2016 was a momentous year for the Kolkata-based Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Ltd, India’s oldest pharmaceutical company established by chemist and entrepreneur Prafulla Chandra Ray. It was in that year that BCPL, whose revenue started to decline following the death of its founder in 1944, recorded an operating profit of Rs 4 crore for the first time in over 60 years.
Following the rise in global demand for hydroxychloroquine, which is now being touted as a game-changer in the fight against the coronavirus, BCPL is back in the spotlight for its production of a similar drug named chloroquine, which is also used for treating malaria. India has now received orders for hydroxychloroquine from several countries across the world. In a bid to step up production, the PSU was issued a licence to manufacture the drug by West Bengal’s Directorate of Drug Control on April 10.
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Established in 1892 with an investment of Rs 700, Bengal Chemicals was among colonial India’s first step towards self-reliance. With Dr Amulyacharan Bose, his student and a successful medical practitioner, Ray moved to create a thriving enterprise that would help prevent an economic disaster by providing jobs to the younger generation.
It was, however, in a setting similar to April 2020 that resolved Ray to take the company to greater heights. Bose passed away on September 4, 1898, after contracting the bubonic plague, which killed millions around that time. “After Amulya’s death, I was left in sole charge of the works… It is enough to state here that the ‘works’ was five years later converted into a limited liability company and in order that its expansive operations might be conducted on a much bigger scale, a plot of land measuring about 13 acres was secured…,” writes Ray in his autobiography, Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist.
In 1920, the company further acquired about 45 acres in Panihati in North 24 Parganas to set up another factory.
Although an entrepreneur, Ray led an austere life. In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi writes about Ray in the chapter, ‘A month with (Gopal Krishna) Gokhale’, whom he considered his guru. “He (Gokhale) would introduce me to all the important people that called on him. Of these the one who stands foremost in my memory is Dr. (now Sir) P. C. Ray… This is how he introduced Dr Ray: ‘This is Prof. Ray, who having a monthly salary of Rs. 800, keeps just Rs. 40 for himself and devotes the balance to public purposes. He is not, and does not want to get, married.’ I see little difference between Dr. Ray as he is today and as he used to be then. His dress used to be nearly as simple as it is, with this difference of course that whereas it is Khadi now, it used to be Indian mill-cloth in those days.”
Ray, a believer of the ideal that “industry, as a rule, preceded science,” was conscious of the impact the setting up of a factory would have on India’s knowledge reserve.
“While a student at Edinburgh I found to my regret that every civilized country… was adding to the world’s stock of knowledge but that unhappy India was lagging behind. I dreamt a dream that, God willing, a time would come when she too would contribute her quota,” he writes in his autobiography, content about how a new generation of scientists in the early twentieth century, primarily his students, led the Indian science renaissance.
Although Ray seldom participated directly in the nationalist movement, owing to his job as a professor at then Calcutta’s Presidency College, he knew that without political independence, India’s economic progress would be unachievable.
As a result, he sympathised with all political movements — be it of the moderates, the extremists, or the non-cooperation movement. His affection for both Mahatma Gandhi as well as Subhas Chandra Bose is well established through his writings.
In his book, First Spark of Revolution, Arun Chandra Guha of the revolutionary Jugantar Party, who was also a three-time Congress MP between 1952-67 from Bengal’s Barasat constituency, notes, “The first batch of young scientists who gathered around… Ray came almost exclusively from the ranks of the revolutionaries. Meghnad Saha (an astrophysicist know for the Saha Ionization Equation), Satyendranath Bose (known for the Bose-Einstein condensate)… and others were all directly or indirectly connected with the revolutionary organisation.”
“In the early 1900s, almost all prominent revolutionaries had some association either with Ray or Bengal Chemicals. For the cause of Independence, Ray helped those involved in violent methods to make bombs and supplied them with acid,” says Indologist and Sahitya Akademi awardee Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri.
It was during the non-cooperation movement in 1924 that Ray declared, “Science can afford to wait but Swaraj cannot.” This led the administration to record his name as a “revolutionary in the garb of a scientist”.
However, it was the Second World War that brought new opportunities for Ray and Bengal Chemicals. “There was a demand for essential drugs for soldiers. A new plant and a pharmacy were installed at Panihati. Two production units were shifted to Lahore in 1942. And a factory was opened in Bombay in 1938,” says Bengal Chemical Union President Nepal Deb Bhattacharya.
It was following Ray’s death on June 16, 1944, that Bengal Chemicals entered a period of uncertainty, which was further worsened by Partition. Though it continued to produce drugs, the loss of market and non-realisation of outstanding debt took a toll.
The company, which produced everything from chloroquine to napthalene balls and “haturi marka (as strong as a hammer)” Phenyle-X , was nationalised in 1980.
As of now, with a manufacturing licence in hand, BCPL is awaiting the government’s order to commence its production of hydroxychloroquine. “The staff is on stand-by, and as soon as the order is received, we can start the production. The only problem is that we lack raw material. This has been conveyed to the authorities,” says Bhattacharya.
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