Millennium Post

Once upon a time in India

We had a very newsy week which just went by. A former Comptroller and Auditor General showed extra-ordinary entrepreneurship of converting a government report into what is predicted to be a bestseller. Never before I have known about somebody putting these reports over spilt milk to such extra-ordinary use except may be an Arun Shourie, who could churn out tomes and tomes of stories based on these humdrum reports.

Entrepreneurship and entrepreneur skills, our prime minister too has talked about at length. From the ramparts of Lal Quila (the Red Fort), he announced the need to insist on ‘make in India’. Those who follow Indian politics and economy were much vowed at the prime minister’s vision of creating a manufacturing alternative to China. ‘Indian politicians are fond of such grandiose announcements, but in Modi’s instance it may have some substance,’ wrote Glenn Levine, an economist with Moody’s Analytics.

However, a small news item which appeared in a newspaper last week has created a doubt in many minds about the very idea of ‘make in India’. Will all the making be only in the private sector or there shall be a public sector participation too.

Our experience shows that in the hour of crisis, it’s the government which comes to the rescue of people and never the private sector. If you are looking for a case in point  to endorse the premise, we have the example of the recent floods in Jammu and Kashmir, where the Air India and BSNL performed extra-ordinarily well in the rescue and relief operations. The private operators moved only after they were adequately ‘nudged’ by the regulator.

With a firm belief in the ability of the public sector to deliver, I was pretty upset to read that Narendra Modi government has decided to shut down HMT Watches, the wholly owned subsidiary of  HMT Ltd.

‘The government has decided to shut down HMT Watches and HMT Chinar Watches Ltd. The Board for Reconstruction of Public Sector Enterprises (BRPSE) has already recommended it and the board of directors has also given the go-ahead,’ a senior official was quoted as saying in a newspaper report. The news upset me. In the midst of giving a call for ‘make in India’, the government was preparing to shut down an iconic Indian brand, which made us proud as it competed with venerable watch giants like Seiko of Japan. In my school days, I recall mugging-up from the general knowledge book the full name of HMT – Hindustan Machine Tools.

Its employees took pride in being part of the company which had an excellent work culture, strict rules of governance and was ably led. Contrary to the general perception, it did not lag behind in acquiring technology either.

Way back in 1981 it started the manufacture of quartz watches. It withstood competition from private sector like Allwyn for a pretty long time before the Tata’s entered the fray with their Titan brand. Despite the success of quartz watches no new units were opened and Titan was allowed to capture market.

Industry experts say that HMT quartz watches were much superior machines than those produced by Titan. They claim that Tata made up with superior look of its watches and a better retail marketing network. The iconic brand was allowed to die a slow death, eased out of market and going out of production, making it the apt case for a shutdown.

But with the shutdown would not die many memories of many Indian homes which prided in wearing a HMT watch. I was given a HMT Tarun watch when my parents thought me to be old enough to keep a track of time. An elder cousin had been given HMT Jawan by his parents. On having done somewhat credibly in a class examination, I was gifted a HMT Pilot, it had a black dial and made many of my classmates envious. There were other famous models like Janata, Vijay, Rajat, Kajal and many more. Indira Gandhi as prime minister used to wear a Janata watch.

When an older sibling got married, a specially ordered HMT Kanchan watch arrived, which remained a cynosure of all the eyes in the household. I felt jealous of the bridegroom for possession of priceless Kanchan and prayed that my in-laws should gift me the same watch on my marriage.

Two decades later, HMT was gasping for breath and my in-laws thought it to be below dignity to gift any other Indian brand than the Titan. I too did not resist. Nevertheless, diehard HMT loyalists like my father kept wearing his mechanical HMT Sona alternatively with an automatic Seiko, which was brought for him from Japan.

A few days after his death about a decade ago, my mother handed over to me both the watches. Both were in non-working condition and a colleague helped me to find a ‘Ghadisaaz’ (watchmaker) in the walled city. Both the time pieces were revived and I started to wear them alternatively, putting the Titan piece in the drawer. The ‘Ghadisaaz’ had said that since the spring of Seiko had gone weak I should keep shaking the wrist on which I wore the watch to keep it ticking. The Seiko automatic since then has been to watch hospital several times but the mechanical from HMT stable is holding forth.

In the past few days I have read on cyberspace several such personal experiences with HMT watches. The prime minister, we are given to understand, is a man who believes in and respects emotions. To shut down HMT Watches would be easiest of business decisions but to revive it would mean giving life to many happy Indian memories.

The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post
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