NBH Kulkarni: The Man Who Nurtured Indo-Israeli Ties from Its Infancy

Professor Eliot Cohen, an American authority on Soft Power and author of the book Buy the Stick - The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force, says the U.S.-India defense relationship has been improving ever since the Clinton administration “and now represents an important counter to China. That's hard power, he says, but hard power that has grown out of the effective soft power of forging links with India.”

He narrates an incident on a trip to India, while speaking at the Naval War College in Goa. "It was basically a bunch of admirals," he recalls. "Every one of them had either studied at the naval war college in the United States, had on some other occasion studied in the United States, had a son or daughter who was studying in the United States, or had other relatives living here. That makes [military cooperation] a lot easier, when there's this deep web of connections."

In a strikingly similar pathway, 93 year old NBH Kulkarni has single handedly built India’s strategic partnership with Israel. This year marks the 50th year of the Indo-Israel relationship, and Kulkarni is being felicitated during the commemoration of five decades of Indo-Israel business and economic trade relationships at the Israeli consulate in Mumbai. It will be attended by the Consul General as well as the Federation of the Indo Israel Chamber of Commerce, the apex organization facilitating trade relations between India and Israel.   

In a conversation with the Center for Soft Power, before another recognition for his efforts by the Israeli Embassy in Mumbai on July 21st, NBH Kulkarni spoke about his efforts to support the bi-lateral trade relations between these two ancient civilisations.

Israeli delegates with Kulkarni in Mumbai

Hailing from Dharwad in Karnataka, Kulkarni was a pioneer in bringing Israel to India in 1971 for trade and commerce. At that time the largest chemical company from Israel - Dead Sea Bromine Company Limited a part of Israel Chemicals Limited was not operating outside Israel and approached him for help to enter into the Indian market “because they had expanded their production capacity and were looking for new markets,” says his son Sriram Kulkarni, Director Technochem Agencies (Bombay) Pvt Ltd. 

“At that time, India did not recognize Israel, so it was impossible for any Israeli company to export any materials to India. A delegation met my father in 1971 and said  they would like to export bromine (an important chemical used in the pharmaceutical, agrochemical and the petrochemical industry) to the Indian market,” says Sriram.

A shrewd businessman, Kulkarni used innovative methods to initiate this link. Within a couple of years, his company Technochem Agencies took the bromine from Israel to the UK, and to Singapore to repackage and bring it into India. “In those times repackaging would change the country of origin, and it was legal to do it. So father started bringing the bromine chemicals into India,” says Sriram.  The business benefited India as well, as the finished products were being exported back to Israel.  

United States Consular General Peter Haas honouring NBH Kulkarni 

Along with the bromine, he brought in the technology to process the bromine in various small and medium sized industries in Gujarat and Maharashtra. ‘The technology for taking bromine and producing downstream products was the process that he brought in, and he gave it to young entrepreneurs to start their own business activities due to which the chemical industry really flourished during those times. During that time there was no Maharashtra Industrial Development corporation (MIDC) or the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC).”

When the industry burgeoned, Kulkarni took the lead in meeting with the governments of Maharashtra and Gujarat and urging them to make available basic infrastructure to support this industry. Kulkarni initiated the concept of developing infrastructure such as land, providing water, providing electrical power, maybe giving small sheds for industries to come and set up their factories, thus creating the foundations of MIDC and GIDC. Seeing this success, other Israeli companies with other technologies approached Kulkarni. Israel with its cutting edge innovation had converted a virtual desert into a green land, and Kulkarni realised India could benefit from this partnership.

Drip irrigation, used by many of Indian farmers today, was brought from Israel, reducing water consumption by more than 70%. Kulkarni connected the Israeli technology companies to various groups in India like Jain irrigation, Finolex, Coromandel fertilizers, Nagarjuna fertilizers and allowed them to tie up with Israeli agricultural technology companies.

Seeing the progress of these trade partnerships, Kulkarni was approached by bureaucrats from Israel to negotiate a meeting with India’s political leadership. He got his friend, former Chief Minister of Karnataka and a Union Cabinet Minister Veerendra Patil, to set up one of the first diplomatic meetings between India and Israel at New Delhi. The Indian Prime Minister at that time, Mrs Indira Gandhi told the team that while India had no issues with Israel, the Middle East boycott made it difficult for India to establish political ties with Israel. India was dependent on the Middle East for oil and could not jeopardize that relationship.

With Bharat Ratna Hindustani Vocalist Bhimsen Joshi, who also hailed from Dharwad in Karnataka

Sriram says, “She told the delegation not to push for diplomatic ties, but India would be happy to extend any help needed on the business front. She passed an ordinance to all the customs authorities immediately, instructing them that any material coming from Israel should be allowed in without questioning. So in the 80s, although there was no diplomatic relationship, the business started taking very good shape, so  much so that the Indian Government wanted to establish ties for Defense procurement as well from Israel.”

Kulkarni arranged the visit of India’s first delegation to Israel under the leadership of Sharad Pawar, under the guise of agri tech, as defence procurement could not be a stated reason given the lack of political  ties. “Mrs Gandhi’s also advised them to work on the erstwhile Soviet Union to recognise Israel, as it would pave the way for India to follow. This happened in 1991 when Russia recognised Israel after the split up of the Soviet Union and India followed suit in 1992,” says Sriram.

In 1995, Kulkarni was honored with the highest national civilian award by the Israel government for helping build Indo Israeli friendship and diplomatic relationships. He was also   honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Israeli Government in 2002 for over three decades of Indo-Israel trade and commerce relationship.

In the 1960s, Israeli diplomats visited India on trade and cultural grounds and a consulate was set up in Mumbai. “For a few years in the 1970s, the Israel Government did not have enough funds or the budget to operate the office in Mumbai, so the Israel consulate was operating from our Technocam offices in Mumbai for about three to four years,” says Sriram. 

Kulkarni helped organise the Israeli cultural festivals being celebrated in Mumbai. ”In those days, members of the Israeli consulate were not even entertained by any of the hotels to organize these functions, so these hotels were actually rented in the name of Technocam. We would celebrate Israeli Independence Day and their many festivals. Father would try to encourage many of the bureaucrats and industrialists to come and participate. Initially people were not comfortable attending these functions, today people are waiting to be invited for any Israeli function and once the diplomatic relationship was opened up in 1992 everyone wanted to have a special relationship with Israel,” says Sriram.

Since 1994, Israeli company IDE Technologies Ltd has installed 20 thermal desalination plants in five major companies costing $400 million. Together they provide 200 million litres of water per day (MLD). Technochem is the sole distributor of IDE in India, catering to oil refineries of Reliance Petroleum Ltd and Essar Essar Oil Ltd at Jamnagar, cement manufacturer Sanghi Industries Ltd in Kutch, EID Parry Fertilizer near Chennai and Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) in Kanyakumari.

Sriram adds that the cooperation and collaboration happening with Israel has helped India on a global front. “Israel has been a very strong supporter of India at all international forums. Even in war situations, Israel with their state of art surveillance equipment allowed us to know exactly what kind of position we were in.”

Kulkarni believes that there are many similarities between the two cultures. “Jewish culture and tradition is about 5000 years old and the Indian civilisation is much longer than that so both come with a very rich and strong cultural background.” It was this connection which inspired him to forge relationships with Israel and for which he is being recognised on 21st July.