Kolkata: In 1947, Jodh Singh boarded a refugee train from his village in Montgomery district in the eastern part of the Pakistani Punjab province. Apart from a small bundle of belongings, all he had was Rs50 sewn into the waistband of his pyjamas when he reached a village near Ludhiana. While searching for provisions in deserted Muslim neighbourhoods, Singh and his companions chanced upon a group of Muslims waiting to board a refugee train that would take them to Pakistan.
“Naturally, they were alarmed by our sudden appearance and feared the worst,”
says Singh. “But I was only interested in one of their buffalos among the many grazing in the fields close to the station.”
Childlike enthusiasm: Jodh Singh at a high school at Dunlop in north Kolkata. Though he owns a group with interests in transport, telecommunications, iron and steel, and real estate, cattle remain his favourite subject. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
An expert at picking out a good head of cattle, Singh offered the man Rs40. “The poor fellow said, ‘You can take her away for free if you want.’ But like me, he, too, was in a soup, so I let him have the money,” says Singh, warming up to his favourite subject—cattle—on a salubrious winter afternoon.
“I sold that buffalo in the city for Rs100 and came back to buy two more…realizing that there was more money to be made if I sold them directly to buyers in Calcutta, I turned up here in 1952,” says Singh. “Even today, I can spot a good cow or buffalo from afar.”
Singh’s herd once had 12,000 cows and buffalos. He now owns one-third of that. “What to do, people want skimmed milk, this milk, that milk…and, moreover, my sons have moved to other, more modern businesses,” says Singh, who still visits the cattle auction at Saudagarpatti in north Kolkata every day and spends hours in his two cowsheds at Kamarhati and Dankuni.
However, even with a diminished herd, Singh’s Janata Dairy produces about 35,000 litres of milk every day and counts among its clients almost all the leading sweet shops in the city and the state government.
The many businesses that Singh’s JIS Group now straddles include transport, iron and steel, real estate, telecom infrastructure and education, the last one being the most visible in recent times.
With nine colleges teaching subjects as varied as computers to dentistry, pharmacy to management, and three more colleges—including a medical institute with a 70-bed hospital—under planning, the JIS Group is now one of the key players in education in West Bengal.
“We were the first to set up a private dental college in the state—Guru Nanak Institute of Dental Science and Research—in 2003,” says Taranjit Singh, Singh’s son and managing director of the group.
Singh entered the business of education in 1998 with the launch of an engineering college in Asansol, 220km from Kolkata. The diversification into education was the fulfilment of a long-standing dream to start a school, according to the group patriarch.
“You see, when I went to admit my son Taranjit in an English medium school, he was initially turned away because he couldn’t speak English,” says Singh, laughing heartily. “But on the advice of a Sikh family whose son was already studying there, I hired a memsaheb (English) tutor, who brought my son up to the mark and he was later admitted.”
Following this incident, Singh decided to start his own school, but chose to wait till the state government allowed private players to start technical colleges in the late 1990s, according to Taranjit Singh.
Now, a decade after it entered the business, JIS Group’s colleges have a combined student strength of 15,000. “The education division contributes almost Rs40 crore to the group’s (annual) revenues (of Rs250 crore) and we expect this to increase to about Rs75 crore once the three new colleges come on stream,” says Taranjit Singh. Though he seems a little worried about the forthcoming placement season, Taranjit Singh claims that so far, 90% of students graduating from JIS Group’s colleges have been offered jobs before they completed their courses. Mint couldn’t independently verify this.
The fact that all the colleges of the group are in the northern suburbs of Kolkata in places such as Panihati, Agarpara and Sodepur and in the smaller towns of West Bengal, can be traced to the group’s moorings in the dairy and transport businesses.
“You see, this is the part of the city we know best...most of the truckers’ yards and garages and, in the past, even the cowsheds were clustered here,” says Singh. “These were my happy hunting grounds…we either converted some of our own holdings or bought land from the local people.”
The group’s main money-spinner, however, continues to be its transport business. With a fleet of almost 400 trucks, tankers and container lorries, JIS Group’s Northern Cargo Services counts among its clients all three public sector oil marketing companies and a large number of private firms such as Haldia Petrochemicals Ltd and Asahi India Glass Ltd.
Even at this age, Singh is brimming with ideas and childlike enthusiasm, especially about his favourite dairy business. “We are setting up a processed milk production unit and two chilling plants before launching our own brand of milk,” he says as he heads for the Kamarhati cowshed in a Ford Endeavour.