Maharashtra Day 2021: Remembering The Earliest Industrialists Of The State
The legacy of the likes of Premchand Roychand, Laxmanrao Kirloskar and Walchand Hirachand and countless others has continued over the years in making Maharashtra an engineering and industry powerhouse.
Maharashtra is the foremost industrial state in the country and accounts every year for nearly 15 per cent of the India’s gross domestic produce (GDP). While the state is now synonymous with several industries and is a top destination for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) coming to India, Maharashtra has always had a rich legacy of industrialists operating in the state.
While several business families are well known today, a lot of older names have been either forgotten or their impact not fully understood. On Maharashtra Day, this article discusses three such names, all of whom were born in the nineteenth century.
Premchand Roychand, born in 1831, was raised and educated in Mumbai. He was the first Indian to be registered as a stock broker and was also a founder of The Native Share and Stock Broker Association. This association morphed into the current Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), which has been the nerve centre of the Indian capital markets and will soon complete 150 years of operations.
During the American Civil War, he was known as the “Cotton King” of India. This was the period when Indian cotton became the mainstay of production in the mills in Manchester when the American cotton supplies stopped. The cotton trade however declined rapidly after the American war ended. This is when he moved into bullion trading and came to be known as the “Bullion King” of India.
The Rajabhai Clock Tower, common to several pictures of Mumbai in media, was constructed in his mother’s memory in 1878. Modelled on the Big Ben of London by the English architect Sir George Scott, the 85-metre tower was erected in the Fort campus of the Mumbai University.
This tower underwent a restoration between 2013 and 2015 and in 2018, it was added to the list of the UNSECO World Heritage Sites. This addition was a collective recognition for the Victorian art deco ensemble of Mumbai, which includes other buildings like the Bombay High Court, Eros Cinema, University of Mumbai, and the Mumbai University Library.
Laxmanrao Kirloskar was born in the Belgaum district in 1869, which was then a part of the Bombay Presidency. He was interested in subjects related to mechanical engineering and technology from an early age. The foundation of the Kirloskar group, one of the most prominent industrial houses today in the country, was laid by Laxmanrao with a bicycle dealership and repair shop in Belgaum.
He moved from bicycles to agriculture equipment, which were the first product of the Kirloskar Group.
The iron ploughs he planned to build were not easily accepted by the farmers then who opposed farm mechanisation.
His first business venture hence took several years in the making and development. Ultimately, he set up a factory in the Sangli district, encouraged by the royal family of Aundh. This area is today known as Kirloskarwadi and has a eponymous railway station.
His son Shantanurao Kirloskar took over the mantle of the Kirloskar group from his father. He was formally educated in mechanical engineering, completing his degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, United States.
He took the reins of the Kirloskar group, which prospered as an engineering major in independent India. Today, the Kirloskar Group, headquartered in Pune, is a large conglomerate working in several industries likes pumps, engines, constructions and automobile.
Walchand Hirachand, the founder of the Walchand Group, was born in Solapur in 1882. He hailed from a business family and had an entrepreneurial bent of mind since his early days. He constantly added different businesses to his repertoire, diversifying quickly.
The Walchandnagar Industries, established in 1908, started as a sugar products firm. But it rapidly diversified into cement, paper, tubes, machinery and sugar products. Today, this company is primarily an engineering firm, working in the infrastructure and government sectors. It also works in the defence and nuclear industries.
Walchand established The Scindia Steam Navigation Company in 1919, which was India’s first steam navigation firm. It operated Loyalty, a ship which Scindia family had bought four years earlier to help the Indian troops which were part of the World War.
It became a prime example of self-reliance for Mahatma Gandhi, who used this firm as an example of Indian entrepreneurs taking on the British businesses.
The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited also traces its origins to Walchand. His Hindustan Aircrafts was established in 1941 in Bangalore with support of the Mysore State.
Being established in the world war years, the company was soon nationalised in 1942 by the British government and post- independence, morphed into India’s flagship aviation public sector enterprise.
Hindustan Construction Company, established in 1926, is today a large construction firm in the country. The Premier Automobiles auto business set up in 1945 by Walchand, went on to produce the Premier Padmini cars, one of the first cars made in India. The company also had a tie up with Fiat for many years.
Having started so many businesses in India in a time when capital and technology were both scarce, Walchand Hirachand was unsurprisingly a big proponent of indigenisation. He kept imploring both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to keep Indian industry unshackled and focus on what is today known as Aatmanirbhar Bharat.
The legacy of the likes of Premchand Roychand, Laxmanrao Kirloskar and Walchand Hirachand and countless others has continued over the years in making Maharashtra an engineering and industry powerhouse. These early entrepreneurs who experimented and succeeded in the hostile business atmosphere set the tone for individual risk taking.
These names may not match the aura of the India’s conglomerates of today, but their contribution to industrialisation in Maharashtra and in India in a large sense remains invaluable.
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