Ethics, Entrepreneurship& Swadeshi: A Tribute to Madhu Babu

Nineteenth century Odisha had a flourishing industrial base. The weaving of cotton cloths, silk, brass, metal, filigree & leather constituted the core of Orissa’s rural industry. Sadly, they had all vanished due to the wanton neglect of the ruling elite. In to such an industrially sclerotic Odisha entered Madhu Babu in 1881.  Many believe that 1881 to 1934 witnessed unparalleled development in the making of a modern Odisha state, whose helmsman was Madhu Sudan Das. He resuscitated Odia pride in terms of its language and made it the first state being carved out on linguistic lines in 1936.  He was not only the 1st MA from Odisha, the first to become an advocate but was a trail blazer in melding ethics with entrepreneurship in Odisha.

Madhu  Babu believed that development of indigenous industry is the key to economic re-generation and real self-pride.  He was anguished that we cover our bodies with clothes produced in other countries when Sambalpur was famous for its artistic textiles and Berhampur for its Pata saris.   Taking stock of Orissa’s indigenous strength in metal works, Madhu Babu set up Odisha Art ware in 1897 for production of indigenous art wares. 100 trainees were engaged in this work and 150 weavers were given training. Madhu Babu presented filigree articles to many British officers and  Bengal Governor, so that they are aware of the artistic depth of its artisans. He was fulsomely praised for the filigree work and ivory products.

Apart from setting of Orissa Art Wares, Madhu Babu’s other significant contribution has been setting up the Utkal Tannery in a 40 acres of land where high quality leather shoes were produced, targeting the global market.  Much before Total Quality Management became an accepted way of life in production, MadhuBabu applied all its principles  to his Utkal tannery. It had 150 workers who had excellent skill in shoe making.  Madhu Babu had practically witnessed the skills in shoe making factories of England and replicated them in Utkal tannery. He had observed that shoe prepared out of lizard skin had high demand in European country. Accordingly, he started collecting lizard skin from different parts of Odisha. This experiment had a wonderfulsynergetic effect between the untouchable who collected such skins and leather and factory workers who transcended the stigma ofworking with the untouchables. Gandhi had observed that Utkal tannery had shown the way, how untouchability   can be removed by the working arrangement in Utkal Tanneries. Much before Joseph Schumpeter talked of innovation as the life of breath of capitalism, Madhu Babu had experimented in Orissa through Orissa Art Wares & Utkal Tanneries, the essence of innovation. 

There was a concern that the prices of the shoe being produced in Utkal tannery   were much higher than imported shoe. Madhubabu in a powerful speech to promote Swadeshi movement on 20th august 1985 had observed: General Togo of Japan was using shoe made only in Japan and English men buy English shoe at a high cost than the German shoes. He was strongly of the belief that if we promote indigenous products with indigenous efforts, higher cost should not matter in the long term development of Odisha. Madhubabu suffered heavy losses due to his insistence to reject slightly defective shoes and his factory which was valued at Rs 2.5 lakh had to be auctioned for 65 thousand rupees. He was declared insolvent and bankrupt. But in the eyes of the Odias he was the only bankable entrepreneur and credible leader in every way.

In the Odisha of today we find that despite enormity of Orissa’s mineral resources, the industrial landscape of Odisha is significantly behind states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Odisha’s record in terms of production of chromite had come down from 36.5 lakh tones in 2017-18 to 27.9 lakh tons in 2020-21. Besides the Economic Survey (2021-22) brings out how production of manganese had also come down from 5.4 lakh ton to 5 lakh ton. The mining sector has witnessed a significant drop in its growth in 2021 (-23.3%). The other disquieting area in Odisha has been its GDP share in the service sector which is only 40% as against 57% nationally.

Madhu babu would have been 174 today. Had he been alive, he would have been anguished by the unsatisfactory progress in industrialization and not harnessing our indigenous strength in textiles, metal work, and filigree fully. The SMEs and unorganized sector do not receive proper state support & handholding in terms access to financial resources from formal source, greater investment in AI, robotics so that these entities avail of the befit of Industry 4.0.   . Our unedifying record in quality primary education, health care and digitization would have anguished him no end. His vision, his primacy of ethics over profiteering and his hope that a linguistically rich Odisha would be one of the front runner in India both in terms of GDP, moral values, has not been realized.On his invitation Lord Curzon visited Puri in 1900 and was gifted an exquisite box in filigree work where the best of Odisha’s religious tradition was engraved. It also contained all petitions. Lord Curzon was overwhelmed. and promised that all the archeological monuments of Odisha would be properly preserved.   Though he died financially bankrupt,  he remains the most treasured son of Odisha who cared for all , transcended caste divide , bolstered  self pride of Odiyas  and made’ local vocal’ , before it became a  rhetoric.

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