Barooah left a lasting impression on the tea industry when in the early 1990s he led a united front of tea garden owners to confront the rebels of the United Liberation Front of Assam, or Ulfa, at the height of the separatist movement. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint (Indranil Bhoumik/Mint)
Barooah left a lasting impression on the tea industry when in the early 1990s he led a united front of tea garden owners to confront the rebels of the United Liberation Front of Assam, or Ulfa, at the height of the separatist movement. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
(Indranil Bhoumik/Mint)

Hemendra Barooah, tea plantation owner who was ahead of his time

For Barooah, it was a quest to lend new meaning to plantations, in business and otherwise

Kolkata: He always prided himself on being ahead of his time, not worried about staking and losing money on innovations for which there were no takers at the time. After all, he was the son of the richest man in his province. A man “eccentric" enough to build his own mausoleum nine years before he died.

Assam’s leading tea plantation owner Hemendra Prasad Barooah, who died in Bangkok on Wednesday aged 86, wasn’t the kind of person to leave anything to chance, recalls his biographer Wasbir Hussain. For instance, Barooah left in his mausoleum, made out of green marble under his supervision in 2004, only one blank space to be filled up—the date of demise.

He’s succeeded by two daughters and four grandchildren, his wife and son having died before him.

“It was clear in his mind how he wanted himself to be remembered," says Hussain, an author and former journalist. That mausoleum takes its place alongside those of others in his family at his ancestral home in Jorhat in upper Assam, now part of a heritage tourism circuit that he built on his properties and plantations in the northeastern state. This includes an 18-hole pay-and-play golf course at Jorhat.

By the end of the 1940s, the Khongiya Barooah clan was the richest in Assam, according to Hussain. After a partition of businesses founded by grandfather Bisturam Barooah—one of the earliest Indian entrepreneurs to break the British stranglehold over the tea industry—he received three gardens in upper Assam that produced premium quality tea leaves.

His father having already died by then, he took control of these plantations from his mother in 1949 on his return from Boston, where he obtained an MBA degree from Harvard Business School. It wasn’t in those days the most fashionable overseas destination for Indian students.

He had several options, but Hemen Barooah always wanted to go to Boston, says Hussain. He was probably the first MBA in Assam—surely the first to have received a degree from Boston.

His first job was to free his gardens from the control of Williamson Magor and Co., which acted as the managing agency for them, and form a company that not only produced tea but also sold it at auctions. It wasn’t easy, but in the post-independence era the British planters were forced to back off, allowing Barooah to expand his business empire.

He leaves behind at least nine gardens held under Barooahs and Associates Pvt. Ltd, a Kolkata-headquartered firm regarded as a producer of quality tea.

Barooah left a lasting impression on the tea industry when in the early 1990s he led a united front of tea garden owners to confront the rebels of the United Liberation Front of Assam, or Ulfa, at the height of the separatist movement. Several planters had already been killed in Assam by insurgents, when Barooah decided to “stick out his neck to tell the rebels that money didn’t grow on tea bushes".

He didn’t have to get drawn into this in the first place because the Ulfa wasn’t opposed to local entrepreneurs and Hemen Barooah was one of them, says Hussain. Yet, he decided to take them on, not only for fellow planters but for the tens of thousands of workers who worked on tea gardens. And Barooah made it clear to the insurgents that he wasn’t seeking concessions.

He succeeded because he was always seen as a “homegrown person", who could reason with the rebels, says Ranjit Barthakur, an Assamese entrepreneur with an interest in tea and an adviser to chief minister Tarun Gogoi.

Understandably, he would panic when threatening calls were made to his home in Kolkata and when the Ulfa tracked him to his daughter’s home in Philadelphia, Hussain writes in his authorized biography—Life and Times: Story of an Assamese Tea Baron.

And among the innovations that he lost money on was a bid to try and find alternatives to using hessian bags to pack tea in.

In later life, Barooah turned to collecting art with a distinct fascination for M.F. Hussain. He is said to have collected through his life some 600 works of contemporary art, both Indian and European. He produced a few films and counted among his friends from the cultural world people such as singer Bhupen Hazarika and filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi.

All his life Barooah sought to “integrate Assam with modern India", says Barthakur, which is manifest in his latest “intervention" to develop tea tourism in Assam. For him, it was a quest to lend new meaning to plantations, in business and otherwise.

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