On the eve of our preparation to celebrate the 157th birthday of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray falling on 2 August came the perturbing news that Bengal Chemical & Pharmaceutical Limited (BCPL) and its landed assets have been put on sale by the Government of India, the owner of the company since 1980-81.
The celebrity composer-artist Pratul Mukhopadhyay sings with gusto – alu becho chhola becho, …O bandhu…tomar… swapno becho na (sell potato, sell gram (but) dear friend… don’t sell your… dreams).
The audience is enchanted, they cheer and applaud. But when dreams are thrown out in the open market for bidding and selling, we keep mum. BCPL owes its origin to Bengal Chemical & Pharmaceutical Works Limited (BCPWL, 1901) popularly known as Bengal Chemical or BCPW. Its founder-proprietor was none other than Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray who described BCPW as his daughter (and his students as his sons).
Prafulla Chandra was a great dreamer and a visionary. Among his many projects undertaken to ameliorate the condition of his countrymen, BCPW was perhaps the best vehicle to realise his dream. It was also instrumental in demonstrating his ideas and methods to his countrymen.
As India’s first own Heavy Chemical and Pharmaceutical Industry, BCPW rose to dizzying heights in his lifetime and became a symbol of indigenous wisdom and pride.
The story of BCPW and its creator spread far and wide and the people of Bombay (now Mumbai) placed at the disposal of Ray a handsome morsel of land at a token price of just one rupee to set up a Bombay unit of BCPW which became a reality in 1938.
The successes were not miracles, they were won through great perseverance, hard labour and research. In fact, research and innovation were in-built into BCPW from conception to its development into a successful industry. Just before he fell seriously ill for the last time and became inactive, Ray got disillusioned and quit from the Board of Directors and that too on a question of reinvestment of company profits into research and well-being of workers that he favoured, against other members who wanted this to be paid to shareholders.
BCPW strived to demonstrate, inter alia, how to weave education and research to the benefit of an industry and how an industry having significant pollution potential can live and grow sustainably. We failed to recognise the significance of BCPW and thus Prafulla Chandra Ray has never been given credit as a pioneer of industrialisation in modern India.
He has been widely misinterpreted and misunderstood albeit being sort of worshipped and further distorted in the process. In Independent India, we ignored him and others like him and indulged in other easier routes to industrialisation; we even failed to realize the necessity of researching, developing and inculcating ideas and methodologies expounded by him and demonstrated through BCPW.
Quite a few research institutes grew up in free India bearing the names of scientists winning recognition of Western countries, mainly Europe. PC Ray was a notable exception. BCPW has often been described as merely a Swadeshi adventure of an idiosyncratic scientist and failed to attract necessary sympathy and support.
It started to show signs of wilting in Independent India; efforts to make it profitable brought about further decline. Finally, the Central Government took it over, rechristened it as BCPL and a new government company emerged. It continued to survive with subsidies and capital loans on soft terms only to grow more sick.
A closer look reveals that the popular household products, industrial and agricultural chemicals that were the hallmark of BCPW got little support to expand. Emphasis was laid on ‘producing’ tablets and capsules of medicines and formulations of wellknown brands. Marketing was the other area sought to be modernised – BCPL joined hands with on-line shoppers and retail chains. Consequently, it was the in-house R & D that suffered casualty.
The net result was that BCPW minus Dreams = BCPL. It was reported that BCPL made a profit of more than Rs 4 crore in the last financial year (2016-17) after prolonged losses over six decades. Wasn’t it a reflection of the company’s turnaround, of gaining inherent strength towards sustained growth to make profit? Why then is the current call for putting BCPL in the list of companies for disinvestment and sell-out?
BCPL workers have filed a case at Kolkata High Court against the decision and have obtained an interim order of stay. This might be considered as a welcome step but will it be sufficient to save BCPL from eventual death? It is hardly any exaggeration that our education and research in science and technology today have become mere parasites thriving on everything alien to the realities in India, particularly in respect of the needs and aspirations of people.
Our precious resources like land, forests, water bodies, mines and coasts are on sale or lease, so are our education, agriculture, health and biodiversity, with active assistance from governments in Delhi and in States. When even ‘Navratnas’ are not spared, can the government be moved by appealing in the name of dreams, freedom, self-respect and sustainability?
Even in these days of open global market and business, developed countries are eager, on the one hand, to export dirty industries to greener countries ready to embrace them and, on the other, are still keen on focusing in areas of their strength and maintaining their supremacy and control. Only those who are conscious, alert and have self-esteem can possibly resist the imminent death of BCPL.
They can join in chorus with workers of the company and restrain the spree of disinvestment and sale/lease for temporary benefits to the exchequer.
Let us assert that BCPL and its lands must not be sold or leased out to promoters/investors. Instead, let the government take appropriate steps to set up an Industrial Laboratory cum Research Institute in the name of PC Ray to innovate and develop sustainable technologies not only for BCPL but also for other similar industries in India.
Let there also be provision for complimentary research into themes like History of Science, Technology and Industry, Social basis of Technology and Industry, Industrialisation in relation to History, Environment and Social Culture etc. – research topics that were initiated by the Acharya himself.
And that will possibly be the surest way to rejuvenate not only BCPL but also India. Death is always sad, but death of dreams is dreadful to a nation. Silence in such a situation is to commit suicide and that is a crime.
(The writer is a retired Professor of Chemical Technology, University of Calcutta)