Madhabendra Mohan Guha was born in Bengal on Sept 12 1930 in the then British India (now Bangladesh). After partition and Indian independence in 1947, his Hindu family relocated to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the state of Bengal, India. Having lost both his parents at a very young age his 4 elder siblings who had to stop their education to work, educated him and his younger brother. On finishing school, he got admission into India’s prestigious agricultural university – Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in Delhi.
His Malaysian story began when he came to pre-independence Malaya in 1955 at the request of the Colonial Government in Malaya. This was part of the process to bring in professionals from the region to replace the British Research Officers in the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia (RRIM) and other Malaysian institutes / departments who would be leaving in a phased manner once “Malaysia” achieved independence in 1957.
He was a post-grad student then at IARI completing his master’s degree programme when his supervising professor told him about a request received by the institute from the Colonial Government in Malaya for sourcing agricultural professionals to staff RRIM. Guha applied and got an offer which he took up a few months later. That’s the start of his life in Malaysia - in 1955 - at age 25.
The RRIM he joined as a young research officer in 1955 was a period when the institute was at its intellectual peak when a lot of fundamental research papers and information was generated. He worked under Dr George Watson, in the Soils Division. He also interacted with the likes of scientists such as the late Dr Bolle-Jones and Dr Bateman there.
After a few years – after independence, RRIM funded his doctorate studies in the UK at Aberdeen’s University’s McCaulay Institute of Land Sciences (now known as the James Hutton Inst.). The spectrophotometer (as we know it now) was then just invented at McCaulay Institute in a very crude form to analyze plant nutrients in both plant tissues and in soil matter. Dr Guha recalled how they used to burn leaf tissues and channel the burning flame’s light through a prism to separate out the beams of the various chemical elements for measurement of wavelength and intensity. In this way, they first identified the element and then quantified the amount / concentrations. His future wife at the time, Parul who had accompanied him from Kuala Lumpur to the UK for her studies (and also to presumably keep him company in the Scottish winters!) recalled how she got bored seeing him put sample after sample through the flames – after trekking into the forests to first collect soil and leaf samples. This endeavour at that period was pioneering work in the UK and USA – to analyze plant tissue and soils for plant nutrients and to develop plant nutrient analytical and manuring standards / guidelines for the various plant species.
He returned to Malaysia and the RRIM in 1964 and soon rose to head the Soils Dept. (in addition to raising a family). He enjoyed working and socializing with his colleagues – Dr. B. C. Shekhar, Dr. Ani Arope, Dr. Sekharan Nair, Dr P.D. Abraham, Dr. Mohinder Singh and many others. During this period, the soils of Malaysia were mapped and Dr Guha started up the soils and plant tissue analytical chemistry labs. He carried out the basic research for the nutrition of Hevea brasiliensis coming up with the leaf analysis standards for its nutrition management – the first time the new techniques were applied in Asia. As the commercial rubber plantations routinely began to practice scientific nutrient management of their plantings the agro-advisory services of the institute began to grow. It flourished to the extent that the plantation owners asked Dr Guha to set up his own agri-services outfit to service them – and they would advance the capital to do so!
Well, he had already enlarged the family to four boys by now – so the family work was done and attention could be given elsewhere while the wife was kept busy!
So, in 1970, he set up Agricultural Research & Advisory Bureau [ARAB] –now known as ARABIS - in the upper floors of a small building in Jalan Ampang – just down the road from RRI’s Jalan Ampang campus. (He loved the people and the intellectual atmosphere at RRI in those days and they often socialized and lived as neighbours). The scientific equipment companies donated all of the lab equipment that he needed to set up the laboratories. He was always grateful for this support and that received from the plantation industry over the years. During this period of the early 1970’s, ARAB actively guided estates in the nutrient management of the soils and plantings and was also instrumental in setting up the Soil and Plant Laboratories at the Marihat Agri-Research Centre in Indonesia and the training of its personnel.
In 1976 ARAB relocated to its current site near Kajang and the agri-services business continued to serve the plantations sector in Malaysia as well as Indonesia and other countries such as PNG, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and others. The 1980’s and 1990’s was a period of very rapid growth in the plantations sector (particularly in oil palm) in both Malaysia and Indonesia and Dr Guha and ARAB worked on many such new plantation development schemes – often with development organizations (ADB, World Bank) and various country governments. One such project that gave him a lot of satisfaction was that he was able to plant 20,000+ hectares of rubber in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh under an ADB funded project. It was like he had this one chance to contribute in some significant way to the land of his birth. I remember him checking umpteenth number of times on the rubber bud woods at Bangkok’s airport before the planting materials were air freighted to Bangladesh.
Some of the works done at ARAB such as the development of a patented method in the early 1990’s to stimulate latex flow in Hevea using the direct application of ethylene gas have resulted in significant increases in rubber yield productivity. With the advent of the computers in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, ARAB under his leadership developed computer databases to track all agro-tech and management data on oil palm and rubber plantings and the plantations. Research information was integrated into these database systems in the form of agro-tech algorithms to process and analyze these data into information for basing actionable management actions. These software systems helped ARAB Agronomists to service large client hectarages of both oil palm and rubber. He was also very gratified to see that many of the young Agronomists who started their early careers with him at ARAB have gone on to play important roles in the plantation industry.
Dr Guha loved meeting new peoples in the various countries that his work took him. And he loved to see fields of plantings growing healthily and how such agri based rural development had contributed to the wellbeing of rural communities. On returning home after field visits, it was not uncommon for him to tell the family about the great food and hospitality of the planters whose estates he had just visited - not to mention the late-night whiskey drinking and chit chat sessions in those managers’ huge colonial bungalows! And like most planters, he brought home whatever fruits were in season. He always felt fortunate that through the projects and people he was involved with both in the industry as well as organizations such as the ADB and FAO/World Bank; he could contribute to agricultural development in many countries around the world.
Never having felt the need to retire from something he loved and was passionate about, he actively ran ARAB till his passing on Aug 30 2000 just shy of his 70th birthday.
The plantation industry was still healthy then and continues to grow, and as planters say… an old planter never dies – he just goes to seed and regrows !