Dan Singh Bisht
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Thakur Dan Singh Bisht (1906 – 10 September 1964) was an Indian billionaire philanthropist from Kumaon, Uttaranchal, India. He was referred to as the "Timber King of India", a "champion of the people" and "a prince among men".
The people of Kumaon affectionately remember him as "Maldar" one who is generous with stuff. The architect Laurie Baker and his wife mention their close friend in a memoir 'the maldar who owned most of Pithoragarh. A close business associate of Corbett from whom he bought Grasmere estate in Nainital and Berinag tea estate. Skins of Corbett's killed tigers are housed at Dan Singh's residence the famed 'Bisht Estate'. Corbett took jungle clues from employees who 'earned their living by floating sleepers down the Sarda river for Dan Singh Bisht'. William McKay Aitken marvelled at the sights as he travelled through the estates of Chaukori and Berinag belonging to 'Dan Singh Maldaar' and extolled Berinag tea which was highly sought by London tea blenders'. His donation of DSB college, an unprecedented amount of half a million rupees of cash and about 1.5 million rupees worth of more than 12 acres of land in the heart of Nainital, and buildings promoted admiration and attention from the newly independent Indian Government. 2 million rupees was a lot of money. This was at a time when the rupee was at parity with the pound. Timed to concur with the throwing open of the College, the movie ‘Maldar’ was released, and it was doing moderately well in the rest of India, but running full houses in the Himalayas. The movie was about a young man from a humble background who becomes a ‘Maldar’ – a person with a lot of stuff who hence distributes it, shares it. It was widely rumored that Dan Singh Bisht had been a benefactor for the project as Jagmani pictures, a distributor, had borrowed 70,000 rupees a few years earlier from Dan Singh, see para 24. It was the coming of age of Dan Singh as the unrivalled timber king of India.
At its height his empire, his massive timber depots with attendant offices and bungalows for managers and himself, extended all across the Himalayas from Lahore to Wazirabad in what later became Pakistan, Jammu to Pathankot, Kartanya Ghat and Kaurilya Ghat and C.B.Ganj Bareilly, Bihar and Tanakpur, Kathgodam and Pithoragarh and Haldwani to Goalpara and Garo Hills as well as Bardiya district and Kathmandu in Nepal. Vast properties purchased by him at each location led to his immersion in local folk lore as a folk hero, who rode on a horse, with hands always full to give. The sleepers for the entire British railway system were more or less supplied by him or if not him, his agents in Assam, G.S Bhandari and Jagadish Singh who he used to meet at Gauripur, India at Roopsee airport, which is now defunct. There was no other timber contractor who could leverage his scale. At its height his company, D.S. Bist and Sons, employed over 5000 people and had tens of millions of rupees in business. but was bidding for contracts in the Andamans and even Brazil when Dan Singh Bisht met his untimely death after completing his last purchase of Beldanga Sugar Mill in Murshidabad. He collapsed in his suite at the Grand Hotel (Kolkata) due to health and stress caused by the anti business pandora's box the newly Independent India opened. He had recently sold the plant he had set up at a discount, sensing no solution, as the Government had refused his machinery to leave Calcutta Port despite having first authorized Dan Singh Bist to take a hefty loan to procure the same. The Bisht Industrial Corporation Ltd. which was formed by D. S. Bisht and sons of Nainital in whose favour an industrial licence was granted in 1956 to set up a sugar factory of two thousand tonnes capacity a day at Kichha to meet the 'crying need' of the cultivators, of sugar-cane in district Nainital. But after Dan Singh Bisht sold his shares in 1963, and subsequently died the next year, it did not run even for a day and was ultimately taken over by Government, by an ordinance issued on 12 September 1970 which was replaced by Bisht Industrial Corporation Limited (Acquisition of Undertaking) Act, No. 7 of 1971
His empire began to collapse even as he lay in hospital in a comatose state, dying ultimately on 10 September 1964. He had no son, and his was a patriarchal society. His daughters were children, or just married. The fate of Beldanga sugar mill is unknown, as Dan Singh Bisht fell into a coma the day after procurement and his daughters were mostly minors. The mill at Kichha is now a governmental run mill after the take over. His prime real estate in Nainital, several architecturally profound and beautiful British cottages with lake views, of several acres each such as Primrose, Cambridge Hall, and Grasmere are alienated, and as well as several bungalows and timber depots scattered across his areas of operation.
The Tea gardens of Chaukori and Berinag collapsed almost immediately or began steady descent into anarchy, in the absence of a central intelligence, and combined with socialistic policies and inaction of the Government, Berinag became a town with a population of 25,000 inhabitants and a living breathing municipality where the tea estate used to be, as documented by the Sub-divisional Magistrate of Tehsil at Berinag, in October, 2004 in a report to the Chief Secretary and District Magistrate. and Chaukori remained in a state of neglect. The dairy farm at Chaukori shut down. The 10,000 acre fruit producing and eucalyptus tree export power house 'Dhara Farms' near Moradabad was taken by the Government under new anti-landlord rules. The history of these farms, among the biggest in India, at the time, is interesting. One Raja Gajendra Shah of Moradabad, incurred massive debts to the state, and died in 1943. Unpaid debts allowed the State to acquire these massive lands and these were then bought by Dan Singh Bisht for 235,000 rupees on 30 October 1945. Reference is Paragraph 3 and 4 of a case in the Allahabad High Court Dan Singh Bisht vs Firm Janki Saran Kailash Chander on 30 April 1948 Equivalent citations: AIR 1948 All 396
Its brand was so strong that even after Dan Singh died, from 1964 till the late 1980s, Berinag tea continued to be actively sought by people who loved and remembered its kippery taste, rich red colour and taste, and 'its unique light taste and colour'.
Early life and business activities
It was not always so prosperous. Dan Singh Bisht was born in Pithoragarh district in Wadda 1906. His father had opened a small shop selling ghee in an insignificant town bordering Nepal. The river Kali is the boundary and the town is called Jhulaghat, literally rope bridge area. Dan Singh's father had immigrated from Western Nepal Baitadi district and Dan Singh retained his Nepalese citizenship until Indian Independence. At the very young age of 12, he left his studies to work as an apprentice with a British timber contractor in Burma, Maymyo then part of British India. It was here he learned the economics of the timber trade, and more importantly how to dress and talk like a 'sahib'. These skills would be leveraged to create a breath-taking monopoly.
When he returned from Burma, his father had just taken the biggest gamble of his life. On 19 September 1919, his father Deb Singh Bisht, a small-time shopkeeper from Jhulaghat, took out a loan to buy 2000 acres of Chaukori estate from a British company. It was this daring that Dan Singh later sought to immortalise in the resolute bronze statue of Deb Singh Bisht that stares out at young students in a bid to inspire them. Dan Singh not only managed to purchase the Berinag estate adjacent, from Captain James Corbett but found the secret ingredient that had enabled the Chinese to outcompete Indian teas in next door Lhasa. His manager located a herb that the Chinese used to add which contributed to its rich colour and flavour as documented in Arun K Mittal's 'British Administration in Kumaon Himalayas: A Historical study 1815–1947. The secret ingredient not only rejuvenated the drinker but it catapulted Dan Singh like a shooting star. On 20 May 1924, at the age of 18 years, he purchased a brewery from the British Indian Corporation Limited and on those 50 acres began to build a home and office for him and his father at Bisht Estate. Berinag tea was the number one brand in all three markets, Chinese, London and Indian markets. These details may be found in the Indian Government's page of the Tea Board of India, where Berinag has File number B-803/LC and Chaukori is C-804/LC both listed as owned by D S Bist and Sons, on page3 of Tea board document. Dan Singh Bisht even managed to get handsome quota money from the Tea Board Association, Calcutta, something both Corbett, as well as the previous owner Robert Bellairs' father from whom Corbett had bought Berinag, had failed to do.
Dan Singh Bisht worked in the hardest of terrain, upstream rivers, and pioneered techniques of water way timber transportation and rope bridge use that are still discussed today . This is the ecologically sensible way to transport as Dr. D.C. Phatak is quoted as stating on 21 February 2009 in the Tribune 'Saving Himalayas, the rope way'. From Kisnai to Mendipathar he built a short-cut which is locally called the 'Bisht Road' to ease transportation. It is a dirt track now. it was here, in the Garo Hills, that he encountered a matriarchal society where the women inherit the property which is distinctly at odds with his patriarchal 'Thakur' way of being. This gave him that perhaps at least one or more of his seven daughters would contain the seed that could salvage the empire. He knew the sharks were circling as he raced towards the end. He knew the question of succession was his Achilles' heel. This set him to work on the purchase of Smuggler's Rock Estate, to donate the land and building for the first girl's hostel at DSB college.
In 1947 Bisht created Sri Sarswati Deb Singh Higher-Secondary School, Pithoragarh in the name of his mother and father, which was the first of its kind for education until the A levels. A valuable plot of land was purchased in the centre of town to be a football field, and land, buildings, and furniture, and initial seed money was provided. By the times its first students had finished their A levels, Deb Singh Bisht college, was opened in Nainital.
During this time he created the SSBSE (Srimati Saraswati Bisht Scholarship Endowment) trust. The scholarship and school are open to this day. The Srimati Saraswati Bisht Scholarship Endowment Trust, Pithoragarh, founded by Dan Singh Bisht on 24 October 1949, in the name of his mother, is till today, the only trust in the district. It is an educational trust and awards scholarships to sons and daughters of residents of Pithoragarh who were killed in action in World War II, and to deserving students of the Sri Sarswati Deb Singh Higher Secondary School, Pithoragarh. This is listed on the last page of the gazette of the local Pithorgarh government.
Sometime after Indian Independence, he bought the Wellesley Girls' School and after adding more buildings converted it into a college in Nainital in 1951. The college was built in memory of his late father and is now called the DSB Campus College of Kumaon University.
Kumaun University was founded in 1973 when it incorporated the Dev Singh Bisht (DSB) Government College (commonly called "the Degree College"), which had been founded in 1951 by Dan Singh Bisht in memory of his late father, Dev Singh Bisht.
Dan Singh Bisht chose the mathematician Dr. A.N. Singh as its first principal and set up a scholarship for needy students called 'Thakur Dan Singh Bisht Scholarship' and it is still utilized today. Millions of people remember their founder as the first billionaire entrepreneur philanthropist from the region, a role model for all youth, especially youth from a region which was relatively economically under developed.
DSB college, which is now the flagship anchor of Kumaun University, was set up in 1951 as the first post A level college in the entire area. The college was set up by the purchase of 12 acres of land and building valued at about 1.5 million rupees at a time when the rupee was at parity with the pound, and 50000/- (Half a million) rupees for initial running expenses and salary. This was clearly documented in the recollections J.M. Clay's book on Nainital who was the Deputy Commissioner of Nainital in 1927 as well as in 'Nainital, the land of trumpet and song' by G. Shah in 1999, as well as by Professor Ajay Singh Rawat.
Noted environmentalist and senior Professor of Kumaun University Professor Ajay Singh Rawat another notable personality from that region, has called Dan Singh Bisht 'The Pioneer of Higher Education in Uttrakhand' in his book Nainital Beckons and also in the journal Udaan for Uttrakhand Open University where he was the Chief editor. He says it seems that now "Even Kumaon University which could not have come into existence without the DSB Campus does not remember him. It is our duty to pay homage to him and to his contribution to society and for his visionary and philanthropic spirit so that posterity also remembers him". Dan Singh Bisht, a pioneer of the entrepreneur philanthropist in modern India.
During 1920–25 he endlessly lobbied with His Excellency Maurice Garnier Hallett who was the Governor of the United Provinces in India until 7 December 1945. List of Governors of the United Provinces for an all-weather road from rail head Tanakpur to Pithoragarh. Almost a 100 years later, it remains Pithoragarh's only lifeline to the train station. Once his proposal passed, the road increased trade, commerce, tourism, and strategic resources a gift that continues till this day. The same Maurice Hallett summoned Dan Singh Bisht in connection with his clandestine funding of the freedom movement. Dan Singh Bisht managed to talk himself out of this harrowing moment for his empire. This story is not documented anywhere, but it was told in 1963 to his 26-year-old son in law, Surendra Singh who would later go on to become the Cabinet Secretary of India.
Other Philanthropy in his childhood haunts
The first three-story Dharamshala or rest house for pilgrims those who follow 'Dharam' was built by him in memory of his grandfather Rai Singh Bisht. Additional medical help was given to many in Berinag with financial help to hospitals and patients. A civil veterinary hospital in Berinag was donated on 28 October 1961, a little over an acre of land and buildings. This is documented in a registered land records patwari office of Berinag. 30 acres of prime land was donated in Berinag in his brother's name for a college, as well as a school a playground a hospital, and for various governmental offices, including the ethereal Forest Rest house in Berinag. Drinking water in the village of his forefathers in Kuintarh, various dispensaries in Berinag, and the tales of the innumerable people whose education he paid for either because of need, or merit, is part of Kumaoni folklore. The whole town of Berinag is unique for in that every single public amenity from schools, to hospitals, playgrounds, parks, charitable centres, dispensaries, are all donations of D S Bisht and Sons.
Dan Singh had 3 wives as was permitted before the Hindu Marriage Act. Dan Singh Bisht was also a benefactor member of the famous Nainital Boat House club.
Dan Singh Bisht had seven daughters who were all young when he died on 10 September 1964. This enabled managers, and advisors, to gain control, and the empire of sugar mills, tea gardens, and timber, collapsed.
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