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July 8, 2002 | 0930 IST
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Dhirubhai was an outstanding industrialist

B K Birla

Dhirubhai Ambani had an ambitious plan of converting the deserts of Rajasthan into fertile lands. This was one of the dream project plans he narrated to me two years ago in great detail when my wife and I called upon him at his Mumbai residence.

When I asked him about his future plans, he gave me a half-an-hour lecture on how sea water could be used to generate steam and then after use conveyed to Rajasthan through a pipeline to make it a fertile land.

Considering his outstanding ability of enterprise, I am sure that, given a chance, he would have transformed his dream into reality.

I rate him one of the most outstanding industrialists of the nation, for his ability to complete projects within time as well as cost schedules. His credit was praiseworthy, especially because he was probably the first one to install world-class factories and plants within a predetermined timeframe.

My last meeting with the Ambani family was preceded by news that Akzo Nobel, the foreign partner in my company Century Enka, was about to sell its stake to Dhirubhai. An official of the foreign company informed me that the Ambanis sent representatives to Akzo's London office to discuss the sale.

This piece of news upset me. I was not averse to the Ambanis taking a stake in a group company. What disturbed me was that Dhirubhai was going to do so without informing me. So I asked Kumar Mangalam (Birla) to call up Dhirubhai's son Mukesh on my behalf. The latter passed it on to his father.

As soon as Dhirubhai came to know that I was enquiring about him taking a stake in Century Enka, he called my Kolkata residence. By that time, I had left for Darjeeling on holiday. Dhirubhai called me up at Darjeeling and said, "'Babuji' (he used to call me that) who told you this? I am not going to take Akzo's stake and this is final."

I was charmed by his gesture.

I cannot recollect correctly the date of our first meeting. But it was certainly well before he launched his company, Reliance Industries, in 1977. He was a trader of yarn at that time and one of my officers fixed a meeting with a gentleman called Dhirajlal Hirachand Ambani as he was a big dealer in our product and wanted to meet me.

From that meeting onwards, Dhirubhai started calling me 'Babuji' and I was embarrassed by the salutation. I told him, "Dhirubhai, either call me B K Babu or Basant Kumarji", but he refused to drop it. And through every conversation, he would grasp my hand, make a statement and ask, "Don't you agree I was right?" Most of the time, I thought he was, but even when I told him I disagreed, our relationship was not ruffled.

To Dhirubhai, large was beautiful. During the initial stage of Century Enka, he used to tease me on why I was setting up an experimental plant with a capacity of only 90 tonne a month. Everybody else said it was the right size 20 years ago but to him it was an 'experimental' plant.

In the past 25 years, my association with the Ambani family has been cordial but our meetings became irregular as we stayed in different cities and we had become a lot busier. I was shocked to hear he had been admitted to hospital after suffering a stroke. Last Monday, my wife and I visited the hospital. Anil's wife and other members of the Ambani family greeted us at the reception of the hospital. I did not enter his room - he was fighting for survival.

We all prayed for his expeditious recovery but knew recovery would be difficult. My eyes filled with tears and my heart sank at the thought that on my next visit to Mumbai I may not have a friend to visit. It has been a great loss.

As told to Kausik Datta and Pradeep Gooptu at his residence.

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The Ambani Saga