03 January 2017 10:54:11 IST

Malathy Sriram writes poems and short stories for children and adults, as well as book reviews and articles of general interest. She is a post-graduate in English Literature from Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai. Her work has been published in Indian Express, Deccan Herald, Mirror and Femina. She has edited website content and is the editor of The Small Supplement, an online magazine for children with articles on history, science, arts and culture, sports, technology, companies and brands, mythology and short stories. Reading, teaching English, listening to music (all genres) and singing complete her oeuvre.

A <i>swadeshi</i> venture that has stood <br> the test of time</br>

Read about Bengal Chemicals, which was India's first pharmaceutical company launched in 1901

It was with a rush of nostalgia that I started writing on this topic. One of the few things I remember from my childhood (for no conceivable reason) is the spate of instructions that came with the list I had to hand in at the neighbourhood store. Brand names for soaps and talcums aside, I vividly recall always being told to ask the storekeeper to specifically supply “only ‘Bengal Chemicals’ naphthalene balls”.

Now, when I look up the well-remembered name, I discover that it was a pioneering venture — it is the first pharmaceutical company of India. It was founded by Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861-1944), the father of Indian chemistry and a man who dedicated his life to scientific research and to the nurturing of bright young minds who would carry on the tradition.

How it began

In the late 19 th and early 20 th century, Bengal witnessed the launch of many entrepreneurial ventures, most of which were born as social or swadeshi movements. These were set up to challenge European businesses, which held a monopoly in most areas. Of these, only a few survived the onslaught of time — and Bengal Chemicals is one such company.

PC Ray, who had studied abroad and received a doctorate in science from Edinburgh University, was, first and foremost, a scientist with an analytical, research-oriented mind. This was coupled with the passionate belief that “Indians can make anything that the British can”.

While serving as assistant professor of chemistry at Presidency College (now University) in Kolkata, he noticed that most medicines and drugs had to be imported and even then, not all Indians could afford them.

In 1892, he put his entire savings of ₹700 (a huge amount in those days) into setting up a company that would manufacture drugs using indigenous raw materials and technology.

Being well-versed in ancient Hindu medical treatises (he authored A History of Hindu Chemistry from the Earliest Times to the Middle of Sixteenth Century in 1902), he converted the outhouse of his residence into a temporary laboratory, conducted experiments and came up with Ayurvedic formulations that met British Pharmacopeia standards.

Growing years

He was joined by other enthusiastic and bright young minds, and the company grew steadily. Its manufacturing facility was first established at Maniktala in 1901. It was named Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceutical Works (more popular among consumers as Bengal Chemicals). Three more factories followed — one at Panihati in 1920, another at Mumbai in 1938 and at Kanpur in 1949.

By the 1930s, the company was well-established and making a name for itself outside Kolkata. Leading physicians of the day endorsed its preparations; it had shareholders across the country and it looked as though the combination of swadeshi fervour, scientific knowledge and commercial acumen was paying off.

The brand’s Cantharidine Hair Oil, Aqua-Ptychotis anti-flatulent digestive, Phenol floor cleaner and naphthalene balls became extremely popular. (The founder is said to have resigned in the early 1930s, citing paucity in research funding.) By the 1950s, Bengal Chemicals was dominating the field of floor cleaners, pharmaceuticals and chemicals.

The downward curve

No one could have anticipated that such a successful concern (its annual revenue from the three product lines mentioned above were supposedly around ₹1.5 crore — in the 1950s!) would start losing ground.

By mid-1950s, it started incurring losses. In 1977, the government took over the company’s management. It was nationalised in 1980 and renamed Bengal Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals Ltd (BCPL) in 1981. The losses started piling up. By 1992, it was declared a sick firm and placed under the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR).

The decline has been attributed to excess manpower, lack of market awareness and the fact that Bengal Chemicals’ products had remained mostly unchanged over the years. While product consistency helped maintain a loyal customer base, it has not expanded it through innovation and adaptation. Its phenol floor cleaner, to cite one case, is still sold in glass bottles!

The revival

The company has started showing improvement only in the last three to four years. Well-founded revival plans have helped it during the turnaround phase. Procurement methods have been fine-tuned to cut losses; production facilities have been upgraded; new facilities (tablet, capsule and ointment sections) have been commissioned as part of expansion strategies of existing ones and the company even plans to rope in a marketing firm to reposition and promote its products to increase sales.

The distribution network has been strengthened across India. Today, BCPL has 11 sales outlets/depots, over 500 stockists and 10 C&F agencies.

In 2015-16, it posted a turnover of more than ₹88 crore, up from about ₹45 crore in the previous year, surpassing the target set by the government. The present managing director PM Chandraiah is confident that it will make a profit in 2016-17.

BCPL touches every aspect of our lives with its variety of brands supporting cleanliness, health and hygiene. It manufactures industrial chemicals like sulphuric acid and ferric alum; both generic and branded pharmaceuticals (in tablet, capsule, liquid, ointment and injectable forms); bulk drugs; household products like its well-known naphthalene balls, bleaching powder, Phenol (phenyl) disinfectant, Lysol detergent, White Tiger floor cleaner and Kleen toilet cleaner; and cosmetics like Cantharidine hair oil and Aguru perfume. Other products include surgical equipment, anti-venom serums and vaccines. Pharmaceuticals contribute to about 60 per cent of the turnover.

A full circle

BCPL follows strict standards of quality control, as is evident from its WHO-GMP (World Health Organisation — Good Manufacturing Practice) and DGQA (Directorate General of Quality Assurance) certifications and ISO-9001 license. The company has received orders from about 15 State governments (surprisingly, none from West Bengal).

There is still a long way to go before BCPL comes out of BIFR. It has requested the government to convert loans to equity and waive the accumulated interest to speed up the process. However, one positive feature is that the company has assets of about ₹1,500 crore (its Mumbai (factory in Prabhadevi is now worth more than ₹1000 crore).

Another factor is the customer loyalty. When a store was recently opened at its Kolkata head office, it immediately attracted footfalls.

When the Government of India recommended BCPL’s cleanliness products for the ‘Swachch Bharat Mission’, it was like completing a full circle for an organisation that started on the swadeshi note. An added incentive came in the form of the “Excellent Rating of Corporate Governance” award it received for 2015-2016 from the Department of Public Enterprises.