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The tale of three patriots

Chandru Chawla, a pharma veteran, reviews the book titled, 'Caring for Life - The Cipla Story', written by Tulsi Vatsal on the journey of Cipla over eight decades and reminisces on the role of Cipla's founder and its subsequent leaders in making India not only self-reliant in medicine but also the 'Pharmacy of the world'

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As I write this on Martyr’s Day, I can’t help but notice that a key protagonist of this story was a staunch follower of Gandhi, who laid the foundations of his enterprise on Gandhian principles and whose successor has retained that DNA to this day. Tulsi Vatsal, in her effort of tome-ic proportions, has charted the journey of Cipla over eight decades that runs alongside the country’s birth and its subsequent growth as an industrial nation of substance. “Caring for Life – The Cipla Story” is the story of three patriots – the founder Dr K A Hamied, his son Dr Y K Hamied and their baby, Cipla. 

Derek Monteiro, is an artist, poet and composer, who dabbles in jazz to annoy and disperse pesky pigeons on his windowsill

Dr K A Hamied passed his formative years in the cradle of the country’s struggle for independence. Watching Nehru during his student days and later spending time with Gandhi at Sabarmati instilled in him the values of equality, equity, compassion for being of service to others. There are many anecdotes that demonstrate his steely resolve and his determination to live by these principles – realising early that colonialism should also be tackled by the pursuit of high science and industrialisation, doggedly finding means to pursue higher studies in an alien land in an alien language, seeking a life partner that broke social taboos of the day, standing up to assert his national identity to a leader of Jinnah’s stature, realising his higher purpose in building an enterprise that would make a young nation self-reliant. That Gandhi chose to visit Cipla on the eve of World War II, led the company to make a historic contribution to the freedom movement, by offering medicines for the war effort. Gandhi was expected to negotiate a dominion status for India in exchange for helping the British in the War. This incident may have cemented into firm resolve, Dr K Hamied’s aspirations to make India self-reliant in medicine. 

Dr Y K Hamied’s journey is no less spectacular. Mentored by a Nobel laureate at Cambridge, he returned to India to find the country shackled by patent laws, a developing nation could ill afford. He was clear that the country could move forward to a Golden Era, only if these laws were repealed. The government listened and in the early 70s, a new Patent Act came into being. The passion for chemistry that had taken him to Cambridge, now came into full bloom, with a typically Indian knack for frugal innovation. The dollar-a-day initiative to tackle HIV, then the world’s most debilitating health crisis, is the stuff of legend. Vatsal reveals the behind-the-scenes story that led to this moment and why it took time for the world to take notice before it came to be recognised as a masterstroke that changed the course of that pandemic. The story also underlines the greed for profiteering that was the hallmark of the big, global pharmaceutical companies of the day. All this was to later become the plot of an award-winning documentary, “Fire in the Blood”. As the country became stronger and on its path to becoming the pharmacy capital of the world, it became imperative for it to play by the global rules. Putting nation first, Dr Y K Hamied was again at the forefront in shaping the way India took on obligations in the WTO. Championing the country’s right to compulsory licensing in times of dire need and to disallow intellectual property on frivolous innovation, ensured that the nation always stayed on top of access and affordability of essential medicines. 

The baby, nurtured by the father and son duo and thousands of passionate co-workers, is the third patriot of the tale – Cipla. Vatsal has carefully chronicled Cipla’s eight-decade journey across multiple orbits. Its pioneering effort in the early days was to establish credibility around Indian science and medicine. Another landmark effort was the use of scientific education to propel awareness around diseases like HIV and asthma and to systematically bust the social taboos around them. Always a technological champion, it brought advanced technologies to India and often indigenised them successfully. Visible successes were the introduction of cutting edge, affordable Inhalers that revolutionised respiratory disease treatment. Its Cipla Palliative Care Centre remains a shining example of considerate philanthropy. Its bold leadership – in the wake of labour unrest or to scale up capacity in a visionary manner or voluntarily drop prices of essential cancer medicine, or to plan a successful global transformation – has now become “business school folklore”. 

The book is laced with a treasure trove of pictures of national and international leaders, of an India that embraced pluralism and scientific temper, of a modern and welcoming Bombay, and of a spirit that embodies humanity and “Caring for Life”

Vatsal ends on a hopeful note – that with values of compassion and equity – businesses can become powerful drivers of social good. Cipla and its founders have shown the way. 

(Note: Chandru Chawla is Executive VP, Cipla and writes on management, leadership, environment conservation and human rights. The views expressed above are personal)

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