The Most Important Lesson In Life Is Learning To Lose Gracefully

It takes a lot of guts to seek a warrant to conduct income tax raid on a person who is the 150th most wealthy person in the world, and the guts need to be super strong when you know that this person has very influential connections in the political circles of India. Saurabh Kumar, Executive Vice Chairperson, Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL) Group, during his tenure as an Indian Revenue Services officer, did not think twice before seeking such a warrant, and despite a lot of influential people warning him against doing so, he went ahead and conducted the raid.

Later, he went on to draw on paper what EESL would look like. Despite being one of the brains behind EESL, he decided not to take a position in the same as CEO, as some would call it a selfish move. Today, he is making sure that EESL delivers on saving the environment, and at the same is helping entrepreneurs in their business. This is Saurabh Kumar’s story!

Saurabh Kumar, Executive Vice Chairperson, Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL)

Born and brought up in Prayagraj (known as Allahabad back then), Kumar belongs to a middle-class family. Good in academics, Kumar learned the true meaning of hard work and honesty from his grandfather, who was a government servant. There was no business element in Kumar’s family.

There is no legacy you can hang on to, no wealth you can turn back to, to be successful and give your life its true meaning. The only choice is to work hard. The basic thing and requirement is to be honest with yourself. There is no substitute for hard work, and if you do not do hard work, life will become very hard for you,” says Kumar, recalling the advice he received from his grandfather and father.

Kumar learnt the above-mentioned fact of life at a very young age. Most of the learnings like this came to him through his grandfather. He is proud of the fact that his grandfather was respected by one and all, not because he was a government servant but because he was honest and listened to problems people faced on professional as well as personal level. His grandfather was posted as deputy commissioner with the India Customs department before retiring from the job. As is well known, this designation gives a lot of power to an individual.

Saurabh Kumar and cricket
Saurabh Kumar and cricket

A lot of government servants forget that people respect them because they are sitting in an important chair. People mostly respect the chair and not the individual. An individual earns respect beyond that chair by proving his professional worth and through good behaviour. My grandfather was one such individual, who earned respect by excelling at what he did,” says Kumar, who is now the vice chairperson of EESL.

He adds, “The chair I am sitting on today is not permanent for me, but if I am able to earn respect from people through professional competence, that will last forever.”

Kumar never had the opportunity to visit his grandfather’s office with him. However, he does remember officials from the government visiting his house, after his grandfather retired, to seek suggestions and advice about work. Kumar was around ten years old when his grandfather retired. The things that he recalls from those days include his grandfather’s official car not showing up any more on the door, but other government officials’ cars coming and leaving their house every day. These were the people who came looking for advice from his grandfather and he never said no to anyone when it came to personal or professional help.

My grandfather was one of the most competent officers back in the 1970’s. To top it all, he was honest, and I think being competent and being honest at the same time is a rare trait in people,” he says with pride about his grandfather.

Never wanted to be a government servant

Despite most of Kumar’s family working in the government, he never thought of being in the government service. After finishing his schooling, he passed several entrance exams and got admitted to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur. And, while he does not say so, probably his love for energy-efficient devices started there while he was pursuing Electrical and Electronics Engineering.

To be very honest, landing a government job was never on my To Do list. Actually, I did not want to be in the government at all. I graduated in 1989 and was all set to go abroad for work,” recalls Kumar.

Amazingly, around fifty of his batchmates from IIT Kanpur are working outside India and are getting paid handsomely well. And the person who did not want to be in the government gave five competitive exams for government jobs and cleared one of the toughest ones out there – the coveted Civil Services!

The inspiration to drop his dream of working abroad and giving the UPSC Civil Services exam came from his mother. He cleared the UPSC exam in his second attempt and got posted in the Indian Revenue Services (IRS) team. If you have heard of income tax raids, you must know it is the IRS officers that make them possible.

I was all set to leave India when my late mother inspired me to try my hands at the civil services examination. Initial plan was to try the exams at least once. People who have appeared in the exams know the rigors associated with the exams. Today, when I look back at those days, I have no regrets. Instead I am all thanks to my mother who inspired me to take on the exams,” shares Kumar laughingly.

Kumar at that time had enrolled as a research associate with IIT Kanpur but was seeking to head outside India. He is quite sure that if not UPSC, he would have been working outside India in a technical role. If at all Kumar was to change anything from his early days, he would like to stop being an introvert

R.K. Laxman, Amitabh Bachchan, and Cricket

The first time Kumar got any access to a television set was when he was seventeen years of age. His family did not own a TV before that. Kumar recalls that he used to wait for the newspaper every day to see the cartoons made by R.K. Laxman. Though he was also fond of other cartoon series like Asterix, R.K. Laxman continues to remain his favourite. Kumar stopped watching movies in 1990 after he stopped liking the work of his favourite actor Amitabh Bachchan.

“I was seventeen when we got our first TV, so there was no chance of watching cartoons or anything else on TV before that. Then I got admitted to IIT Kanpur and was never able to find time for watching anything on TV. But I was into a lot of reading,” says Kumar.

Kumar, in fact, is into lot of reading since his childhood. He was a fond reader of the work by Alistair Mclean and Sydney Sheldon till his ninth standard in school. He, however, started giving more time to preparation for entrance exams for IIT after the tenth standard. Allahabad, as a city, was not particularly known for any kind of entrance exam coaching back in the 1980s, and most of the preparation that Kumar did was through school and on his own.

“The eleventh and twelfth standards were only about studies and nothing else. The only recreational activity that I did in these classes was playing cricket,” says Kumar. His favourite cricketers till date happen to be England’s David Gower and India’s Sunil Gavaskar.

Saurabh Kumar in office
Saurabh Kumar in office

He recalls that the syllabus at IIT did not leave any room to take up reading any other kind of books. But once he started pursuing his masters in Japan, he was able to find more time for reading. What caught his attention in books and content? Well, anything and everything around environment and its sustainability!

Jared Diamond’s work in the book titled ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’ has moved him a lot and allowed him to see what happens in the world with a new perspective. This book is known for its coverage of economic and environmental disasters.

“Jared Diamond in this book talks about the Amazon Forest. A phrase that he uses in the book is Landscape Amnesia. He explains how a part of the forest goes on to be completely degraded in just ten years of time, damaged in a way that it has almost become impossible to replenish it. Such things leading to collapse is all that book is about,” Kumar explains about the book.

The greatest lesson that this book taught him is that rather than looking at everyday things, we as humans should pay close attention to what should be preserved and when it should be preserved. The book tells great tales of why civilisations fail due to landscape amnesia. This is where I could connect the dots between him trying super hard to make EESL a hit in India and beyond. Kumar seems greatly concerned about saving energy because it, in turn, saves the environment.

More proof of his concern for environment comes through another book and the documentary based on the book, which is close to his heart. The name of this book is ‘Guns, Germs and Steel.’ BBC made the documentary based on this book authored by Jared Diamond. The book is a portrayal of the Latin American history. It tells how Europeans were able to take control of the Latin American region by using guns, germs (biological warfare!), and steel.

Kumar’s favourite sports now happen to be tennis and golf. Tennis because it gives him an hour away from work every morning, and golf is something that he wants to pursue more after he retires. He, like some of us out there, relates sports to professional and personal life, and has learned to implement the learnings from the four sports he has played keenly. Cricket has taught him the importance of being a team player, tennis and badminton have taught him to be fully focused on the task at hand, and golf has taught him to be patient in life.

His greatest learning in life, however, comes from all the sports, and it is, “Learning to lose,” in his own words. One knows the true meaning of winning when one understands and learns what losing is like. “If you learn to lose gracefully, you learn to enjoy the game and how to take decisions on the go,” he explains.

Raid on the 150th most rich

The journey of Kumar, from being a respected and looked upon IRS officer to becoming the executive vice chairperson of EESL, has been a phenomenal one. His fellow colleagues often refer to him as “Jack of all trades and master of none.” However, a close look at what he has done in life shows on the contrary that he has been a master of everything he has done.

“I joined the tax department in Delhi in 1994. I worked on various things during the next seven-eight years. At the end of eight years, most of the civil servants apply for deputation. This deputation is in one of the ministries. I had also applied for the deputation and got selected as Deputy Secretary, Finance, in the Power Ministry,” shares Kumar.

However, there was this incidence that everyone should know before we speak more about Kumar’s innings with and after the Power Ministry. The incident started with Kumar and his team doing more than 110 income tax raids in the country in a span of two years.

“An income tax raid has to be coordinated in a way that every official strikes the individual or the institution to be raided at the same time. These raids that we were going to conduct were not simple as we were going to raid the 150th most rich person on the Forbes list at that time. This person’s father was known to have lunch at least once a month with the then Prime Minister of India,” says Kumar.

Yes, he did raid one of the richest persons back in 2000-01, despite a lot of pressure from many places. This incident once again proved to him why men who are competent and honest at the same time are difficult to find, but those with these qualities really make big in life. Atal Bihari Vajpayee ji was the prime minister (PM) at that time, and despite the PM being a close friend of the father of the person Kumar was seeking a raid warrant for, Vajpayee ji did not shy away from granting him that warrant.

“That day I learned from the prime minister that if you are able to segregate your personal life from your professional life, you become successful. But that is something not usually found out there,” explains Kumar.

Kumar and his team went on to conduct raids at this person’s premises and seized more than two billion (200 crore) rupees. He was also able to find details about how this person and his company had drawn money out of a public financial institution. The income tax department, in the process of these income tax raids, had to call in CBI. Inspired by the way Kumar worked, one of the directors showed interest in getting Kumar transferred to the CBI from the IRS. However, as Kumar had already applied for deputation with the Power Ministry, he got the role of deputy secretary with the ministry.

“I remember the special director of CBI calling me and asking me how I can do this and join the Power Ministry and not them? The rule was that if you do not go on deputation then you are not allowed to apply for deputation for next five years, and this is how my professional innings changed from IRS to the Power Ministry,” explains Kumar.

He then went on to work with the Power Ministry and the Bureau of Energy Efficiency. Kumar was working with the Power Ministry when he went to Japan to study for masters degree.

Saurabh Kumar in kitchen
Saurabh Kumar in kitchen

United Nations and walking away from EESL

Soon after working with the Power Ministry and BEE, Kumar landed a job with the prestigious United Nations (UN). He was working with the UN in Bangkok when the government of India asked him if he was interested in working with EESL. He requested the government of India for six months before joining EESL. And how was his experience working with the UN? Landing a job with the United Nations is a dream for many civil servants. The job offers perks that no other job in the world can match. You get a salary that is not only unmatchable but is also not taxable, children’s education is funded by the UN, you get diplomatic status, a blue passport, and a lot of other things.

“Joining EESL would mean I will have to leave two other jobs and join an organisation that had a turnover of five crore (50 million) rupees and twelve employees back in 2012-13. Yet I left my job with the IRS and with the UN and decided to work with and for EESL,” explains Kumar.

Like most of the civil servants, Kumar was also excited about the work that UN did, and he joined the same under UN’s environment programme. His starting salary with the UN was 10,000 dollars a month. This salary was also non-taxable. He started working around the 1K Protocol with the UN. For information, this protocol and the work done around the same is one of the most successful programmes ever run by the UN. The programme addressed ozone layer healing and controlling the amount of chloro-fluoro carbons being released in air.

Kumar was responsible for taking care of the funding and achieving the targets set by various governments in Asia in terms of healing the ozone layer and lowering the amount of chloro-fluoro carbons in the air. The work was quite exciting, as per Kumar, as it gave him a chance to be close to the environment and save it from collapsing.

“One thing I realised while working with the UN is that you are as good as your national counterpart is. If the national counterpart does not work, you cannot work either. It is also my personal opinion that organisations such as the UN are overstaffed. This leads to a lot of duplicity in the work,” explains Kumar.

He adds, “For example UN, UNDP, UNICEF, and the World Bank are all doing the same thing, but it is the money of the people that is funding these organisations.”

He started finding that he had not enough work to do at the UN. He, however, worked for one-and-a-half years more with the UN to make sure that his work justified everything he was getting from the organisation. This was also the time when he had an open offer from the World Bank to leave the UN and start working with them. But he refused!

This is where Kumar actually revealed the brains behind what all EESL does today. Kumar and his then boss sat together to propose forming the EESL. Both of them spoke to Anil Rajdhan and chartered out a business plan around EESL. Kumar was the one who had written the plan for setting up EESL.

“The plan then was written by PwC in a formal way. Initially, when the company was formed around 2010, the ministry wanted me to join as CEO. I politely declined the offer because everybody knew that I was one of the brains behind the forming of EESL. I never wanted people to say that EESL was created by Saurabh because he wanted to be a CEO,” explains Kumar.

This is when Kumar backed away from working with the organisation he had charted out on paper, the one that would bring him closer to saving energy and environment, and also give business opportunities to a lot of people in the country. Love at IRS and two daughters Kumar is married to Anupama Anand, whom he met while being trained for IRS at an academy in Nagpur. His wife is currently posted as Commissioner of Income Tax in the Delhi region. Kumar says his wife is his biggest support. On being asked how he proposed his wife for the marriage and how love struck, he answers in the words of Shakespeare and says, “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”

Anupama Anand has humanities educational background and so must have read a lot of work of Shakespeare. Their elder daughter graduated from the USA and is now working in a digital marketing start-up in Pune. The younger daughter has completed her graduation and is looking for an internship in Boston, USA.

On being asked if any of the two daughters want to be civil servants like their parents, Kumar answers, “Absolutely not, they are not even remotely connected to being or wanting to be civil servants. I and Anupama have encouraged them to choose their own path, and that is what we want them to do and would be happy to see them do.”

When free, Kumar loves to cook Handi Mutton using an earthen pot over fire originating from cow dung. His colleagues at EESL consider the Handi Mutton cooked by him an absolute delight. And the person who was once an introvert has now transformed into what they call the soul of a party. He never misses a chance to crack jokes and make everybody around him laugh.

All this would have not been possible without the support Kumar gets from his wife. “I have been working continuously for the last eight years, and my wife and daughters have stood by me in every decision I have taken,” says Kumar. Though the couple worked in the same department initially, they have no difference of opinion about anything related to work. Because of the simple reason that they never talk about work once they are back home.

Kumar, in his tenure with the IRS, has also been an assessing officer for all the political parties in India including BJP and Congress. But that’s a story for a different time.

To read the complete story, please refer to Electronics For You June 2021 issue.

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