Citizen JRD — the nation builder

Sreelakshmi Hariharan | Updated on July 28, 2020 Published on July 28, 2020

Remembering the Tata visionary who believed that businesses should partner with the government for the progress of the nation

If one visits the Tata Central Archives in Pune, an unmissable stop is JRD Tata’s office room, which has been recreated down to the minutest detail — the furniture, carpets, décor, all come from JRD’s original office in Bombay House. In this room hangs an unusual map of the world behind a large regal desk. It is unusual, as it is a rare map specially commissioned by JRD, featuring India at the centre of the world. In many ways, it is symbolic of how JRD viewed India and its citizens.

JRD’s compelling motivation, as he built businesses, institutions and people in over five decades as Chairman of the Tata Group, was how he can be of service to the nation. RM Lala, a former Trustee of Tata Trusts and JRD’s biographer, writes in Beyond the Last Blue Mountain, that he has heard JRD ask several times “What does India need?”

This singular drive gave India civil aviation in the form of Tata Airlines (which later became Air India), indigenous capabilities in automotive manufacturing from TELCO (now Tata Motors), its first soda ash plant, Tata Chemicals, and its first IT services company, Tata Consultancy Services.

Beyond business

JRD’s contributions to India’s progress extended well beyond business. He threw his weight behind Homi Bhabha to start Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1945, so that India will have a ready pool of trained scientists in nuclear physics and mathematics when the time came to embrace nuclear energy. When discussing a proposal for the Tata Memorial hospital, JRD was clear that in addition to treatment, the hospital should also be able to carry out research and education. His vision has enabled doctors trained at Tata Memorial Hospital to spread their knowledge across the country.

The rich talent pool cultivated by JRD within the Tatas would be frequently ‘raided’ as he jokingly called it, by the government. Many such luminaries from the Tata stable, including Homi Mody, Ardeshir Dalal and John Mathai, went on to serve the government in various capacities. He opened the doors of the Tata Management Training Centre to the public sector, helping provide advanced training to thousands of senior government officials, including Chief Secretaries at the Central and State levels.

JRD believed in the holistic development of society. So, when Jamshed Bhabha proposed the setting up of the National Centre for Performing Arts, he found an enthusiastic backer in JRD, who observed that “While we want to build a prosperous society, we do not want it to be merely a materialistic society.”

Matters of policy

JRD also concerned himself with matters of national policy. He believed that businesses should partner with the government for the progress of the nation, and got personally involved in helping build a new India. In 1944, anticipating that India would soon become free, he enlisted the support of key industrialists and luminaries from the Tata Group to produce an economic plan for India, today known as the Bombay Plan, outlining a 15-year period of development. When asked on his motivation to think of such a plan, he said, “… I knew independence was bound to come: I knew the country’s economy would have to be tackled — that economic prosperity needed to reach not only the few but the many. Businessmen and not only the government should play a role.”

Later in the 1960s, fresh after the Indo-China war, on the request of the government, JRD chaired a committee which included the three service chiefs and the defence secretary to map out India’s military aviation needs in the long term, including detailed recommendations on equipment and expansion of the Indian Air Force. In recognition of his services in the field of aviation, he was given the honorary rank of Air Commodore in the Indian Air Force. Years later, in 1992, he would become the only industrialist to be conferred the Bharat Ratna, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Destiny brought the boy who dreamt of becoming a pilot to the shores of this country as an unpaid apprentice at Tatas. His vision, drive and determination helped give wings to a greater destiny for India and its people. For, the man who viewed India at the centre of world believed that what is good for India is good for the Tatas. As we mark the 116th birth anniversary of this visionary today, it is fair to say that his life and his legacy stand testimony to this.

The writer is an officer in the Tata Administrative Service, and works with the Corporate Brand & Marketing team at Tata Sons

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Published on July 28, 2020
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