All artwork by the author
The -ism’s are creating schisms
Between him and me and you
Is there any remedy for this?
What is the best thing to do?
Try and get stung by Kindness
And we may well be able to cope
Open the box again quickly
And let out poor, trapped, Hope.
The year 1992 will long be remembered in the economic and political history of India. Driven by the abject failure of its decades-old socialistic policies, the Government was constrained to change direction and roll out economic reforms, which have since lifted the country to high growth and reduced poverty trajectory. The reform package included (a) abolition of the Licence Raj, thereby freeing companies from the need to obtain Government approval for any capacity addition, (b) removal of import licence requirements, thus allowing unrestricted imports of almost all items, (c) drastic reduction in protective tariffs – in the case of chemicals from 135% to less than 10% over a few years, (d) freedom to import technologies and equipment, (e) eligibility for foreign companies and large industrial houses to invest in most sectors without restrictions and (f) freedom to raise capital through stock exchanges, based on market-determined valuations.
While these reforms were hailed as progressive and long overdue, there was a section of existing Indian industry, led by “Bombay Club”, which felt that its very existence would be in jeopardy since, without a significant adjustment period, it was being shifted from a highly protected regime, with its inherent inefficiencies (which arose from the Government’s own past policies) to the onslaught of full-fledged international competition from large efficient companies having deep pockets, without a level playing field being provided.
These fears were not unfounded and many companies from the pre-liberalisation era could not survive the transition, falling to the theory of Creative Destruction, enunciated by Economist Joseph Schumpeter.
It was the Audacity of Hope, that we would jointly overcome the difficult periods, that kept the company (which some had written off) running while most of its contemporaries perished.
In late 1992, while “old industry” was still recovering from this shock, I was invited by the Board of Directors of the chemical company I was associated with, to take over as its Managing Director. The company was in a serious liquidity crisis on account of three major investments made right towards the end of the pre-liberalisation era, which were consequently facing the full brunt of the economic reforms. It was like being appointed Captain of a Ranji Trophy team, without any orientation, and to be told that the same team would now play in a completely different arena – international cricket representing the whole of India, instead of playing in the local league, and in all formats: T20, ODIs and Test matches.
The company had about 750 employees and an equal number of others it supported, including contractors, transporters and miscellaneous stakeholders. There was thus the responsibility to a large number of families, apart from suppliers, customers and shareholders, for business continuity.
All the past practices needed to be reviewed and new strategies drawn up for speedy execution. The one constant factor during this entire transition, and my subsequent tenure of 16 years in this capacity, with continued challenges, was Hope. It was the Audacity of Hope, that we would jointly overcome the difficult periods, that kept the company (which some had written off) running while most of its contemporaries perished. Survival not only placed it on a firmer foundation but also allowed it to grow, thrive, acquire new sites and enter international markets in a major way.
This is a brief account of a few of the many challenges faced and how they were overcome with the firm belief that whenever one door closed, there had to be another which could be opened.
While it was regarded as a large company in its product categories in India, when benchmarked against international competitors, it had just a fraction of globally recognised capacity and neither upstream nor downstream integration. To overcome the handicap of economies of scale, the company undertook a major strategic exercise, identified several downstream specialties, developed processes in-house or acquired foreign technologies, executed projects and became an integrated player.
The new plants set up had to be globally competitive in cost, size, efficiencies and quality. As markets in India would take time to develop, the initial surplus capacity had to be placed in other Asian (and even European and American) markets, using export as a flywheel. For a relatively small company (by international norms), it was a challenge to set up distribution networks in individual geographies, without having local staff, offices or warehouses, which were clearly not affordable. Even establishing a new brand needed substantial effort, which was regarded as long term investment. One approach adopted successfully was that of international alliances. We were able to identify a very large German company (which is a household name even in India) and set up a joint purchase – sale – formulation alliance which became very successful for both since it was designed to meet the unmet needs of the two partners.
The transformation of the company from the earlier avatar to one which could withstand global competition, needed substantial capital, which the then majority stockholders in India were unable to bring in (being a large group which faced similar requirements in its other companies as well). I was then asked to identify a possible new owner who could bring the needed capital. The search resulted in a US multinational corporation with a synergistic product line showing keen interest and eventually taking up majority ownership, bringing in its wake several advantages which were relevant in the international arena. It was a true “win–win” alignment of forces. It is to the credit of IIT Bombay that coincidentally the leader of the team on the other side, who negotiated the entire deal, was my batchmate from IIT and this made the transaction smoother and quicker.
Though the company’s plant was located in a metropolitan area, in an estate dedicated to chemicals, there were about 55 power interruptions in a year, due to the weak infrastructure of the State Board. For continuous processes, each outage or trip is highly detrimental and this large number was certainly not acceptable when viewed against our international competitors who could not recall a single outage in over a decade! With the freedom to import equipment, we sourced a 5 MW gas turbine and a heat recovery steam generator from the USA to have a very reliable captive cogeneration plant, combining sound engineering with economics.
With the help of mathematical modelling and various engineering optimisation approaches, each plant, process and major equipment was subjected to detailed study to maximise its productivity. Newer catalysts, debottleneck studies, change in distillation column packings, recovery of byproducts from effluent streams, energy optimisation were a few of the approaches which resulted in capacity and efficiency enhancement from existing old assets with the least capital expenditure.
Raw Material Sourcing
The company’s manufacturing facility was conceived in the 1960s as being downstream to a petrochemical cracker located in its proximity. However, the cracker, from which the major raw materials were sourced, itself became a victim of the economic reforms and ceased operations. There were no nearby facilities which could completely substitute this source. Alternate sources were located almost 1000 km away, in Northern, Southern and Eastern India. Moreover, the raw materials were hazardous to transport, especially on Indian roads, and needed special tankers. As GST was not even at a conceptual stage, crossing State borders added to turnaround time. The urge and hope to continue operations despite the closure of the principal supplier of feedstocks resulted in multiple other sources being developed with elaborate logistics infrastructure and quality measures, to bring in thousands of tonnes month after month over these long distances
The multinational company, which became the major shareholder, had two other sites in India, which were both consistently in deep red, with no visible prospects. It was contemplating their closure, to save the mounting losses. After studying the business models, we proposed the acquisition of these sites and a merger with our company with a one-year target to turn them around. With a robust strategy in place, these were indeed turned around and are today among the best sites of the MNC.
To conclude, this is a brief account of just a few of the many measures drawn from a company’s survival kit. It would illustrate that a combination of sound Engineering, Economics and Strategy, driven by Hope and supported by Teamwork (plus, of course, IITB education!), can help in converting many difficult challenges into major opportunities.
It has affected us at two levels – as a society and as individuals. It has disrupted economies, social interactions, travel, and changed the way we live and conduct our lives. As a society, it should force us to rethink how and why it has happened and how to prevent such occurrences in the future. On an individual level, some of us lost our dear and near ones, and many of us have lost our means of livelihood.
Can there be anything good about this year? Yes, every cloud has a silver lining. My attitude towards life is to accept what is in the past because it cannot be changed and look for the lessons to be learnt. Since there is a cloud, then let us find the silver lining. Let me share what I have been trying to do at my individual level to make us better equipped to fight such and other threats to our health.
The silver lining I find is the change in thinking about health. The realisation that people with obesity and co-morbidities like diabetes have far more risk of succumbing to the virus has made people more conscious about their physical health and the quality of their immune system. People have realised that taking medicines lifelong to manage symptoms of these diseases is not an optimal strategy because the root cause does not get treated. There are no medicines that can improve these parameters and also the quality and strength of our immune system. This realisation has made people willing to take responsibility for their health into their own hands. People have also realised the value of a good diet and non-sedentary lifestyles. This is a very welcome change.
I had been trying to spread this message for the last five years without much success. People were content to take medicines because treating the root cause puts onus on them to make changes in their lifestyles. We must realise that the nature of killer diseases has completely changed over the last three centuries. Previously diseases like smallpox, malaria and the plague were the killer diseases. Today the killer diseases are cancer, heart attack, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, etc. These diseases were not even heard of just two hundred years back. They are fundamentally different from the contagious diseases described earlier. The cause is not external but internal (chronic inflammation and insulin resistance). Medicine only manages the symptoms but does not even attempt to cure them. If one understands the biochemistry of these diseases and makes changes in diet to be in tune with our genetics and evolutionary make up, then these diseases can be reversed or their risk can be reduced substantially.
My own metabolic health was not good till fifteen years back. I was not happy with the dogma of the medical fraternity that these are progressive diseases and there is no cure. Being a chemical engineer and having worked as a research scientist, I had all the basic knowledge. I decided to add to this knowledge and studied and received diploma-level degrees from many reputed global universities. These were in the field of Genetics, Evolution, Biochemistry, Brain Science, Diabetes, Nutrition and Exercise. What I found was a shocking revelation for me. I saw that a proper diet and lifestyle can reverse all these Metabolic Syndrome Diseases like Diabetes, Blood Pressure, Cardiovascular disease, Cancer, Alzheimer’s. I was happy to try out this science myself and benefited tremendously. Today my health is far better than what it was 12 years ago when I retired.
Encouraged by my own results, I started forming small groups of 20 to 25 people to share this insight with them three years back. My philosophy was not to just give a list of what to do and what not to do, but to explain the underlying biochemistry to the group. Most people started with total skepticism. As time passed, everyone started getting convinced because the science was very clear and convincing. People started following the protocol and started getting fantastic results. Everyone lost weight, many people were able to stop their medicines for diabetes and became metabolically healthy. The knowledge was spreading but it had a problem of scalability. Personal interaction has its limitations. I started exploring if I could use other methods using social media platforms.
During the coronavirus epidemic, I floated the idea of forming a group called “Metabolic Health Science” for IIT alumni. The idea was to explain, through recorded audios, all aspects of health with a focus on metabolic diseases. Participants could listen at their own convenience – this solved the limitation of geography and having to attend at a particular time. Monthly Zoom meetings provided some face-to-face interaction.
We were hoping that 50 IITians would join. This is where awareness and interest about health created by coronavirus helped. We were overwhelmed by the response. To keep the group manageable, we decided to close the group at 80 participants. But we kept on getting more and more requests to join. Finally we had a group of 180 very interested IITians. We started two months ago and so far 45 audio lessons have been shared. We will soon start following a protocol. People are already making small but important changes in their diet and have already started deriving significant health benefits. In another three months, many would have lost up to ten kg of weight, stopped most medicines and considerably reduced their risk of metabolic diseases. What is more, they will have a much better immune system to fight off the virus in case they get infected.
We are focusing not only on physical health but also on psychological health, on how to eliminate stress from our lives and become happy no matter what.
I am glad to share this experience with the broader IIT community and thank the Fundamatics editors for giving me this opportunity. I hope that the readers will feel motivated to take responsibility for their own health in their own hands.
Being healthy is your right and you must exercise it. It can be done and you should do it. All the best.
Artwork by Harshita Bandodkar
The Book Club Pune, now in existence for 18 years, was founded by Satish and Mohini Khot in December 2002. We began to meet on the last Monday of each month at the United Services Library located on the premises of the Poona Club. We then started meeting on the last Wednesday of each month at 6:00 pm at Gyan Adab, Lane 3, Kalyani Nagar.
We discuss both fiction and non-fiction, and even films, of current interest. The average number of participants is around 40 to 50 but we have had even 125 on an occasion. Our mailing list borders on a thousand.
The selection of books to be discussed is very democratic. Participants volunteer to present a book they have found to be significant. After they offer a brief description of it, the group present decides to list it or not. We try to announce books two, three months in advance so that people can buy/borrow/read the book in readiness for the session. However, there are always some who have not read the book but come with an eagerness to know about it. Therefore the modus operandi we have developed is that of a presentation followed by a discussion. There are always questions galore and inevitably a very interesting, thought-provoking and fruitful conversation ensues.
Satish Khot and Mohini Khot founded the Pune Book Club in 2002.
We take pride in having managed to keep this activity open for all. Anyone can come. Everyone is welcome. The sole idea is to encourage reading and meaningful discussion of ideas. Our participants span a wide range of age groups and professions. What we share is a love and respect for books. We have had authors present their books themselves. Among them are Priya Sarukkai Chhabria, Raj Rao, Deepak Dalal, Kavita Kane, Sujata Sabnis, Saaz Agarwal, Pankaj Sekhsaria, Salil Desai, Sunanda Mehta. Avni Doshi, the author of Burnt Sugar, shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, also graced us with his presence.
Other than discussion of books, we have also had book launches, screening of documentaries, discussion of films, comparison of books with their film adaptations. We celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday with recitations and enactments by our own members and were featured on national TV by the NDTV channel. We have had screenings for children, followed by an interactive discussion. Increasingly, the presentations have been audio-visual ones, or incorporating slides. We have also held story telling sessions and poetry recitations. We have had quizzes and language games.
The sole idea is to encourage reading and meaningful discussion of ideas. Our participants span a wide range of age groups and professions.
Interestingly, we also organized a “Wake” in the Irish style when bidding a sad farewell to the popular book shop Manneys when they closed down. In the Irish tradition, there was food and (soft) drinks laid on (brought by some of us)! There were a few enactments, like the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, and some eulogies and memories connected with our experience of the shop throughout our reading lives.
A fairly recent spin-off that emerged from The Book Club Pune was a new forum called Between the Lines. After several requests for discussions on classics from literature, we decided to create a separate platform for this. Another no-membership-fee, no-holds-barred discussion platform, Between the Lines, had its maiden session on Wednesday 12th July 2017 at Gyan Adab with a presentation and discussion of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the only epic poem in English. It was an experiment and, since it drew an audience of 50+, we decided to make it an ongoing monthly event.
The lockdown brought its own problems. Denied the possibility of getting together in a physical space, we switched to an online meeting using Zoom. Believe it or not but since March we now meet every Sunday evening! It has been wonderful to keep in touch with our fellow book lovers online. In fact, because of the online format, people have been able to join us from around the world! We now have people joining from Canada, the USA, England, Switzerland, Hong Kong, France, and several cities in India. I guess every cloud has a silver lining and the loss of physical meeting has been counter-balanced by a widening of the reach. Our sessions are live streaming on Facebook and are archived on the Gyan Adab website, available any time. It is heartening to see 700+ viewers on Facebook for some of the sessions!
Illustration by Divya Vedagiri
Illustration by Amlan Barai
The alarm startled me from my deep sleep. One more cold morning in February 2013 and I set out to my first outdoor class on the gymkhana grounds, refreshed and ready in my usual tracksuit. The 6:00 am class near the football and athletic fields was to tell the story on the Experimental Typography. About a dozen outgoing graduate students of Design were eager participants in my Typography class.
All illustrations by the author
As a reminder, this is a regular column covering entrepreneurs and their journeys in startup-land. Our hope is to give the reader a behind-the curtains look at what it takes to build a startup. We will cover stories of entrepreneurs who succeeded as well as those who had to shut their startup and the trials and tribulations along the way. If you are an entrepreneur or know of one, please reach out to us!