An entrepreneur from Kollam, strikingly different from his self-serving brethren.
Not so long ago, Kerala witnessed a debate on the right of a certain investor over developing a large chunk of public land in Kochi. Spectrum, coal mines or port trust land are all public property; the government as their custodian is expected to see they are put to use to derive the best possible public good.
But the much-feted business tycoons of Kerala today, like their counterparts elsewhere, expect the government to hand over public land — an island here or an old palace there — even if it is to build hotels, shops, convention centres and other ventures of dubious public utility. And the State’s political class is always a willing accomplice.
It is in this context that the story of one of Kerala’s greatest entrepreneurs – Thangal Kunju Musaliar (1897-1966)– is worth telling. Far from wanting anything from the government, he was one who gave back more to the society than what he took. Something that today’s self-seeking businessmen wouldn’t even think of. Musaliar’s family recollects the Fortune in the 1940s magazine naming him as the single biggest individual, as opposed to a corporate, employer in the world. There are many versions of his rags-to-riches story. The most romantic one is about a bullock cart driver becoming one of the world’s biggest cashew nut exporters.
At the peak of his career in the 1940s, Musaliar is believed to have employed at least 30,000 people directly at his 26 cashew units. The number would have been over a lakh if those finding indirect employment linked to his units were added.
He turned Kollam, a small town in south Kerala, into a cashew processing hub, employing thousands of women who broke open the kernel, peeled and roasted the nuts. Musaliar also had a tin factory, a tile unit and a tugs-and-barges company.
Besides, he built Kerala’s first ever modern shopping complex with two movie halls in it, a multiplex of sorts. Though in need of a facelift, the ship-shaped structure called the Musaliar Building is still the landmark of Kollam. In today’s description, it would well have qualified as a ‘mall’. And, of course, he didn’t seek government land or concessions to build all these!
But it is not for all these feats that Musaliar, the unlettered business maverick, is known today. He is and will always be remembered in Kerala for setting up the first ever engineering college in the private sector.
At a time when Kerala had just a couple of professional colleges, India’s first President, Rajendra Prasad, went down to Kollam in 1956 to lay the foundation stone for the college. The Thangal Kunju Musaliar College of Engineering remains one of the best in the State – and not a teaching shop.
He followed it up in 1965 with an arts and sciences college, apart from spending an unknown amount of money in experimenting with hydro-power on the Periyar river with the help of a few foreign engineers. Much before all this Musaliar started a newspaper in Kollam, Prabhatham. Knowingly or unknowingly, he let two young but potentially ‘dangerous’ Communists into his newsroom. The founding publisher and editor of the undivided Communist Party of India’s Malayalam newspaper, Janayugam, R Gopinathan Nair and N Gopinathan Nair, cut their teeth in journalism at the newsdesk of Musaliar’s paper.
In contrast to such an original industrialist-philanthropist, Kerala’s new generation capitalists have few pretentions of creating public good. Forget buying land at market rate to gift schools and colleges to society, they want government land even for their private business.
Many of Kerala’s new entrepreneurs are big non-resident Malayali businessmen, who made their money in the booming construction industry in the Gulf. Some were labour contractors, who shipped men out of Kerala and other states to various work sites in West Asia. Some others operate shops and super markets in these Gulf States selling stuff to the same Malayali or Indian labourers or professionals employed in the Gulf.
Sure, they employ Malayalis, but they are merely partaking of the wealth created by Malayalis. Now, they claim government land as some sort of a compensation for creating wealth for themselves.
They need to take a leaf out of the Musaliar book of business: give back instead of taking doles.
(This article was published on November 22, 2013)