Ore, and more

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By Frederick Noronha

cover-anarchitectofmoderngoaIt’s always fascinating to read about the movers and shakers in any society. More so when these stories come from the otherwise little-discussed world of business. Not only do these narratives give an insight into the lives and times of the people that were, but they give deeper hints into how society works, what makes it tick.

Here we have the story of a doyen of Goan business, Vishwasrao Chowgule. In tiny Goa, along with other big names like the Dempos, Salgaocars, the Chowgules, the Menezeses, the Timblos (and a handful of others) have shaped the world of business. And, one could say, in some cases, even politics, economics, news, and education.

This book was first published nearly a generation ago, around 1975. But those were times when reviews of new titles hardly happened — probably less than even now. So, the recent second edition of this title is an excuse to look at it once over again.

Amidst Mario Miranda’s typical drawings — even the dusty port of Mormugao looks scenic when seen this way — we get an image of Goa that was, and how it was “built” up. Between a plethora of figures, and facts, an interesting picture emerges.

We see colonial Goa growing on iron-ore, in times when the world was itself recovering from the ravages of World War II. Strangely enough, it was the losers of the war — the Japanese and the Italians, through Sesa then — that depended more on Goan ore to reconstruct.

Interesting tidbits emerge from the many stories included in this compiled volune. Did you know, for instance, that the first Japanese ore-carrier ‘Shozen Maru’ sailed for its first consignment exported by the Chowgules way back in 1950. Ore was brought in country craft from the Sirigao mines! The Chowgule brothers supervised the loading operations personally.

We hear shades of the debate which still continue till this day: Was Goan ore being sold cheap to Japan? If so, why? How did Goan ore compared with Australian? Should Goa have its own steel plant?

In times where only a handful of books, if at all, were published on Goa each year, this one takes on wider strokes. For instance, it has an essay by author, journalist and art-critic Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, who talks of “the cultural heritage of Goa”.

In between the hard-bound covers, what we come across here are contributions from various persons who knew Vishwasrao Chowgule. They comment on his role in various spheres — the Goan (and Indian) economy, economic and capitalist growth in Goa, Goa-Japanese ties in the iron ore trade (from an era when Japan, not China, was Goa’s main buyer), and tributes from fellow industrialists, friends and admirers.

mscbThe last category includes individuals as diverse as former Lt. Governor S.K. Banerji, ex-chief minister (and mineowner herself) Shashikala Kakodkar, and ambassadors, judges, union leaders, ex-MPs and former editors. Few of our generation, for instance, would hear a bell in the name of V.H. Coelho — the Consul General in Goa between 1951-54, before the post-Independent Government of India imposed its economic blockade on this former Portuguese colony.

This is V.M. Salgaocar, the head of another business empire in Goa, talking about Vishwasrao Chowgule in 1975: “My association with Shri Vishwasrao has been both long and rewarding. We first chanced to meet on the train from Vasco to Mormugao, about forty years ago. He gave an impression of energy and enerstness. Later he built himself up into a leading industrialist and businessman. Since then several business and social occasions have brought us together. During such meetings I discovered that Shri Vishwasrao, who can be strong and firm, even tough, in business negotiations, can also relax and be full of human warmth.”

Beyond the kind words, it could be noted that here are two whose thoughts and preferences shaped the Goa that we know. Both played a key role, directly or otherwise, in shaping the language controvery of the 1980s, for instance.

One slightly confusing element is the inclusion of recent images and photographs in the generation-old book. So, it would appear, the picture of the now-plush Chowgule College (in Margao) and the Chowgule House, overlooking the waters, are more recent additions to the earlier book.

Because of the structure of the book — a story told through the eyes of many who knew the man — there is some element of repetition, and one has to scour its many pages to build a comprehensive picture. Yet, this does emerge, given some patience.

For instance, we have a story of the Chowgules starting with their small-scale units, and textile mill, and the superprofits of World War II, the mining boom of the 1950s, and their spread to many other fields by the time the book was written. Among these: Vishwasrao as a tally clerk in the Mormugao Harbour earning Rs 1.50 per day, mining, of course, steamships, pesticides, beer, textiles, newspapers, machine tools, oxygen, fisheries, education (both a college and schools), and the like. There have been changes, of course, since the book was written.

Old-timers might recall the potential for fast money in World War II Goa, when this small territory was still Portugal and neutral. Madhav Gadkari, the former editor, gives a hint of the kind of money that could be made then. Coal costs under Rs 2 in Goa, and got sold for Rs 8 to “Arab traders”, who then got Rs 20 from the armed forces. “Shri Vishwasrao once purchased 1000 tonnes of ordinary teak wood at Rs 30 per ton, and sold it at Rs 1000 per ton. Ordinary bamboos were purchased at Rs 50 per thousand and sold at Rs 200 or Rs 300 per thousand,” writes Gadkari. Even a “large stock of coconut oil” lyig idle in Goa found buyers via the Swiss Banking Corporation!

But there are also hints of those sometimes tough and unusual times. Some 15 lakh tonnes of iron ore were exported, and the Japanese offered a $15 lakh loan. This came in the form of material and money for the mechanisation of the Sirigaon mines. Czechoslovakia, which had been importing iron ore from Goa, did a barter deal with the Chowgules, which was how a complete beer manufacturing plant came up in the village of Arlem, near Margao.

Yet Vishwasrao Chowgule saw opportunity open up after Portuguese rule ended, and, in 1972, the Lok Sabha was apparently told that Vishwasrao Chowgule was the “wealthiest man in the country” (p. 93).

We’re reminded that in the 1971 census, the Goa, Daman and Diu combined population was just around 800,000 and “expected to reach (the) one million mark in 1980”. In Portuguese times itself, went the complaint, being a “tourist centre” drew freely-spending visitors, raising the prices here. Price of land had “sky-rocketed” and labour was costlier too, it was rationalised, meaning that the boom in mining led to importing labour from beyond the border.

The Portuguese raised their employees’ pay-packets “in order to win over their loyalty”. Anything different from today? And, so went the argument, labour costs were “considered so prohibitive at one time by the Goan landlords that they preferred to neglect the agricultural lands rather than engage in high-cost labour”. Rural industries and agro-industries were talked about optimstically even then, but looking back, the promises have not fructified.

This is a story anyone trying to understand Goa of the 20th century would do well to read; it helps to understand the back-story in some ways.

An Architect of Modern Goa
M.V. Rajadhyaksha (Ed).
Illustrations: Mario Miranda
Reprinted 2010
Pp 266. No price mentioned.


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