Tamil Nadu’s Business Guidebook

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Tamil Nadu’s Growth Story

Sushila Ravindranath


352 pages; Rs 699

In 1960, the average person in Tamil Nadu earned Rs 334, lower than the average person in West Bengal, who earned Rs 390. By 2014, the average person in Tamil Nadu was earning twice as much as his counterpart in West Bengal. Tamil Nadu has gone from being the fourth poorest state among large states in 1960 to the second richest state today, in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) terms. The economic outperformance of Tamil Nadu over the last five decades is perhaps the most intriguing and inexplicable economic story of contemporary India. Does it have something to do with its quirky regional politics and its industry-friendly policies? Is it because of its persistent quest for an independent identity vis-a-vis the rest of the nation, starting with its anti-Hindi agitation in the ’60s? Or is it just the fortuitous water of Tamil Nadu? These are questions that have long baffled political economists studying Indian states, including myself. When Sushila Ravindranath, a business journalist with decades of experience covering south India’s businesses, launched a book tantalisingly titled Surge: Tamil Nadu’s Growth Story, I looked forward to devouring it.
The book starts promisingly with a description of how Tamil Nadu’s story is the under-reported story of modern Indian business history. It then details Tamil Nadu’s political economy, the Dravidian movement, the social welfare schemes and quotes Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen on the success of these schemes. It ends the first Introduction chapter with a word of praise from NITI Aayog Vice-Chairperson Arvind Panagariya for Tamil Nadu’s industry-friendly Land Acquisition Act in 2013, when the Narendra Modi government was belligerently trying to enforce an amendment to the national policy. And a factoid about how ALL poppadums served in the pubs of UK are made in Tamil Nadu (called appazhams in chaste Tamil). With such a promising start, the book sets up lofty expectations of unique insights into the explanation for Tamil Nadu’s growth success over decades.
Sadly, the book degenerates into a mere compendium of glowing praise for old established business groups of south India. It reads like a string of disparate journalistic stories done on each of these business groups over decades, woven together. It has all the ingredients of a quick pocket guide to most of Tamil Nadu’s successful businesses, replete with banal family tree organograms and pictures of founders of these businesses. It covers the entire gamut of business groups from the 120-year-old Murugappa group to the seven-year-old CaratLane, devoting entire chapters or paragraphs on each depending on the age of the business. In all, it covers over 35 businesses charting each one’s path from founding to eventual success or failure and generational transitions.

The book deserves credit for detailing failed business ventures and the murky controversies of some of Tamil Nadu’s business groups, not merely the successful ones. But there is no theme that emanates from this string of stories.

The book is more about which founder’s son took over the business at what age, with what educational pedigree and what work experience. It is shorn of the thematic details of the cause and effect of the success or failures of these businesses.

Sure, there are some interesting stories and revelations of some of the personalities behind these businesses. Considering the fact that Tamil Nadu’s business leaders are far more media-shy and far less flamboyant than their counterparts in Mumbai or Delhi, this book deserves praise for piecing through the “corporate veil”, so to speak. Although the book has all the characteristics of Gita Piramal’s Business Maharajas, it covers more business groups in number but in far less detail and comes 20 years later than Ms Piramal’s book. This is not to say that there is no market for such a guide of Tamil Nadu’s businesses.

Ms Ravindranath embarked on a thought-provoking theme for a book to better detail the puzzling economic success story of Tamil Nadu but ends up with a book that is neither thoughtful nor provoking. It certainly serves as a useful reminder of the glorious successes of Tamil Nadu’s old businesses and some new, strung together as a series of individual chapters. But if you are looking to understand what explains the prosperity of Tamil Nadu or why its capital city of Chennai is not a fertile ground for new-generation businesses or what unique cultural or political factors made it possible for Tamil Nadu to emerge as India’s second-richest state, this book will leave you disappointed. There is no story in Surge: Tamil Nadu’s Growth Story.

Published on 07 September, 2016 in Business Standard