The news came suddenly on Saturday, August 30, 2008, morning that eminent industrialist and long-time Rajya Sabha Member Krishna Kumar Birla had breathed his last in Kolkata. He was a little short of his 90th birthday. It was the passing of an era – for Indian industry and the Indian media.
The son of the founder of the House of Birla, GD Birla, KK Birla was also the Chairman of HT Media, one of India’s largest newspaper houses that publishes the Hindustan Times. The Hindustan Times, among India’s largest dailies, has been published since1924 and has roots in the independence movement. When he took charge of HT, it was far from being a profitable company, leave alone being among India’s most successful and diversified media companies that it became under his stewardship. His daughter, Shobhana Bhartia, is the Vice-chairman of HT Media.
That is not surprising. Like the Amrita Bazar Patrika of the Ghosh family in Kolkata, the HT too was a child of the fierce nationalist spirit sweeping the nation in the first half of the 20th century. Both had roots in the independence movement and were created out of a desire to counter the press of that time, owned or controlled by the British, and to carry the nationalist view to Indians.
K M Panikkar was its first Editor with Devdas Gandhi, son of Mahatma Gandhi, also on the editor's panel. The opening ceremony was performed by Mahatma Gandhi on September 15, 1924. The first issue was published from Naya Bazar, Delhi (now Swami Sharda Nand Marg). Over time, HT has been edited by well-known figures like Devdas Gandhi, BG Verghese and Khuswant Singh.
Birla has for long been a force behind the Indian sugar industry, which he had joined in his early-20s. Besides media and sugar, his empire spans some 40 firms in fertilizers, chemicals, heavy engineering, textiles and shipping. The companies include Zuari Industries, Chambal Fertilizers, Paradeep Phosphates, Sutlej Industries, Birla Textile Mills, Oudh Sugar Mills, Texmaco, Simon India, India Steamship, and ISG Novasoft.
He has headed several institutions like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), the Indian Sugar Mills Association (ISMA) and the International Chambers of Commerce (ICC). As FICCI president and Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Chandrasekhar said, “He was an outstanding visionary, a great parliamentarian, a business leader par excellence and a builder of modern educational and scientific institutions.”
KK Birla was perhaps among the last of a generation of Indian industrialists who knew Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and always believed that it was the duty of industry to contribute to the task of nation-building. He was close to Indira Gandhi who saw him as a friend irrespective of which way her political fortunes blew.
Along with another legendary second-generation industrialist, late JRD Tata, Birla had co-authored what is called the “Bombay Plan” (not to be confused with the Bombay Club) that outlined the role of business and the government in building a nation. The seeds of corporate social responsibility in India were sown in that document which also spoke about the role of industries, entrepreneurs and policy makers in modernising and developing what was then a backward India.
With a deep commitment to philanthropy and education, KK Birla, who was born in Pilani, Rajasthan, on October 12, 1918, built one of India’s foremost engineering institutions, the Birla Institute of Science and Technology. He was involved in many philanthropic interests such as the Birla Temple in Delhi , the RadhaKrishna Temple and the GD Birla Sabhaghar in Kolkata to name a few.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who as India's Finance Minister in the early 90s was the architect of the reforms programme, had said last December while releasing Birla's autobiography ‘Brushes with History’: “There were many business leaders who were worried, who were apprehensive, who were nervous about the changes...But Birla understood the importance and the relevance of what we were doing and I valued his support then as I value it now.”
The book, published by Penguin, has vignettes of his relations with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Rajendra Prasad, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Jayaprakash Narayan, Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai.