By the late 1950s Shri Ram was in the seventh decade of his life. After the death of his brother and eldest son he had had no option but to return to DCM on a full-time basis. But his motivation levels were low, and his health was of concern. He tried not to get involved with the day-to-day affairs of the business and to concentrate instead on some of the new ventures he was involved in. Sindri Fertilizers was one such venture, but it was not his own. The textile mill at Hissar was different – it was his own, and it had been set up at the behest of the local government.

Hissar was the home district of Shri Ram as well as the hometown of Sheila – Bharat Ram’s wife. At that time it was part of Punjab and was mostly a wasteland. There was no industry at all. However, the local government was keen to get some industry started. They knew that any industry would be a force multiplier for the local economy. They turned to Shri Ram and requested him to set up a textile mill in Hissar. A textile mill was seen as a venture that would provide many jobs to the locals in one go.

In 1956 Shri Ram was 73 years old and of fragile health. But he could not say no to the local government. He discussed the matter with his sons, who gave him the confidence to go ahead with the venture. With both Bharat Ram and Charat Ram taking on the full responsibility, the construction of the mill and the workers’ colony started. The mill was planned with 25,000 spindles, which increased as the years went by. The workers’ colony had 700 houses with electricity, running water, sewerage lines, consumer cooperative stores, a primary school, a library, an auditorium, a swimming pool, playgrounds and a children’s park and dispensary.

It was around this time that it was mentioned to Shri Ram that there was a need for a third women’s college in Delhi. Miranda House and Indraprastha College were the two women’s colleges in Delhi in 1955, but these were insufficient to take in the number of women wanting to study further. Shri Ram wanted to set up an educational institute in memory of his wife. He thought a girls’ college would be the ideal way to remember Phoolan Devi. He discussed the idea with his sons, as they were the ones now managing the business and finances. If the college had to be established it would need the support of funds from DCM. The sons liked the idea and agreed to give Rs 3 lakh to begin with.

Shri Ram applied to Delhi University to start Lady Shri Ram College for Women. He told the university that the corpus would be put together by DCM and the Commercial Education Trust, which was already running the Shri Ram College of Commerce, also in Delhi University. Lady Shri Ram College came into being in August 1956 in a small building in Daryaganj. The building had been the hostel of the Shri Ram College of Commerce. It was subsequently that the 15 acres of land in south Delhi was bought. Lady Shri Ram College was perhaps the closest to Shri Ram’s heart. He supervised the construction of the college and hostel buildings himself. In spite of his frail health, he would spend time at the construction site and interact with the workers. In the summer there would be an attendant with an umbrella for him. But Shri Ram would ignore it and move quickly from one place to the other, keeping a close eye on the ongoing construction. Any good book he came across would be kept aside, earmarked for the college library.

The new college building was completed in early 1958 and classes began in the new session in July of the same year. It was Shri Ram’s desire that this college become the premier educational institute for women in India. He took a lively personal interest in the running and development of LSR, as the college came to be known popularly. He interviewed all staff personally, especially the faculty. As the chairman of the governing body, he was always present ahead of time for the meetings. All reading material sent to him before each meeting would be studied by him in detail. LSR soon became the college of choice for women even though it was not in the main North Campus of Delhi University. Even today, decades later, Lady Shri Ram College is the first port of call for women seeking admission in a Bachelor’s course in Delhi.

Besides supervising the development of LSR, Shri Ram was actively involved with Jay Engineering. A particular challenge had come up in 1955. Punjab had become a hub for indigenously manufactured sewing machines. Some enterprising Punjabi craftsmen had started making sewing machines in local foundries and selling them in the market at lower rates than those of Usha. Shri Ram was not unduly worried. He believed that a sewing machine was a piece of precision equipment and that local foundries were not capable of delivering the precision required.

The government, however, had other ideas. Jawaharlal Nehru was inclined to promote local small scale industry. The bureaucrats, too, supported the thought, as the big industrialists were looked upon with suspicion by the government. To help the growth of small industry, the government proposed a monthly production limit of 10,000 sewing machines for Jay Engineering. Further, the government was proposing to permit the import of some smaller parts that would enable these cottage industries to manufacture sewing machines and needles. The government was also planning to impose a 10 per cent excise duty on Usha sewing machines.

Shri Ram knew that the Indian government had a socialistic mindset but he was unable to understand the reason for giving preference to cottage industry over larger manufacturing units, especially in relation to products that required precision. He engaged with the government and argued his case. “To be able to export to foreign markets and to give a really satisfactory article to the consumer in this country, the quality must steadily improve at lower and lower prices. This can only be done by large-scale industry provided they are allowed to steadily increase the production and sales,” he argued. He also tried to convince the government that his desire to expand the production capacity was not to make more profits. This was a purely socialistic mindset, he said. He wanted to expand capacities in order to capture foreign markets for India.

Shri Ram was partly successful. The government did not lift the production ceiling but increased it to 25,000 machines per month. Jay Engineering was also given permission to set up a plant to manufacture sewing machine needles. While planning for the new plant, Shri Ram decided to discontinue the production of hurricane lanterns. This was one product that he believed the cottage industry could produce. It was not a precision product, and he wanted Jay Engineering to focus only on those products that required specialisation. Around this time Shri Ram asked his team to set up a
separate plant for Usha fans. The fans business had grown over the years, and Shri Ram believed that it needed a factory of its own. Jay Engineering was already producing over 16 per cent of India’s fans by this time, as per a Government of India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry report. And it was producing a whopping 98 per cent of India’s sewing machines.

Though he fought against the reservation of the production of sewing machines and needles for the cottage industry, Shri Ram realised that the subject of small-scale industry was close to the Prime Minister’s heart. Being the shrewd strategist that he was, Shri Ram decided to advocate the cause of the small sector with enthusiasm. He also saw this as a chance to collaborate with various government departments. Shri Ram drafted a detailed scheme for economic work units. His report had suggestions on how these small units could be supplied with raw materials, at what price they could sell their finished products and how their workers could be housed. He also propagated various community development programmes. One such programme was the setting up of the Usha silai kendras, or sewing institutes.

Shri Ram realised that, while full-fledged tailors were the first target of Usha sewing machines, the housewife could also be trained to use a sewing machine. He foresaw each home having a sewing machine so minor repair jobs and probably some new clothes, especially for the children, could be stitched at home. It was with this thought in mind that Shri Ram set up the Usha silai kendras. He gave his daughters-in-law the responsibility of managing them. These kendras provided training to women in all aspects of sewing. While the kendras in the cities did well, it was in rural India that they found their true calling. The village women flocked to the kendras to learn about stitching and sewing. Shri Ram even provided the Usha machines free of cost to these kendras.

Entrepreneurs Who Built India – Lala Shriram: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow

Excerpted with permission from Entrepreneurs Who Built India – Lala Shriram: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, Sonu Bhasin, HarprCollins India.