GLORIOUS BENGALI ‘SWADESHI’ ENTREPRENEURSHIP – TIME FOR REVIVAL!
By – Dr. Kaustav Bhattacharyya
The word ‘Bengali Entrepreneur’ was perceived as a contradiction in terms in the past, while growing up during the heady days of Leftist ideology one could sense the disdain and apathy expressed towards commerce and trade.
Today the expression ‘Bengali Entrepreneur’ connotes something of a distorted notion of commerce and enterprise with the recent spate of financial chit funds scams, scandals, dubious businesses like financial ponzi schemes, real estate and arrests of businesspersons. Flamboyant wealthy millionaires and billionaires create headlines from the precincts of prison rather than corporate boardrooms.
Current climate of Bengal business and entrepreneurship is rift with cynicism and disenchantment. The notion of business and commerce is associated often in the popular psyche of Bengal with guile and acquisitive profiteering; sole driver for business being the easy and quick path to the riches. While the rest of India marches ahead in vibrant sectors of IT, dotcom startups, renewable energies and high-tech engineering Bengal seems to be falling behind. Although there would be isolated glorious instances of high-end, high-tech entrepreneurship, this seems to be more of an exception.
Sometimes we have to turn the pages of history to seek answers for the future; the wonderful French saying, ‘reouler pour mieux sauter’ translated as sometimes one has to take a step back for moving forward. Here I turned the pages of Bengal’s history to seek glorious instances of entrepreneurship and specifically high-tech entrepreneurship; high-tech entrepreneurship being defined here as businesses engaged in sectors which deploy new technologies and processes for new emergent products. Similarly in this context high-end product categories would include those that require higher levels of engineering expertise and skills for manufacturing.
Bengali enterprises which arose during the early 20th century as ‘Swadeshi endeavours’ sought to establish a manufacturing and industrial foothold in colonial India, when most of the industrial complex and business infrastructure were subverted by the imperial economic exploitative machinery, objective of the British Colonial administration being to keep Indian economy under-developed, is the most fascinating chapter of that history.
Jewels in the crown
Some of the distinguished household names which one can rattle off are Martin Burn of Sir Biren Mookerjee, Bengal Chemicals of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray being the grandees. Apart from the twin jewels there were Calcutta Chemical Company in the domain of chemicals, Bengal Immunity and Dey’s Chemicals in the domain of pharmaceuticals, Bengal Lamps in the domain of electric lightning products, Bengal Waterproof in the domain of rubber and household products like raincoats and schoolbags, Bande Mataram in the domain of matches, Banga Laxmi Cotton Mills in the domain of textiles, Sen Raleigh in the domain of bicycles and Gwalior potteries in the domain of ceramic potteries.
Intriguingly the sectors in which these Bengali entrepreneurial companies were foraying were chemicals, bicycles, potteries, textiles, pharmaceuticals, rubber products, electric lamps, construction engineering, personal care products and not financial services, extractive like mining or agro-resources based like tea or jute. To comprehend the size and impact of some of these enterprises, consider the fact that the Mookerjees were the third largest business group in India till mid-1960s and Bengal Chemicals was one of the largest chemical and pharmaceutical company in India which was considered to be the birthplace of Indian pharmaceutical drug industry.
Most important is to acknowledge that the sectors in which most Bengali entrepreneurs were active were high-tech by the standards of the day, innovative, high-risk, emergent, in a way were forerunners of today’s start-ups. Several of these companies were the first in the field to foray into manufacturing the products which till then were being imported, for instance, bicycles, waterproofs, electric lamps and electric fans. The founder of Sen Raleigh was instrumental in popularizing the concept of bicycles as means of personal transport for ordinary Indians and were bringing bicycle to the masses, when bicycle was mostly a luxury item.
Waterproofs were being imported into India and were prohibitively expensive making it beyond the reach of most individuals with modest means till Shri Surendra Mohan Bose started his Bengal Waterproof ‘Duckback’ venture which manufactured them indigenously. The same holds true for electric lamps which were restricted to urban areas introduced by foreign investors and then came Bengal Lamps which started their factory manufacturing electric lamps. In a short while Bengal Lamps earned accolades for its superior quality and affordable price. In 1930s Calcutta Fan Works was set-up with K Chuckerbutty as Managing Director for localized manufacture of electric fans.
Most of these entrepreneurs had to chart undefined, unpredictable territories of marketplace since there was no available marketplace for these pioneering products which were being manufactured for the first time in India by indigenous entrepreneurs. Hence these Bengali Swadeshi entrepreneurs had to navigate the uncertainties of marketplace, lack of access to financial capital for high-risk ventures and the task of translating their technological ideas into tangible products for marketplace, from drawing-board to the finished part.
However one oft-ignored dimension of the Swadeshi entrepreneurship is the profile of these Bengali Swadeshi entrepreneurs which would hold inspiration for the next-generation of aspiring business persons of Bengal; distinguished professional qualifications and engaged in tireless pursuit of research and development. Many of these Bengali entrepreneurs were highly educated, technically competent professionals who defied the ancient logic of Bhadralok being averse to trade and commerce and wary of plunging into risky ventures.
Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray of Bengal Chemicals fame held a distinguished qualification in Chemistry with doctorate from University of Edinburgh and a track-record of working in research and development. Surendra Mohan Bose of Bengal Waterproof was educated at Berkeley and Stanford Universities in the US and Kiran Shankar Roy of Bengal Lamps attended Oxford University.
Besides most significantly they engaged in tireless pursuit of research and development and made strenuous efforts to develop new products and technologies, in other words they were profound innovator, yesterday’s Steve Jobs.
Surendra Mohan Bose formulated a process indigenously sans any foreign collaboration for manufacturing waterproofs known as the ‘Duckback’. Acharya P C Ray experimented in his laboratory, which was the outhouse at his residence at Upper Circular Road with various products prior to initiating his industrial venture with pharmaceutical preparations. Bengal Immunity pioneered manufacturing anti-toxin in tropical conditions, which came as a surprise to most Europeans.
Apart from these glowing instances there were innumerable applicants for patents from Bengal during the early 20th century(1912-1943) as lucidly chronicled in the book, which provided inspiration and direction to large extent for this article. According to Professor Dipen Sanyal, treasurer and trustee of IISWBM(prestigious business school of India located in Kolkata), ‘Many of these Swadeshi entrepreneurs were driven by the zeal and aspiration to demonstrate that Indians can manufacture and build a home-grown industrial base rather than sheer pursuit of profits or seeking riches. Making profits was not the sole drive for many of these entrepreneurs launching new products and technologies.’
What lessons does it offer for today’s Bengal which is on the march towards progress?? The key lesson is to abandon any feelings of victimhood, resentment and grudge and then to embrace the new opportunities being offered by a globalized, interconnected economic world order. There are a plethora of emergent sectors like pharmaceuticals, renewable energy solutions like solar, wind, bio-mass, bio-technology, information technology, green technologies for ecological solutions like water preservation and public transportation like electric vehicles which can ignite the imagination and zeal of young Bengali entrepreneurs.
Contemporary technological and global economic landscape offer far more lucrative and congenial opportunities to plunge into entrepreneurial ventures with technologies, higher content of services through consulting, access to risk-finance like venture capital and access to global markets than it was the case for the predecessors of Swadeshi enterprises. Today an aspiring entrepreneur doesn’t require huge capital investments and resources in terms of land and factory to foray into cutting-edge sectors with an ingenious idea, courtesy the vibrant services and consulting sector.
Let not the aspiring Bengali entrepreneur be mired in dubious financial scheme as means to affluence and prosperity but look at the broader horizon of new technologies and solutions yet be inspired by the enriched legacy of their forefathers, moving forward with inspiration from the past!! Let Bengal revive the glorious traditions of high-tech, high-end, cutting-edge entrepreneurship once more and be a glowing instance for the rest of India!!
‘I wish to take this opportunity to mention the moral support and encouragement I received from the Publisher of this blog, Mr. Isvarmurti, Chairman of Vadamalai publications which has attained great fame and reputation in agriculture, industry and educational publications is one of the fines product of Shantiniketan and Oxford. In his earlier days at Shantiniketan and Bengal Mr. Isvarmurti met and interacted with the creme de la creme of Bengali bhadralok society including industrialists like Sir Biren Mookerjee and his wife, Lady Ranu Mookerjee and Mr. Sen of the Sen Raleigh bicycles. Mr. Isvarmurti completely agrees and feels strongly that its time Bengal revives its legacy of rich meaningful entrepreneurship which transcended the sole motive of money-making by any means.’
Profile: Dr. Kaustav Bhattacharyya is an entrepreneur from Bengal engaged in the field of ecological water treatment and holds a PhD from Cass Business School, University of London in Management Sciences. Entrepreneurship and Business History being one of his favourite research topics.