THE Rathis have had a long association with the Birlas. K.B. Rathi has worked all his life for the Birla family. "So did my father and his father," he says, sitting in his office overlooking Hong Kong's busiest street, Queen's Road.
Rathi is now considered a doyen of the Indian community in the colony and is the secretary-general of the Council of the Hong Kong Indian Association and a permanent adviser to the Indian General Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. He is also a trustee of the Nehru Memorial Trust and the Tagore Centenary Trust. Rathi has been involved with the citizenship issue since 1984, when he was a member of the Indian delegation that lobbied the House of Lords in London for full British citizenship for Indian residents in Hong Kong.
"I have full British citizenship, my children are all back in Bombay and I have no need to agitate for citizenship here. But I believe that what I am doing concerns the whole business community," explains Rathi. "It is a matter of principle. Indians have been an integral part of Hong Kong's economy from the time, and probably even before the time, Britain annexed the territory. It was Indian civil servants and Indian policemen and later Indian soldiers who helped the British run the territory and they deserve something better in return."
He adds: "Hong Kong's history is intertwined with names like the Sassoons, from whom the Kad-oorie family descended, and those like Ruttonjee and Rustomjee, all from Bombay." The Kadoories control China Light and Gas, which monopolises the gas and electricity supply to Kowloon and the New Territories, and own majority shares of the Kowloon Peninsular Hotel, a Hong Kong landmark.
Others like property tycoon and hotelier Hari Harilela came in later, before World War II, but all of them have contributed more than their share to make Hong Kong a vibrant city, Rathi notes. It is a different matter that the Kadoories and Harilelas consider themselves British, not Indian, and are not involved in the current citizenship crusade. In fact, Lawrence Kadoorie was admitted to the House of Lords and all of his sons were knighted.
Similarly, a company spokesman for Hari Harilela, when contacted, said the Harilelas, whose companies are all believed to be registered outside Hong Kong, were no longer Indians and thus were unlikely to have the same kind of problems as those faced by other "Indian" businessmen.
For his part, Rathi is clear about his mission: "We (the Indians) want to stay and continue to contribute. We are now responsible for more than 10 per cent of Hong Kong's external trade and employ around 7 per cent of the workforce."
According to him, Indians also run over 1,200 offices in Hong Kong. "The Indian General Chamber of Commerce is one of the five organisations, including the government and the Hong Kong general chamber, which can issue certificates of origins. This has been so since 1952."
He sees huge opportunities for Indian business well past the takeover and feels they can do business with mainland China. He notes that there are already direct Indian-Chinese joint ventures as well as Hong Kong-Indian and Chinese joint ventures. "It will be in the best interest of the new sovereign power to foster these joint ventures and I am sure they will. But at the same time, it is also prudent for us to seek insurance." Clearly, these are anxious days for the Indian community.