Nine decades of determination

Mumbai: When Kandathil Mammen Philip turned 90 last week it was just another day for him he played his usual morning round of golf. The only exception was that he had to spend three hours at a reception organised by the Indian rubber industry where one speaker after the other lauded his achievements. Foremost among them was Maharashtra Governor P C Alexander, who has known Philip for several decades.

Philip is the sixth son of the late Mammen Mapillai, who laid the foundation of an industrial empire that now consists of Madras Rubber Factory (MRF), the Malayala Manorama group of publications, the Philips brand of tea and coffee, plantations of cardamom, pepper, tea and coffee and other enterprises with a total turnover of more than Rs 3,000 crore.

Philip is acknowledged as the father of the Indian rubber industry. A pioneer in the manufacture of rubber products from the time of World War II, he fought for and obtained a government sanction for the manufacture of rubber tyres in the face of tough foreign competition.

While being fully involved with these activities, Philip gave a boost to the YMCA movement in India, was an active member of his church and took up and excelled in golf. In this interview, Philip talks freely about the future of the Indian rubber industry, the problems facing plantations, the YMCA movement and what keeps him going.

Where does India stand in the rubber world?
After Thailand and Indonesia, India is No 3 on the list, having displaced Malaysia (which once topped the list). Our production of natural rubber went up from 15,000 tonnes in 1945-46 to nearly 6,30,000 lakh tonnes in 2001. Almost 90 per cent of Indias rubber plantations are in Kerala. The industry has special characteristics.

What are these?
Nearly 85 per cent of the plantations are in the hands of small farmers. The industry pays the highest wages to its workers, more than those who man coffee and tea estates. A rubber tree can be tapped regularly throughout the year and the tree remains productive for 30 to 40 years. Indias per-hectare yield of rubber (around 1,500 kg) is the highest in the world.

What is the position of natural rubber vis--vis synthetic substitutes?
Natural rubber forms just 25 per cent of the worlds requirement; the rest is made up of synthetic rubber items from petroleum products. But natural rubber is still essential for certain products - nearly 50-to-60 per cent of auto and truck tyres is natural rubber.

Does the Indian rubber industry face any problems?
From 1947 the rubber industry has enjoyed government protection and is more or less self-sufficient. Globalisation brought about certain problems. Imports at much cheaper prices are now freely allowed. Lets take tyres for example. The imported brands are cheaper because our production costs are high. We cannot fight globalisation, but have to accept the challenge and work towards higher productivity while cutting down costs of production. The families of 60,000 farmers in the industry are affected, but the future can be bright with the ban on rubber imports and the expected rise in prices of synthetic rubber items. This can lead to the resurrection of the Indian rubber industry.

What is the future for the coffee and tea industries?
I see no hope for our coffee industry. It is affected by the global glut, particularly from Brazil, Columbia and Vietnam. We are just too small in the coffee map of the world. Our coffee gardens are facing problems because international prices continue to plummet. This may not be reflected at the retail level as the coffee content in the drink is low, and the prices of sugar, milk and wages in the industry have shot up. But there is more hopeful news on the tea front. Though we lead the world in tea production, countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka boast of better brand names. We have to work on this. But tea prices are rising, and it is a good sign.

You have been living in Mumbai since 1935. Can you give some of your impressions about the city?
Oh, these go far back. It all began with a tragedy when our family bank, the Travancore Cochin National Bank of which I was the manager, collapsed in 1938. It was a blow to the family prestige. Then I started with the distribution of tea and coffee. World War II created a perfect climate for rubber products. And soon we were back on the rails.

Tell me something about your life in this metropolis?
Pleasant and professionally challenging. You lead your own life, no one bothers your. The Keralite population has shot up from around 300 to more than 2 lakh. The Shiv Sena attitude against south Indians was like a bad dream, but today that too has toned down.

I know you did a lot for your church and YMCA institutions.
Yes, we started our own church in 1940 and it is going on well. As for YMCA, I have always been a keen sportsman; I excelled in basketball in college. I always like to involve myself with the youth. In 1957, I became the president of the Bombay YMCA, which faced a funds crunch following the departure of the British, who were its backbone. But with the help of the US YMCA, we managed to collect Rs 3 lakh for new branches. Today the Mumbai YMCAs annual budget is to the tune of Rs 8 crore. I was also the national president of YMCA for several years and made the movement self-reliant. When I took over in 1957, there were around 45 branches all over India; today that number stands at around 450. YMCA is a great unifier, does not care about caste or religion and makes the youth sports-minded.

A few words about your golf addiction
Yes, it is an addiction that began rather late in life. I started playing in 1960 and I havent missed a single days game since then. We need to do more for the game; a tiny city like Kuala Lumpur has 17 golf courses. I won a golf trophy with my grandson at the age of 80, another trophy five years later, and at 90 I was the runner-up in the seniors competition. Trophies do not matter; its playing the game that counts.

P C Alexander was talking about your tenacity and ability to face setbacks
Well, the closure of the family bank was a shock to all of us; we had to fight our way out. Similarly, the witch-hunt launched by Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer, the late Dewan of Travancore-Cochin, against our family that resulted in the closure of Malayala Manorama for some years and the jailing of my brother were cases of gross injustice that we had to fight. As for tenacity, I fought hard and prepared a hard-to-challenge case for the opening of an indigenous tyre factory much against the thinking in the Indian commerce ministry. Finally, the governments green signal came through. There is no substitute for hard work.

You are a chirpy, happy 90-year-old. What is the secret of your zest for life?
I think I have no enemies. I bear no grudge against anyone. I love other human beings and am happy when these feelings are reciprocated. I am the wealthiest man in the world: but my wealth is not bank balances or land, but peoples affection. Our family is closely-knit. I started the habit of going on holidays every year. This is important to keep you fresh. The daily golf regimen keeps me fit. Thats it. Live and let live thats my motto.