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The Good Mr. Godrej

The Good Mr. Godrej

Mr. S.P. Godrej, extraordinary environmentalist.
Photo: Bittu Sahgal.

An environmentalist, population crusader, committed citizen, gentleman and industrialist, the loss of S.P. Godrej represents the passage of an era.

Mr. S.P. Godrej - ‘Soli’ to friends, ‘Sohrabji’ to those who would rather use a more respectful form of address – arrived a touch late for a Sanctuary event on account of the city traffic. By the time he arrived, the doors to the Y.B. Chavan Pratishtan Hall had been locked tight by the armed security escort of the main speaker,the Chief of Army Staff, General V.P. Malik. Not only did the doyen of the House of Godrej manage to soft-talk them into letting him in, he sat anonymously on a tiny stool near the entrance because the hall was packed to capacity. By the time I discovered he was in the room and insisted that he join us at the speakers’ table, a good 15 minutes had elapsed. I do not know too many major industrialists heading multi-million dollar corporations who would be willing to be treated as one of the crowd.

He supported many causes – Indo-Pakpeace initiatives, anti-nuclear protests, the Mangrove Society, population reduction, Mani Bhavan’s Gandhian ideologies, Mumbai’s Sarvajanik Holi and of course his beloved tiger. “Use me wherever you can to protect nature,” he would insist, saying that as an industrialist he was only a ‘trustee of wealth’ and wanted it used accordingly.

Best known for his financial and managerial support to the World Wide Fund for Nature-India, Sohrabji also encouraged scores ofother environmental and social groups whose meetings he would attend despite a gruelling work schedule that permitted him no morethan four or five hours of sleep each night. Those who interacted with him for any length of time confirm that he spoke from an inner conviction born of years of grappling withthe problems confronted by the India he so unabashedly loved: “If we worshipped Nature as God, perhaps less harm would be done in the name of religion,” he ruefully observed some years ago.

Such views typify the man. Well travelled. Well read. Soft-spoken. Warm. Apart from the fact that he was among that rare breed, a gentleman, he epitomised strength by never needing to prove points in public. Having inherited the mantle of head of the renowned Godrej family from his pioneer uncle Ardeshir and his father Pirojsha, he managed to expand and strengthen the commercial enterprise,even as he used the Godrej name to fundtiger recovery plans, population reduction campaigns and education, housing, social and relief programmes of numerous kinds.

‘Sohrabji’ amidst a sea of children belonging to Sanctuary’s Cub Club, during a ‘Kids for Tigers’ event in Mumbai. Photo: Bittu Sahgal.

Much to the joy and relief of Mumbai’s Koli community, he insisted that the mangrove swamps at Pirojshanagar (now perhaps the finest breeding ground for fish, lobsters and prawns in the Mumbai region) be protected, studied and regenerated at his company’s cost. By some estimates, something like a quarter of all the dividend income ofthe Godrej group is donated to one cause or another. Yet, he wore on his sleeve his gratitude for the opportunities that India has offered the Parsi community and his family. Clearly the Godrej enterprise is not your average corporation and its Chairman was not your average corporate head. In his virtually patented crumpled whites, this industrialist-environmentalist was equally at home breakfasting with Prime Ministers, or cohorting with naturalists at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to strategise ways to save this river, that forest or some endangered speciesor other. At such meetings when asked to address those gathered, he would usually politely decline, stating that he had come to hear and learn from people working in the field.

A practising Rotarian, ex-Sheriff of Bombay and recipient of national and international awards (France conferred on him membership of the coveted Legion d’Honneur as well as the Officier dans l’ordre des Palmes Academiques for his services to education). He would most certainly admonish me for writing this article, for he was almost painfully shy and never liked to be in the limelight. I have lost a personal friend. Environmentalists everywhere will miss him.

by Bittu Sahgal, First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XX No. 5 September/October 2000.


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