Walchand Hirachand Doshi – the visionary who gave India its first aircraft factory, shipyard and car factory
Known for flexibility and innovative spirit, Walchand Hirachand Doshi was never afraid to take up challenges. His entrepreneurship in shipping, aviation and automobiles earned him the title ‘Father of transportation in India’.
Seth Walchand Hirachand Doshi was a visionary patriot, who pioneered the industrial revolution in pre-independent India. A man of courage, conviction and self-belief, who envisioned the industrial needs of Independent India, who in the first half of 20th century was a towering person, who stood out as the pioneering nation builder, who despite all adversities undertook the industrialisation of India in various core sectors by their intense passion, patriotism and indomitable spirit of entrepreneurship. The core sectors like civil engineering (construction of dams, bridges and tunnels), aircraft manufacturing, shipping, shipbuilding, hume pipes, organised farming and automobile manufacturing. He stirred the patriotic minds of fellow Indians, to realise the sole aim of his life, which was along with the political freedom from British, to win back the economic Independence of his motherland. He Renounced the Titles “C.I.E” & “J.P.” conferred by the British, when Mahatma Gandhi was arrested
Walchand was the founder of the Walchand group. He established India’s first modern shipyard, the first aircraft factory and first car factory. He controlled the Scindia Steam Navigation Company Ltd. He was also into construction, sugarcane plantations, sugar factories, confectioneries, engineering companies and many other businesses. Born in a Gujarati Jain family from Wankaner in Gujarat, who had settled in Solapur in the then Bombay Presidency (Now Maharashtra). His father Seth Hirachand Nemchand Doshi was engaged in cotton trading and money lending. Walchand did his matriculation in 1899 from Solapur Government High School and later attended St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and earned a BA degree from University of Mumbai. Later he attended Deccan College in Pune but left his studies incomplete to join his family business.
Early Family Setbacks
Walchand’s mother died a few days after his birth, and his father married a second time. While he was still studying, in 1900 he married Jiu Kilachand, daughter of a Solapur banker. From this marriage, he had a daughter named Chatur, but his wife died during childbirth. Later in 1913, under family pressure, he married Kastur Mehta. From his second marriage, he had a boy and a girl child, but both died in infancy.
Launches Off Own Business
After spending a few years in his father’s family business of banking and cotton trades, he realised he was not interested in the family business. He became a railway contractor for constructions in partnership with a former railway clerk, Laxmanrao Balwant Phatak. The partnership later became Phatak-Walchand private limited. Walchand proved to be a successful railway contractor but was open to other business ideas as well. Walchand was known for his ambition and vision. A dreamer who wanted to run even before learning to walk. Projects undertaken by Walchand were grand in design. While attention to detail in planning was not his strength, he always knew how to find his way around. He was especially great at manpower management, meeting deadlines and raising funds. Most of his projects were highly leveraged. With nationalisation, the government took over some of the projects like the shipyard and the aircraft factory. The real fact was also that these businesses may have faced liquidation due high debt and were saved by government investments. The government also needed these industries as they directly supported war efforts.
Clever Use of Media
Despite exercising management control in firms such as Scindia Steam Navigation Company Ltd., Hindustan Aircraft Ltd (HAL) and Hindustan Shipyard, he was not the largest shareholder in any of these companies. He understood the power of mass media and cultivated it to gather public support for his projects. His persuasive abilities were helpful in generating good press and public goodwill towards his projects. His biggest customer was the British government. He worked with British officials closely on several projects, however, he supported the Indian independence movement and most of his projects were inaugurated (including launching of new ships) by famous freedom fighters. He was able to maintain a fine line between these opposite forces. Walchand along with Annie Besant and MR Jayakar were the first sponsors of pioneering national news agency, the Free Press of India founded in 1927.
Support to National Freedom Movement
Walchand was among the early and active supporters of Indian National Congress along with other stalwarts of Indian industry and funded many of its activities. In 1930, various merchant bodies of Bombay under the presidency of Walchand passed a resolution for immediate release of Mahatma Gandhi from prison. Yet in 1931, it was Walchand, who on behalf of Indian Merchants' Chamber told Gandhi that they were not happy with the Gandhi-Irwin Pact and demanded protection of Indian industries. Again, in 1933, Walchand sent a deputation on behalf of Indian Merchants’ Chamber to Gandhi to persuade him to call off the Civil Disobedience Movement in interest of trade and commerce. He was also a signatory to the Bombay Manifesto dated 26 May 1936, which opposed the socialist and Marxist ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Big Infrastructure Projects
It was in the construction business, first as a railway contractor, and then as a contractor to other departments of government, that Phatak-Walchand Private Limited (partnership till 1915) made money. Phatak left the firm after it bought a foundry and undertook a mining lease, with the view that it was stretching itself into too many areas. Meanwhile, the firm found it difficult to bag larger contracts due to its small size. It was merged into Tata Construction Company in 1920. Some of the major projects executed by the company include the commissioning of the tunnels through the Bhor Ghats on Mumbai-Pune railway route, laying tracks for Barsi light railway, and laying of water pipes from Tansa lake to Mumbai. Other major projects executed by the firm include the Kalabag Bridge over Indus and a bridge across the Irrawaddy river in Burma. All these projects were directed by Walchand personally. In 1929, he became the managing director of the company. In 1935, the company was renamed as Premier Construction to reflect the fact that Tatas had sold their stake in the firm to Walchand. He also founded the Hindustan Construction Company in 1926, which is still a civil and engineering construction giant of India.
Walchand Industries Ltd
Walchand successfully transformed the barren, rock-strewn, practically uncultivated land near Kalamb village into lush green sugarcane fields and organized sugar cane farming and founded the Walchand Industries Ltd (WIL) in 1908, which was started as a large-scale sugar farming firm. Later it diversified into making sugar refined spirits, sugar machinery, plastic goods, cement plant, paper and pulp plant, and water tubes. WIL is today a diversified company which also manufactures boilers, turbines and also supplies strategic components to India’s defence and aerospace sector. WIL was subject to sanctions by the United States following Pokhran-II for its involvement in India’s nuclear and space programs. The sanctions were dropped in 2001. Another company in sugar and confectionery, the Ravalgaon Sugar Farm, was started by Walchand in 1933 and its confectionery division was started in 1942. Today, Ravalgaon Sugar is one of the market leaders in the Indian confectionery market, which is managed professionally by independent directors. He also founded the Indian Hume Pipe Company.
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In 1919, after the end of World War I, he along with his friends, Narottam Morarjee and Kilachand Devchand, bought a steamer, the SS Loyalty from the Scindias of Gwalior. Walchand had estimated that the post-war years would bring massive growth for the shipping industry. However, British companies were strong in the shipping industry and most of the attempts by domestic players till then had failed. Walchand named his company ‘The Scindia Steam Navigation Company Ltd‘ and decided to compete with the foreign players. It was recognised as the first Swadeshi shipping company and was referred to widely in Mahatma Gandhi’s columns in Young India and Harijan, and linked to swadeshi, boycott of foreign goods and the Non-co-operation movement. The company barely managed to survive after entering into agreements on routes and fare wars with its foreign competitors. However, Walchand still supported new indigenous shipping ventures, as he believed that a strong domestic shipping industry was the need of the hour. In 1929, he became the chairman of Scindia Steam and continued in the same position till 1950 when he resigned on grounds of ill health. By 1953, the company had captured 21% of Indian coastal traffic.
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In 1939, a chance acquaintance with an American aircraft company manager inspired him to start an aircraft factory in India. He wanted to meet with the CEO of Havro, the British company that made planes, urgently. Rather than wait endlessly for an appointment, he bought a ticket in the same plane the executive was flying. Such were his ways of winning people over. Hindustan Aircraft was started in Bangalore in the Mysore state with the active support of its Diwan, Mirza Ismail, in December 1940. The Kingdom of Mysore was a partner in the venture. There were others who had invested their money. Hindustan Aircraft manufactured planes like Harlow Trainer, Glider, Hawk-P36, Horlow-PC5 etc. By April 1941, the Indian government acquired one-third of ownership and by April 1942, it nationalised the company by compensating shareholders adequately. Nationalising was prompted by World War II. Hindustan Aircraft was renamed as Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd later, on 1 October 1964.
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Walchand also believed that there was a strong need for a shipyard in the country and started work on it in 1940 at Visakhapatnam. Despite British sensitivities, the foundation stone for the shipyard was laid by Dr Rajendra Prasad on 21 June 1941, who was acting Congress President at that time. It was named Scindia Shipyard Limited and its first product, the ship “Jal-Usha” was launched soon after independence by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948. The shipyard went under government control a few months later and was fully nationalised in 1961 and renamed Hindustan Shipyard Limited.
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As early as 1939, Walchand was interested in establishing a car factory in India. Birla family was also working in the same direction. In 1940, he signed an MOU with Chrysler but could not get clearances and concessions from the Mysore government unlike in the case of the aircraft company. In 1945, he established Premier Automobiles near Mumbai. By 1948, the company started indigenisation in a small way with an in-house components department. The first car rolled out of his factory in 1949, thus beating Birla’s Hindustan Motors venture in the race. In 1955, it tied up with Fiat and started manufacturing engines in India. By 1956, parts of chassis were locally made.
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Important Industry Associations
Walchand was one of the founder members of Maharashtra Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, and served as its President for eleven consecutive years from 1927–38. Walchand was also the founder of Indian National Shipowners’ Association, which was founded in 1929 and served as its President for 19 consecutive years from 1929–48. He also helped launch of Indian Sugar Mills Association and the Indian Sugar Syndicate. He served as President of Indian Merchants’ Chamber in 1927–28. He was also the force behind institutions like Association of Indian Automobiles Manufacturers, the Automotive Research Association of India.
Last Years and Legacy
In 1949, he suffered a stroke and retired from business in 1950. He died on 8 April 1953 at Siddhpur. He was survived by his wife Kastur and daughter Chatur, who was from his first marriage. His legacy remains important. Every entrepreneur who has braved the odds in his career is an heir to Seth Walchand Hirachand. Known for flexibility and innovative spirit, he was never afraid to take up challenges. His entrepreneurship in shipping, aviation and automobiles earned him the title ‘Father of transportation in India’.
An intersting story about his “Bunker” appeared in The Better India. During World War II, some of his decisions made him worry about his family’s well-being. Walchand was scared for their safety because his company had provided aircraft to the British to launch attacks against Japan. With Rangoon under attack, he was sure he was not safe anymore. So, he built a bunker in the heart of Mumbai, lest the Japanese air-raid or bombed his bungalows. Today, this bunker, a testimonial of the times when even powerful industrialists were uncertain about their lives, is mostly forgotten. Fortunately, Mumbai was never bombed by the Axis powers.
By 1947, when India became independent, the Walchand group of companies was one of the ten largest business houses in the country. The first Indian ship “SS Loyalty” made its maiden international voyage on 5 April 1919 by sailing from Mumbai to London. Walchand Hirachand was onboard. After India became independent, 5 April has been declared the National Maritime Day to honour that voyage. While Walchand pioneered a role in several Indian industries, nationalisation seems to have taken the sheen off his contributions. The car factory, while the first in India, trailed the Birlas’ Hindustan Motors in terms of market share. WIL, located at Walchandnagar, near Pune is today a strategic defence and nuclear equipment manufacturing company. For Walchand, industry was probably not just a place to make money but also to unfold a vision. For example, a visit to Hollywood inspired him to construct a huge studio now known as Walchand Studio in India for which he was earlier in talks with a famous Bollywood producer-director without a tangible result. However, for years to come, he would probably be remembered as the man who dared to dream and was able to materialise most of his dreams by his steadfastness and willpower. Walchand Hirachand died without any heirs. His business is now run by descendants of his brothers who worked together till they were alive. During his lifetime, he started several charitable trusts, to establish and look after several educational institutions. A road in Mumbai is named after him as Walchand Hirachand Marg. The Government of India issued a postage stamp honouring him on 23 November 2004. Many Indian leaders wrote in praise of the great nation builder.
Quotes About Him
“The patriotic industrialist whose life was a triumph of persistence over adversity”. –Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first Home Minister
“Walchand Hirachand was a dreamer, a visionary, a great builder and a great leader of the industry. Above all, he was a patriot, and in his own way, he was an inspiring leader of our struggle for freedom. I salute his memory. The lesson I draw is that the ultimate spur to growth and development is individual creativity and enterprise”.-Dr.Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India (2004 – 2014)
“In my opinion in one word. Walchand was the creative genius’
– Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam, Former President of India
(Air Marshal Anil Chopra, (Retd), is an IAF test pilot, who commanded a Mirage 2000 Squadron and operational airbases in both Western and Eastern sectors. He is also the founder of Air Power Asia)