Sometime in the latter half of 1947, Parle Products stopped manufacturing its much-in-demand Gluco and Monaco biscuits. The very same biscuits that had been supplied to the British-Indian army during World War II, they could no longer be produced at Parle’s plant in Bombay after Independence. India’s hard-won freedom brought with it a shortage of wheat, as the country was left with only 63 per cent of its wheat cultivation area after Partition. In an ad saluting the Indian heroes who had sacrificed their lives for Independence, Parle urged its patrons to make do with barley biscuits till wheat supplies could be restored to normal.
Miles away from Parle’s Bombay factory, in the heart of India, two brothers were taking stock of the impact of Partition on the business their father, Hakeem Abdul Majeed, had painstakingly built since setting it up in 1907. Their product, Hamdard’s Rooh Afza (Persian for ‘elixir of the soul’) had become the favourite drink of people in north and eastern India.
Partition meant Rooh Afza would no longer be available to either Indians or Pakistanis, depending on which country the two brothers picked as their home. They decided on a compromise — one son, Hakeem Mohammed Said, would move to Pakistan and establish Hamdard there, while Hakeem Abdul Hameed would continue remain in India. “He (Hameed) wanted to continue his father’s legacy here in his motherland,” says Mansoor Ali, chief sales and marketing officer at Hamdard.
Radcliffe’s Line cleaved not just a country into two, but also several businesses such as Hamdard. The cement industry, in particular, was dealt a major blow after it had as recently as 1936 united to form the Associated Cement Companies (now ACC Ltd). After losing five of its 24 factories to Pakistan, ACC’s annual production in India fell to 2.1 million tonnes from 2.7 million tonnes; on the other side of the border, Pakistan struggled with over-supply.
“Insofar as Indian business houses were concerned, the major setback was loss of the raw material and commodity market after Partition. There is no available data to even estimate this loss,” says the Bengaluru-based senior economic and business historian Raman Mahadevan. Moreover, Karachi had been the principal port for imports and exports for both north and north-western India. Partition forced many companies to turn to the much more distant Bombay port, which had the effect of pushing up costs, he adds.
Amid the slowdown in production of goods, frequent stockouts, unavailability of raw materials and escalation of costs that accompanied Independence and Partition, businesses found a safe harbour in two vital economic policies of independent India. The first was import substitution — replacing imports with domestic production. And the second, government protection to stave off foreign competition. “Indian capital, despite its visibility, was still rather fragile in the late 1940s and required the protective umbrella of the State for growth,” says Mahadevan.
Under such benign watch, businesses gradually began to flourish. “That was the time the nation was being built and a lot of industries were working towards it. The Godrej group, which had always believed in economic independence alongside political independence, stepped up manufacturing to enter new segments,” says Vrunda Pathare, chief archivist at the Godrej group.
Naval Godrej, the youngest son of Pirojsha Burjorji Godrej, had always been passionate about tools and manufacturing, and had already set up a tool room in 1935. “After Independence, that tool room became the backbone for the group’s foray into new sectors,” says Pathare. From safes, locks, refined oils, steel cupboards and toilet soaps, Godrej expanded its manufacturing capability to include typewriters, office equipment and, later, refrigerators in the 1950s and ’60s.
In 1948, the Godrej group moved from its Lalbaug premises in Bombay to suburban Vikhroli, where the first of its factory lines was set up not to make locks or safes but ballot boxes for independent India’s first general elections in 1952. The government had placed an order for 12 lakh ballot boxes for use in 23 States. “Godrej produced 15,000 boxes per day to meet the requirement,” Pathare says.
Naval Godrej’s tool room was instrumental in developing Asia’s first indigenous typewriter in a market then dominated by imported Remingtons and Olivettis. Interestingly, while the typewriter manufacturing project was in the works since 1948, the order for ballot boxes took precedence and the launch of Godrej & Boyce’s typewriter came about only in 1955. It was a major event in ‘Swadeshi manufacturing’ in the newborn country.
However, for most corporates of that time, the concept of ‘swadeshi’ or Indianisation predated Independence. For instance, the Chauhans of Parle Products were primarily traders of silk and embroidery imported from Europe. It was under the influence of the Swadeshi movement of the freedom struggle that they switched to manufacturing confectionery in 1929.
Indianisation at Tata Steel, too, began in the 1920s after Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose made a case for ‘swadeshi’ in a letter to the then chairman NB Saklatvala, saying the “future of this industry depended largely on Indianisation”. Soon it became almost a motto for Tata Steel. “It was the first time that raw materials did not go out of India to return as finished goods to be sold here. Ours was a swadeshi enterprise financed by swadeshi money and managed by swadeshi brains,” says Chanakya Chaudhary, Tata Steel’s group director for corporate communication and regulatory affairs. The company prospected iron reserves and made steel products, all in India, powered mainly by domestic R&D.
Before Independence, the company had contributed to the war efforts of the colonial government. Steel rails produced in Jamshedpur were used in military campaigns across Mesopotamia, Egypt and East Africa. After Independence, steel quickly became a controlled commodity, with the government deciding who could set up manufacturing capacities, and the quantity and prices at which steel would be sold. “Four steel plants came up in Orissa, West Bengal and the erstwhile undivided Bihar (now Jharkhand) with Soviet and German help. Engineers of Tata Steel contributed to the setting up of these public-sector plants,” says Chaudhary.
The government’s clarion call for ‘Made in India’ spurred entrepreneurs to take risks and expand their business in a free country. Hamdard began exploring new markets for Rooh Afza around the country. “We set up our distribution network in the south and western India as there was a new government that gave impetus to home-grown businesses. And Rooh Afza became a ‘drink of India’ from being ‘the drink of the East’,” says Hamdard’s Ali.
The newfound freedom also meant a focus on the motherland in all brand communications. In an ad for Godrej’s soap Vatni (which means ‘from the motherland’), film actor Madhubala declares: “It’s superior and it’s Swadeshi”. For many years after Partition, the soap’s ad continued to feature a map of undivided India — a reminder of the struggles undergone to achieve freedom. Dalmia Cement’s ad back then exhorted customers to “construct your house of independence”.
For these companies and many others for whom the Indian market earlier included Pakistan, there was now a new requirement. In a circular dated March 25, 1949, the Order & Despatch Department of Godrej & Boyce directed that “the inscription ‘Made in India’ should be marked on each and every package exported to Karachi”. This was a requirement for other Indian businesses too.
While both Partition and Independence changed many businesses forever, companies incorporated several learnings from the epochal events into their operations. “One of them was the Joint Consultation system introduced in 1956 for management-worker participation in the running of the company. This ensured complete industrial harmony,” says Tata Steel’s Chaudhury.
Hamdard continues to follow the post-Independence policy of encouraging entrepreneurship through local sourcing of herbs and other ingredients for all its products. Godrej, in a bid to reinforce its faith in pluralism, has set up a culture lab in Vikhroli to foster the cross-pollination of eclectic ideas and ignite conversations around modernity. And Parle is taking its products across the world. Like others, it has come a long way from its days of wheat shortage to become the company behind the world’s largest selling biscuit — Parle G — made in India.