In the pantheon of great Indian business leaders, one name that rarely gets the recognition it deserves is that of Walchand Hirachand Doshi. In 2004 the government did issue a postage stamp to honour the man, but in the public discourse he has largely been forgotten. Deriving his inspiration from nationalists like Justice M.G. Ranade and R.C. Dutt, he decided that India must shrug off the yoke of being merely a supplier of cheap raw materials like cotton and invest in industry.
Born 140 years ago, he was a creator with the adventurous spirit of an Elon Musk and the foresight of a Jamsetji Tata. He had the maverick’s streak of forever looking for new areas to pioneer and yet at heart he was, like many of the industrialists in pre-independence India, a fierce patriot who relinquished the titles the British had conferred upon him to protest against the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi in 1930. At the same time, he wasn’t afraid of asking the political leaders to also look after the interests of Indian industry in accords like the Gandhi-Irwin pact of 1931.
Walchand, though, must be remembered as a visionary who laid the foundations of industrialization in the country. Former president Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, himself an inspiration to generations, summed up the man in his own brilliant way: “In my opinion in one word, Walchand was the creative genius.”
The sheer breadth of his ambition is breathtaking even by today’s standards when multi-business conglomerates abound in India. In the 1920s when he was laying the foundations of his empire, it was nothing short of staggering. Before illness laid him low in 1950, he had kickstarted ventures in core sectors ranging from civil engineering to aircraft manufacturing, shipbuilding, maritime shipping and automobile manufacturing. Many of his startups were later nationalized by the government, but by then, they had shown the way to a newly independent nation in the process laying the base on which many of today’s industries have been built.
Thus, he founded Scindia Steam Navigation Company and when on April 5, 1919, the company’s ship SS Loyalty sailed on its maiden voyage from Mumbai to London, it marked the start of a national shipping industry till then controlled entirely by the British. Walchand went a step further. Recognizing the important role ship-building would play in the country’s overall infrastructure development, in 1948 he established a shipyard in Visakhapatnam which was nationalized by the Indian government in 1961 and renamed as Hindustan Shipyard Limited. He also set up the country’s first aircraft manufacturing facility Hindustan Aircraft Ltd which was also later nationalized and became the HAL of today.
Born on November 23, 1882, at Solapur into a Digambar Jain family which had interests in cotton trading and money lending, he did his matriculation from Solapur Government High School and then moved to Mumbai for his graduation from St Xavier's College. Though he enrolled for another degree at Deccan College in Pune, his true calling was in business. After starting out in the family business, he decided to chart an independent course.
His first venture was that of a railway contract leading to the setting up of a partnership firm Pathak & Walchand. The business was successful but Walchand wasn’t the kind to be satisfied easily. Newer horizons beckoned and with the zeal of a pioneer he embraced them with gusto.
In all this, he showed a resilience that was probably strengthened by personal tragedy. His mother passed away within days of his birth and in 1913 his wife died after giving birth to a daughter. He married a second time but once again was dogged by ill luck, with a son and a daughter from this marriage dying early.