JRD The builder of modern Tatas

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R. M. Lala

THE contribution of a great industrialist can be measured in terms both tangible and intangible. Tangible, as in the factories and plants he may have set up. Perhaps, more important, is his contribution to the spirit and thinking of the nation. J. R. D. Tata's contribution is on both counts.

JRD's life spanned almost the whole of the 20th century, from 1904 to 1993. He inherited 14 companies. When he stepped down as Chairman of the Tata Group, there were 95. Had he not been constrained by the licence-permit raj, there is no saying what he could not have done, not just for the Tatas, but for the country. In 1979, when I was writing The Creation of Wealth, I had wondered if the Tata Group had expanded in the last couple of decades as much as some others. JRD firmly replied that had the Tatas adopted the means some others had, "we would have been twice as big as we are today. But we would not want it any other way."

JRD's outstanding contributions to India were the Tata Airlines he pioneered in 1932, and TELCO (Tata Engineering and Locomotives Company; now simply Tata Motors) and the TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) in 1945. In the 1930s, flying was a rich man's sport and few could afford, or even took, commercial flights. Hundred days after launching the airline, in an address to the Rotary Club of Bombay, JRD conceived the future of aviation, as one that would knit India closer. It may be noted that at that time, the Tata Airline was only carrying mail received at Karachi from England to Bombay and South India.

TELCO began with locomotives, but he foresaw it becoming a great engineering company of which Tata Iron and Steel Company (Tisco; now Tata Steel) was the springboard. When JRD started Air India International in 1948, there were no international commercial airlines except those of Europe and America. JRD made Air India's presence felt internationally. He never expected to compete in size with the giants who flew across the Atlantic, but he had the conviction that Indians, with their tradition, could excel in hospitality and service. He established that point when, at one time, three out of four passengers on Air India International were from foreign lands.

When Morarjl Desal dismissed JRD as Chairman of Air India in 1978, there was an uproar. The Daily Telegraph of London said that JRD had made Air India "one of the most successful airlines". It called JRD "a legendary figure known to legions of executives around the world and envied by most for his success." The dismissal, the paper added, was apparently for political reasons and "it brought Mr. Desai some of the worst publicity since he took office (as Prime Minister)".

In his book, Empires of the Skies, Anthony Samson called JRD "the most long lasting of all pioneers" who insulated his airline from favouritism in appointments. The highest aviation awards came JRD's way, including the Daniel Guggenheim Award first given to Orville Wright. He was active in Air India from 1932 to 1978 a record. He gave India and Indians pride in the first company to make its mark internationally a faith that they could hold their own in the comity of nations.

Sadly, JRD's dream and recommendation that government enterprise and private industry should participate in ventures with the private sector, as happened with Air India, was not accepted. State capitalism was the path chosen by Nehru. Private industry, hamstrung by the licence-permit raj, resorted to political and bureaucratic manipulation of the system. JRD was never drawn into it. He held to his principles when others, compromising theirs, raced ahead.

A little known contribution of JRD is the creation of the first software company in India and today the largest Indian outfit Tata Consultancy Services. In an address on the Birth Centenary of JRD, Professor M. G. K. Menon, a former Director of TIFR and a good friend of JRD, said that way back in the 1960s, he (Menon) had mentioned to JRD about the possibility of India participating in the emerging field of software. "He (JRD) referred to this topic in the boardroom lunch discussion. To cut a long story short, the Tatas embarked on setting up TCS (in 1968) under the dynamic leadership of Mr F. C. Kohli. Today, TCS is a jewel in the crown of Tatas."

Though not directly connected with the Tatas and industry, it is JRD whose support to Dr Homi Bhabha, and sharing his vision, that led to the setting up of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and, subsequently, the pursuit of atomic energy in India. Homi Bhabha called the TIFR "the cradle of atomic energy in India". M. G. K. Menon, who succeeded Homi Bhabha as Director of TIFR, observed: "Without support provided by Jeh, history would have been very different. Homi Bhabha may not have stayed on In India; TIFR may not have come into existence, as it is now. Jeh's was the hand that directed fate as it turned out to be."

JRD also contributed to starting the debate on family planning in 1951 and had he been heeded, as he should have been, many of the problems India faces today would have been mitigated even before they were born. If it is some consolation, a year before he died, JRD did receive the UN Population Award.

With Boeing's jets, JRD foresaw global tourism taking off, and though it took a few years to start, he encouraged the expansion of Indian Hotels which had then consisted of only one property the Taj Palace Hotel. Today, this landmark of Mumbai is the flagship of the largest chain of hotels in India.

JRD was also the first industrialist to move beyond the welfare of his own workers to that of the surrounding areas in which the Tata companies and factories operated. He did not want his companies to be islands of prosperity in a sea of poverty.

JRD is no more but his work goes on. Ratan Tata has held on to JRD's values and kept the Tatas flag flying high.

(The author is a biographer of J. R. D. Tata.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated July 29, 2005)
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