India Inc on the coffee table

Last Updated: Sat, Feb 16, 2013 04:47 hrs

In the realm of luxurious pictorial books for the coffee table, the focus has been on India's architectural heritage, varied crafts and, perhaps, "moments" from daily Indian life. The CEO's coffee table has necessarily been adorned by such tomes, which though extravagant, bestow little understanding of their own domain. Now comes a lavish addition to the rare business pictorials collection, An Illustrated History of Indian Enterprise, brought out by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) and Oxford University Press.

An industry association has special interest in bringing out a publication in the business history genre. Apart from outlining facts of interest to industry members and the general readership, such an initiative also presents a positive image of business. This is particularly relevant in the Indian context where the contribution of business to economic growth is underplayed.

The chamber itself has been closely associated with modern India's business experience. Formed in 1927 with the encouragement of Mahatma Gandhi as an association representing indigenous industry, its early members were active in the freedom struggle and vociferous in demanding a level playing field for Indian enterprise in the colonial economy. Ficci's archives are a treasure trove of supplications, submissions and suggestions, before Independence as well as in the early decades of nation-building. It always enjoyed high respect among policymakers as well as society at large, and played a stellar role in presenting the views of an industry sector beleaguered by multiple strictures.

It is perhaps not difficult to understand why coffee-table books based on Indian business are uncommon. Possibly, to the uninitiated, one picture of a factory and its smoke-stack looks pretty much the same as another. An Illustrated History of Indian Enterprises stays away from trite images, even desisting from including the ubiquitous portrait of Jamsetji N Tata. Instead, photo editor Radhika Singh offers a rich collection of archival photographs, maps, and panoramas painstakingly sourced from a variety of organisations. Just glancing through the images, one can get an idea of the extensive engagement of Indian industry across sectors from gems and jewellry to petrochemicals.

The 300-page tome is commendably put together by managing editor Kokila Rangachari who also edited an earlier Ficci-OUP publication on the same subject. With Kishore Singh as consulting editor, the book compiles essays from eminent contributors, each taking up a different dimension of the overall historical journey. However, the frequent interspersal of articles and ads from the sponsoring companies is somewhat confusing for the reader because continuity is lost.

Dwijendra Tripathi reprises the early history of Indian business from his seminal 2004 volume, The Oxford History of Indian Business, which, as the first detailed exploration of the evolution of India's entrepreneurship, is a business historian's delight. His quick overview outlines the organisation of India's early entrepreneurs into shrenis and other guilds, but points out the lack of substantial historical evidence. It also observes that the passing centuries saw few changes in commercial organisation, till the advent of British colonial rule which ushered in modern enterprise.

The importance of robust overseas trade throughout India's long economic history is especially highlighted. R Champalakshmi elaborates on the arrangements for south India's links with south east and east Asia, including the nagarattar as an organised body for supervising trade and the increasing use of money with the rise of Vijayanagara in the 14th century. Shireen Moosvi quotes from accounts of the day for interesting facets on trade during the Mughal period when Indian cottons, silks and spices dominated international trade, and gold and silver were "swallowed up" in Hindoustan, according to French raconteur Bernier. The term "diwaliya" for a bankrupt person, she notes, is derived from sarrafs lighting candles in the day-time to "look" for money lost.

A fascinating little-known link of Astrakhan and Indian traders is brought out in Purushottam Agarwal's short article. One wishes that the impact of Indian enterprise on other parts of the world had been elucidated in more detail, given that these historical interactions are of much significance for the overseas activities of Indian companies today.

Coming to the post-Independence period, Ashok V Desai traces the experiences of large business houses across sectors. Traditional industries such as jute, tea and textiles gave way to the modern auto, pharma, and telecom sectors, but the evolution was by no means "orderly" as government policies were ambiguous over the years. One misses, however, a mention of the growing vibrancy of the small and medium enterprises sector, numerically the large base of the Indian business pyramid.

A candid overview of the climate for doing business in post-Independence India is provided by T C A Srinavasa-Raghavan. The rise of socialists in the Congress party in 1937 and the Bombay Plan of leading industrialists in 1944 paved the way for government control of industry as laid out in the 1948 and 1956 Industrial Policy Resolutions. The notion that private industry of the times was complicit in the idea of state control is contested by the author. Instead, he notes that price controls discouraged private enterprise - the price of steel, for example, was not changed for two decades!

Power struggle in the ruling Congress party led to years of "economic blitzkrieg" by the state, says the author. Although some rules were relaxed in the 1980s, it was only in 1991 that the balance-of-payments crisis and IMF loan induced liberalisation policies, finally allowing Indian enterprises to become the engine of "India's extraordinary rise to global eminence".

Vikram S Mehta outlines the stop-go mix of history, ideologies, and emotions that multinational companies in India underwent since Independence. Omkar Goswami's concluding article touches upon the achievements since 1991, but points to worrisome trends that could impact future growth.

The articles by different companies sponsoring the book are no less interesting and take pains to highlight CSR and sustainability initiatives. This reflects how keen our leading companies are to position themselves as constructive partners in development.

As one reaches the end of the volume, it is impossible not to be impressed with the vast scope of Indian enterprises, their achievements and their evolution to the current position of pre-eminence. An Illustrated History of Indian Enterprise contributes substantially to our understanding of the intrepid spirit of our entrepreneurs amid challenging circumstances. This sumptuous book will be a much-thumbed addition to the corner office decor.

The reviewer is the author of India Unlimited: A Corporate Journey, among others


Editor: Kokila Rangachari

Publisher: FICCI and Oxford University Press

Pages: 316

Price: Rs 4,995

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