The Industrious Malayali and His Un-Industrialised Kerala


Kochouseph Chittilappilly was visibly agitated and vehemently protesting as he spoke of the despicable menace called militant trade unionism in Kerala, the bane of all entrepreneurial spirits, and the destroyer of many a dream project that would have offered employment to the needy youth, and created the much-needed wealth for the economically backward state.

We were sipping tea post breakfast in the dining hall of his sprawling villa beside the Edappally-Vyttila bypass of National Highway 47 in Kochi when I brought up the topic in reference to the on-going work-stoppage agitation in a leading mineral factory in southern Kerala. It was in the year 2001.

“Look at the irony of it all,” Kochouseph, the founder of renowned Indian brands, V Guard, V Star and Wonderla, hailed as the model industrialist, and realistic thinker on social issues, elaborated. “We, startup entrepreneurs, beg and borrow to invest in risky ventures, and toil day and night to reach the break-even point, when a band of trade union comrades appear demanding nokku kooli (charges for gawking) for doing nothing and persuading their followers to clamour for rights, forgetting their responsibilities. What right do they have over my hard-earned pennies, other than the fair wages offered? Enough is enough, I have decided to move our manufacturing units to Tamil Nadu where rule of law is still paramount, and once you pay the ‘dues’, you are left alone to pursue the dream.”

And, he did. The struggling young engineer, who wanted to work at Keltron, borrowed a small sum of money from his father in 1977 and created V Guard for the design and assembly of electrical stabilisers, after Keltron failed to recognise the budding genius and hire him. Kochouseph walked the talk and set up a series of units in the neighbouring state, which are all flourishing, undisturbed by the diary-wielding comrades, as is the case in Kerala, providing work and wages to hundreds of Tamilians who look up to him as their master and saviour.

Some years later, the same scenario was re-enacted in the hilly village of Adimali, close to Munnar in the Idukki district of Kerala where the globally-acclaimed spices and food products company, Eastern Condiments, was struggling to help make a difference for the better in the lives of the poor folks around. M E Meeran, a provision store owner, decided to dream big, and plunged into the processing of spices, an integral part of Indian cuisine world over. He soon struck gold through sheer dint of hard work, turning Adimali into a prosperous town, in the process. Adimali since then is known as the spices capital of South India.

Enter the above-mentioned revolutionaries in droves, turning the spicy, bright days of Meeran into a long-winding nightmare. Like Chittilappilly, he too decided to cross over to Tamil Nadu, and continue his expansion plans based in that entrepreneur-friendly State. The rest is part of recent history as is the inspiring story of Kochouseph and his ilk.

Often times, during my many travels in India and abroad, one of the few questions I had difficulty responding to was: why is it that industrious Malayalees are unable to industrialise their State on the same lines as Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, even as they script scores of industry success stories in other states of India, and many pockets abroad?

Perhaps, the perfect answer to the query can be derived from the bitter experiences of the do-or-die heroes like (the late) M E Meeran and Kochouseph Chittilappilly, as also many others who brave the scorching heat to breast the tape of