story of pen: how india taught herself to make good pens and ink

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story of pen: how india taught herself to make good pens and ink

New Delhi
This is the summer of 1961. An expert from America was being eagerly awaited in India. He was not an agricultural scientist or meteorologist. Rather he was an expert in the fountain pen industry. India completely stopped the import of fountain pens in 1958. By 1960, the domestic production of pens in the country had reached 22 million pieces. Of this, the organized sector was making 1.2 crore and cottage industries was making one crore pens.

We were manufacturing sufficient number of pens in the country for our needs but even then nibs were being imported completely. Also, the quality of the pen being made in the country was not very good. This is the reason that in 1961 the government decided to call a quality control expert from America.

Foreign help had to be taken for ink too
Today India is sending foreign satellites into space but surprisingly, half a century ago we were not able to make even good quality pens. But it is a part of India’s growth story. Leave the pen, we also had to take the help of others to make ink. This was in the early years after independence. In 1957, 10 years after independence, India completely banned the import of ink. The same reason was given behind this which was behind the ban on foreign cars. That is, we wanted to become self-reliant in every field and wanted to save foreign exchange.

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In the year 1957, the installed capacity of making ink in India was 3.5 million boxes. Each box contained a dozen 2 oz medicines. Then the demand in the country was only 9 lakh boxes. But despite this, foreign brands dominated. Foreign brands such as Pilot, Waterman, Quink, Stephens’ and Swan then manufactured and sold ink in India.

ink production

Fountain pen used to come from these countries
Of these, Pilot and Quink were in equity participation while the remaining three brands formed technical collaborations. At that time there were 4 domestic brands Camel, Sulekha, Harihar and Nuluk. All the ink factories in India used to import some raw material like methylene blue. Foreign companies also brought their own secret formulas to India.

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As far as fountain pens are concerned, then they were imported from countries like America, Britain, Australia, West Germany, France and Japan etc. But to encourage domestic manufacturing, the government had decided that pens priced below Rs 25 would not be imported. This led to the establishment of large scale pen factories in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh.

oldest fountain company
By the mid-1950s, 12 companies were engaged in manufacturing fountain pens in the country. Among these, the Rajahmundry-based company Ratnam & Sons was the oldest and most famous company. But the pens from most of these companies were not very good on the quality front. So in 1956 the government approved a joint venture with two foreign companies, Pilot and Waterman. The government was hopeful that this would lead to world class pens worth at least Rs 10 in the country. But within a few years, the need was felt to improve the quality of the pen industry and a technical expert from America was called.

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The work of making ballpoint pens in the country started even later. However, the pens maker of the Biro brand had offered to set up a factory in India only in 1953. But the government rejected his proposal. The reason for this is that the company was asking for 49% stake in the joint venture and higher royalty.

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Ballpoint pen could not do these things
The first approval for manufacturing ballpoint pen ink in India was given in 1962. In this joint venture, Rajkot businessman Dhirajlal Mohanlal Joshi and American company Formulalabs Inc were partners in Gujarat. When asked whether ink could have been made in India without foreign cooperation, the government categorically admitted that it was not possible.
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Today, even though banks ask you to sign checks with ballpoint to avoid fraud, ballpoint pens were not allowed for many things in India in the 1960s. You could fill the money order form with it but the payee had to sign it with a fountain pen. Bills, government checks and endorsements made on government checks had to be signed with a fountain pen. But now these rules have been completely changed.

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