Legacy pharma firm which sold ‘Swadeshi’ dysentery drug to Afghans waits and watches after Taliban takeover
Satarupa Mukherjee, director of the 85-year-old East India Pharmaceuticals, is a worried businesswoman as she digests the impact of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
Her firm, based out of Little Russel Street in the heart of Kolkata, used to ship multiple containers every month of its best-selling drug Enteroquinol, used to treat amoebic dysentery, a disease endemic to millions of Indians and Afghans, to a land port near Kabul.
“I don’t know whether our market will remain under Taliban rule. The disease will, but the situation in Afghanistan is obviously not one where we can go out and do business at the moment,” Mukherjee said.
“Our shipments had been irregular for some time as provinces fell one after another, now it has stopped. We can only wait to see what happens next,” she said.
Enteroquinal and eye-drop Locula were among the first drugs that her firm patented, soon after it was founded in 1936 by two friends — Ashoke Kumar Sen and Hirendra Nath Duttagupta, both freedom fighters from Bengal.
The company, which started out in a small garage on Hare Street, was set up as a ‘Swadeshi enterprise’ meant to take on the stranglehold of British drug manufacturers whose medicines were often unaffordable for the common man in the sub-continent.
The idea was to patent and sell ‘Swadeshi’ western-style drugs for ailments common in India.
They were following the footprints of famous chemist Prafulla Chandra Roy, who set up India’s first pharmaceutical firm, Bengal Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals, in 1901 in the same city with the same objective.
“Like Acharya Prafulla Roy, our founders were not interested in becoming rich, their passion was chemistry which could help poor people,” Mukherjee said.
“The aim of that generation of pioneering pharmaceutical entrepreneurs was to make medicines affordable for the masses. When they started out, the political ‘Swadeshi’ spirit guided them,” the company’s managing director Debarshi Duttagupta said.
Debarshi is the grandson of Hirendra Nath Duttagupta, a revolutionary associated with Surya Sen of the Chittagong Armoury raid fame.
Duttagupta was imprisoned by the British for seven years before he turned into a ‘Swadeshi entrepreneur’.
Many Indians enthused by the idea of creating a new industrial awakening in the country, which was not only ruled by the British but had become a typical colony that exported raw material and imported finished products, invested their life’s savings in building enterprises which challenged European mercantile supremacy in the sub-continent and helped make practicable the Congress’ call to boycott British goods.
Kolkata, then the capital of the British Indian Empire, had become a hub of Swadeshi enterprises and a large number of pharmaceutical firms had been set up including Calcutta Chemicals, Alembic Chemicals, G D Pharmaceuticals and Bengal Immunity besides East India and Bengal Chemicals.
Swadeshi textile and jute mills such as Mohini Mohan Cotton Mills, Dhakeshwari Textile Mills and Bharat Jute Mills had also sprung up, as did consumer goods firms, Calcutta Fanworks, Bharat Battery Manufacturing, Bengal Waterproof, Sulekha Inks, Bengal Pottery and India Machinery Company Ltd, and banks such as Comilla Union Bank and Hooghly Bank.
Over a period of time, many of these ‘Swadeshi enterprises’ failed to withstand the rigours of the market and folded up, while some were nationalised.
However, many like East India Pharmaceuticals continue to doggedly fight on.
“We run on the patented development work which our firm has been doing from the very beginning. But our philosophy remains the same, our medicines are usually cheaper than rivals, we do not offer ‘incentives’ to prescribing doctors and we do not believe in laying off workers or cutting their salaries to save costs even during pandemics,” Duttagupta said.
Principles laid out by the founding fathers including one that said no one can be laid off, have proven to be a challenge as East India modernises its drug-making plants.
“We have committed to our board, many of whom worked with the founders, that not one of our 1,500 employees will lose their jobs, even as we bring in ultra-modern processes that reduce human interface in drug making to a bare minimum,” Duttagupta said.
Other rules such as medical representatives not being allowed to offer anything save pens and calendars as gifts to doctors has meant that sales can be pushed only by stressing on quality and legacy goodwill.
“Our turnover of Rs 180 crore or so is tiny when compared to new generic pharma firms which have turned into giants, but we have something few can match in this 75th anniversary of India’s Independence, we are part of that history of fighting for the country’s freedom,” he added.