THE AV focused on the four distinct and remarkable attributes of SV: freedom fighter, lawyer with mastery over labour issues, entrepreneur and innovator, ever curious to look for new products, new technologies and new solutions.
Chief Minister M G Ramachandran, participating at the inauguration of Ponni Sugars and Chemicals, described SV: “for a human being, the brain is a part of the head. For SV, it is spread throughout his body!”
For over three decades, I had the good fortune of interacting with SV. I had visited several of his prized projects including Seshasayee Paper & Boards, Ponni Sugar units at Erode and Bolangir, Seshasayee Industries, Neyveli Ceramics & Refractories Ltd (NCRL), the ceramic tiles unit at Puducherry and his magnum opus, the Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Ltd. He outlined his dreams at his house Shreyas and office Esvin House; every time I returned with greater admiration!
Between 1942 and 1944, SV spent time in prison at Vellore, Amroti (Maharashtra) and Damoh (UP). He had several other stalwarts of the freedom movement as his fellow inmates. He utilised these precious years to get immersed in the Upanishads, expanding his knowledge in economics (he did his post-graduation in law).
His brilliance as a lawyer...
On his release from the prison, SV joined hands with R Venkataraman, another lawyer deeply involved in the trade union movement. There was a distinct division of work between the two giants: RV focusing on heading trade unions and negotiating with managements for getting due share to labour. It proved a formidable combination.
How he entered business...
SV’s foray into business is unique. V Seshasayee, a prominent entrepreneur of those times, admired SV’s multi-talents and leadership qualities and invited him to join his board. The intriguing aspect: earlier his company lost the case it fought against the labour union advocated by SV!
After Seshasayee’s demise, the mantle of managing the enterprises founded by Seshasayee fell on SV. He brought into play the finest aspects of equity, fairness, integrity and honesty in administering the business units with the Gandhian principle of trusteeship.
When SPB faced difficulties in getting wood, SV conceived the brilliant alternative of using bagasse, as fuel in boilers by sugar mills as quality raw material. I remember his firm conviction that bagasse as the prime product of a sugar mill and not sugar!
Newsprint from bagasse...
Chief Minister M G Ramachandran was deeply impressed by SV’s genius and took the proposal of SV on setting up a large capacity paper and newsprint mill based on bagasse. It involved a capital outlay of Rs 230 crore, quite a huge sum in the 1980s. The plan was indeed ambitious and breathtaking: to persuade six sugar mills to part with bagasse, create a mechanism for transporting and storing these; to agree to provide sugar mills with coal- fired boilers at TNPL’s cost, as also to arrange for uninterrupted supply of coal for these.
The technology was not proven globally. SV and his team of experts had to scout for technology, till then experimented at the pilot plant scale. He got the World Bank to fund a whopping $ 100 million (it was equivalent to Rs 100 crore then). The persuasive ability of SV convinced the lender to fund this project as one of great value to expand literacy in developing countries.
The Finance and Industry secretaries of the Tamil Nadu government at that time were worried about committing such large funding by the state government on a single project of unproven technology. But MGR’s faith and belief in SV was unshakable. He transferred the Industry Secretary and got the project cleared. TNPL emerged among the most profitable of state-owned enterprises across the country.
Such a genius of SV is seen in his other companies like High Energy Batteries for defence applications and other companies like Ponni Sugars set up adjacent to SPB to supply bagasse as feed-stock for SPB.
The Gandhian also desisted from setting up a distillery to utilise molasses as has been done by other sugar companies as money spinners.
Khadi-clad SV was modest to the core, a karma yogi, a mentor to dozens and is remembered for his yen for innovation, technology and sheer brilliance.