By Indranil Halder
During my recent trip to India, I learnt a bit about Bengal’s economy which is practically unavailable in public knowledge. My learning make me realise the reasons why we need to promote Bengal as business hub.
Bengal’s robust economy is written in history. Accounts of Trade of muslin, jute and other textiles are still available in Greek, Portuguese or French Libraries and museums. Books such as Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, Ptolemy’s Geography or The Anarchy highlight Bengal’s prosperity in trade and commerce.
Bengal Subah (subdivision) of Mughal Empire (1526-1857) was the wealthiest province in the world. At one particular time, India overtook China as the world’s leading industrial producer (37 per cent of world GDP). In 1757, Robert Clive netted £2.5 million for East India Company and £250,000 for himself (making him one of the wealthiest men in United Kingdom) right after the battle of Plassey. For thousands of years, accelerating demand for Bengal textiles, silk, opium, sugar and rice in the markets of Southeast Asia, Arabia and Europe made Bengal prosperous.
Bengal’s economy then entered dark age. Transfer of Indian capital to New Delhi and partition of India in 1947 took its toll. Slow development of infrastructure, unionism, shifting of most headquarters of large companies and Indian MNCs to the west and south of India, bad work culture reputation and lack of federal investments hampered growth. Poverty, Debt and Unemployment identified Bengal. The state has been infamous for a lack of work culture, general negativity towards business, tremendous brain drain and for being reduced to the status of a retirement home.
In the 70s, with so many challenges few young enthusiastic entrepreneurs like my father Chidananda Halder armed with MBA from Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management (IISWBM), University of Calcutta (first institute in Asia to offer an MBA degree, setup by visionary ex Chief Minister of West Bengal, Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy) started their own ventures. My father’s Hume Pipe ventures in Bengal was supported by Mr Atish Sinha (owner of Belgachia Rajbari and Deputy industry minister).
In 2022, Bengal has become the sixth largest state of India in terms of economic size [GSDP of INR 14.44 lakh crore (US$ 206.64 billion), 2020-21]. The state government organised the sixth edition of Bengal Global Business Summit (BGBS) and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) and Confederation of Indian Industry joined in. The summit focused on Agri & Allied activities, Health and Education, Tourism, International trade, IT & ITeS and Mining.
According to state government business update, “The State has witnessed positive growth rate of 1.2% despite the pandemic in 2020-21.” Today, Bengal has created Business Conclave in Digha, Deep Sea Port in Tajpur and functioning Haldia Petrochemical Ltd (HPL is one of the largest petrochemical companies in India). The state is also the largest producer of vegetables in India today. In 2022, Indian business tycoon Gautam Adani said, “We plan to invest rupees 10 thousand crore in West Bengal in the coming years. This will create more than 25,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state.”
Bengali Entrepreneurship history:
As a Bengali with limited knowledge in Bengali entrepreneurship in India, started my own research.
In the early 20th century Bengali enterprises started as ‘Swadeshi endeavours’ or home-grown enterprises. Bengal Chemicals (Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray started India’s first pharmaceutical company), Calcutta Chemical Company, Bengal Immunity, Bengal Lamps, Bengal Waterproof, Bande Mataram Matchsticks, Banga Laxmi Cotton Mills, Dey’s Chemicals, Martin Burn (Sir Biren Mookerjee) and Sen Raleigh (bicycles). And Dawarakanath Tagore still remains India’s first native entrepreneur. A forgotten visionary industrialist Sudhir Kumar Sen who entrepreneurship help popularize bicycles in India. While Ramdulal Dey, (First Bengali Crorepati, two centuries ago) traded with America.
Bengali visionary industrialist like Sir RN Indian Mookerjee made Iron & Steel Company (IISCO) a household name. 127 years ago, Hemendra Mohan Bose established a spectrum of industries. Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Nandy established enterprising sweet shop in North Kolkata (176 years). Then there were Joy Krishna Mukherjee of Uttarpara, Neel Rattan Halder of Chinsurah and Mitras of Jhamapukur Shyampukur, wealthy businessmen and traders who had European business links. Satyendra Prasanna Sinha, 1st Baron Sinha at the House of Lords from India, was from a zamindar or landlord family of Raipur, Bengal) was a social entrepreneur who donated land from his zamindari to build the university of Shantiniketan ( by Nobel Laureate Tagore).
Post-independence, Bengali brands such as The IFB Group , Peerless Group , Ujjivan Bank , Bisk Farm, Red Cow Dairy, Ruby Hospital, Disha Eye Hospital, Rice, George Telegraph, JCC Biotech, NDTV, GD Pharmaceuticals, Chatterjee Group, Virtual Infocom , KPC, K.C. Das, Mukorochok, Bandhan Bank, Khadims, KC Paul, Sree Learhers and Chatterjee International and many more came into existence.
In the 21st century, Bengali student entrepreneurs like Raunak Basu Roy Chowdhury (Bhawanipur Education Society) founded National Trade Corporation, Rituparna Paul (Jadavpur University) founded Goynar Baksho and Sayan Chakraborty (St Xavier’s College, Kolkata) founded WTF: Where’s the food. Sayan was ‘Times Hospitality Icon of the Year’, represented India at the ‘Global Young Leaders’ Conference at the UN and launched his first book, ‘WTF! Just Happened’. He is also mentioned by Ratan Tata. Some of the Bengali female entrepreneurs are Gargi Banerjee Koul (Founder and CEO, Élanstreet. com), Rashi Ray (Co-founder, Zero Budget Agency) and Dr Somdutta (serial entrepreneur and founder of Assiduus Global). Bengali business communities also experienced failure with enterprises such as Saradha, Rose Valley, Prayag, MPS, Tower, Chakra, Icore, Silicon, Vibgyor and Sumangal — or Subroto Roy’s Sahara Group.
Time to know Bengal’s business activities first hand and promote the business image. Opted to buy an umbrella from Business head of 140 year old MOHENDRA DUTT & SONS (1882), Subhashis Dutta (founder and General Secretary of Bengal Business Council and student of SP Jain Institute of Management & Research ,India). Meet at The Glenburn Café with the grand Edwardian facade in Russell St, Kolkata to continue learning.
What did I learn from my Umbrella Purchase?
For me as Non Resident Indian Bengali (NRIB) from Australia, my symbolic umbrella purchase was to protect Bengal from its negative business reputation. As Pushpak Sen (Emerging fashion influencer) stated after meeting Siddhartha Bose(food entrepreneur) and myself at Bhojohori Manna Restaurant, “NRIs need to visit and support the Kolkata OGs and not just opt for fancy stuff always.”
According to Subhashis Dutta “Bengal is a hotbed of politics, culture and education – not so much considered a business hub. This perception is here to change. West Bengal will emerge with its long forgotten glory as a trade centre – a vibrant melting pot of industries, trades and ancillaries.”
From 2015 (till 2019), West Bengal received investment proposals worth INR 12.30 lakh crore, more than half of which are already in the implementation stage with an employment generation of over 28 lakh. Bengal is one of those few large Indian states which achieved positive GDP growth rate despite the pandemic and a major cyclone. Ease of doing business has improved dramatically with Bengal ranked 9th in the 2018-19 Business Reform Action Plan. This is due to major upgrades to access to information, single window system, labour and environment. Many big names from India Inc.flocked to the Bengal Global Business Summit. Just right for Bengal’s promising future. Meghdut Roy Chowdhury and Techno India Group initiative of “Making Calcutta Relevant Again” is also in line with a reverse brain drain and a move towards recreating the image of Kolkata as a business hub for the younger generations.
The statistics are clear – Bengal is on the rise. It is however important to understand the impact of business growth on the overall society and economy of the state. The culture of entrepreneurship and continuity of business is a must at this juncture.
Subhashis Dutta said, “Just as we are welcoming investments from other states and countries, it is time we encourage the local industries since these constitute the backbone of the domestic economy. Bengalis today are taking the risk of doing business and there has been a huge comeback of entrepreneurs in Bengal. West Bengal has the highest number of MSMEs in the country accounting for almost 11%.” He dreams of a Bengal where the next generation in family businesses don’t leave for ‘greener pastures’ elsewhere, where the ecosystem promises jobs and startup opportunities and where the golden light of business glows brighter for the state.
Once again Bengal means Business! is relevant again!
It is the same state which has had entrepreneurs like Mutty Lall Seal who was known as the ‘Rothschild of Calcutta’ and “Richest and most virtuous Babu of Calcutta” in the 18th century, to 21st century entrepreneur like 22 year old Pradip Halder (serial entrepreneurship) or Avelo Roy (serial Tech entrepreneur)live or Amit Chakrabarti (Entrepreneur & Chairman of SAICON GROUP OF COMPANIES) invented the world’s first portable upvc window making machine for the world. Many Bengali youth own gymnasiums across the state. In the Indian market, some of the Bengali owned brands are DTDC Courier & Cargo India, Bandhan Bank, Unirox Bicycles, K.C. Das, Kreamz, Just Baked , The Sugarr & Spice, Chowman, Mukharochak, Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick, Techno India Group, Dendrite, Elite Shoe Company – In Step, P.C. Chandra Jewellers and Sabyasachi.
The 2022 Bengali new year or Naboborsho Carnival celebration by Bengal Business Council (The Voice of Bengali-run Businesses Worldwide) in New Town Business Club, Kolkata was attended by West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd. (HIDCO)’s Debashis Sen, Bandhan Bank’s Chandrasekhar Ghosh, DTDC Courier & Cargo’s Subhasish Chakrabory and Techno India’s Dr. Goutam R Chowdhury with investors and state ministers. New year celebration also included new startups too.
My informative umbrella purchase made me realise that we NRIBs have a great role to play. Role of a Bengal business ambassador. Bengal’s good fortune is our business. And one of our key objectives should be to create an umbrella effect for our own state. Learn the growth in business sectors, encourage others to do so and promote positive Bengal business image. Time to protect Bengal from its negative business hub perceptions. Time to highlight concerted efforts by the state government, positive push by the industry and promoted by local business communities. Let’s celebrate the Bengali business spirit.