leadership. It has been a great honor to serve on this council, as a representative for Indian women, and to learn from the many inspiring ladies who are part of the Council. Yes I am still a part of the Council.

As a former Banker, what are your thoughts on demonetisation that shook the country a few months ago? Do you see it helping India’s economy?

Every Indian will agree with the stated objectives of Demonetisation namely removing black money and corruption and tackling fake notes and terrorism. Only time will tell whether Demonetisation was the correct policy to achieve these objectives. Personally I do not believe it was. But there can be no disagreement that the implementation of the Demonetisationwas extremely poorly executed – causing untold hardship to millions across the country especially the poorest. I believe it will set the Indian economy back and has also shaken the faith of the common man in the banking system and the RBI – our central bank.

When it comes to economy, where do you think women of today stand? Are they a part of the policy-making, or are they still lagging behind when it comes to gender-quality in the economic sector?

  1. Ours is a big and complex country – and the answer to this question will differ from place to place and sector to sector. However there are a few trends that seem to be true across the country
  2. Girls are now receiving education across the country – and in many cases their academic results are better than boys
  3. More and more young women are entering the formal work force and continuing to work after marriage
  4. The legal framework in India tries to prevent gender discrimination, though statistics indicate that we have still not reached a position of equal pay for equal work
  5. At senior levels there are still not enough women – indicating that there is a sharp attrition in mid level management
  6. Organisations that have senior women have better results – look at ISRO!

What suggestion will you give to girls/women considering entering politics?
Join the right party – one that respects and honors the dignity of women – both in words and deeds.