The pioneer of Indian self-reliance

Sreelakshmi Hariharan | Updated on March 02, 2021

The four partners (left to right): Jamsetji Tata, Founder of the Tata Group; RD Tata, father of JRD Tata; Sir Ratan Tata, younger son of the Founder; and Sir Dorabji Tata, elder son of the Founder. Credit: Tata Central Archives   -  Tata Central Archives

Remembering Jamsetji Tata, the original Make-in-India man, on his 182nd birth anniversary

As the clock struck twelve ushering in the dawn of the 20th Century, India was awakening to an era of hope and resurgence. Political consciousness was beginning to spread, and the concept of Swadeshi had started to take root. But well before it became a political cry, the idea had already appealed to one man.

This man’s effort to further the cause of Swadeshi would eventually represent a vision so far-sighted that few men had had the courage to dream of them before. Thankfully, for India and its citizens, courage was a quality that Jamsetji Tata had in abundance.

Jamsetji believed that “freedom without the strength to support it and, if need be, defend it, would be a cruel delusion. And the strength to defend freedom can itself only come from widespread industrialisation and the infusion of modern science and technology into the country’s economic life.” Thus, started his quest to lay the foundations of economic, scientific and technological, and intellectual self-reliance for a modern India.

Steely resolve

The rich nations at that time had made their fortunes through rapid industrialisation built on the pillars of a strong steel industry. Therefore, Jamsetji was convinced that an indigenous iron and steel industry was central to India’s industrialisation and the ultimate prosperity of its citizens.

He spent 20 years studying traditional steel towns and plants. He overcame unfavourable government policies, bureaucratic hurdles, a hostile investment environment and public scepticism. While he did not live to see this dream materialise in his lifetime, Jamsetji exhorted his sons to carry out his plans. His relentless persistence finally bore fruit and the first ingot of steel from Tata Iron and Steel Company (Tata Steel) rolled out in 1912.

Today, even more than 100 years later, the steel born out of one man’s vision is helping build the infrastructure backbone of India’s economy. Consider this: almost every automotive model in India contains Tata Steel; two-thirds of the metro rails, flyovers and bridges are made of Tata Steel high strength wires; and 32 major airports across India use Tata Steel.

Towards scientific self-reliance

Jamsetji believed that economic empowerment can only be sustained if India acquired scientific and technological prowess to power its progress.

He set aside half his personal wealth, which included 14 buildings and four landed properties in Mumbai to build a world-class institute of advanced studies to promote original investigations in all branches of learning and utilise them for the benefit of India. Jamsetji’s vision eventually materialised as the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), which for several decades remained one of the few institutes of national prominence.

IISc has played a role in helping create several national institutes and provided the intellectual framework for CSIR and ISRO through its distinguished alumni. Several luminaries like Nobel Laureate CV Raman, Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai did some of their most path-breaking work at IISc.

Thus, Jamsetji’s foresight ensured that the intellectual wealth of the nation did not get drained, and India’s talent had the opportunity and resources to be gainfully deployed in service to the nation.

An India led by Indians

Jamsetji Tata was a scholar who understood the value of education. He believed that “what advances a nation or a community is not so much to prop up its weakest and most helpless members, but to lift up the best and the most gifted, so as to make them of the greatest service to the country.”

At a time when changes in rules made it increasingly difficult for Indians to apply for the Indian Civil Service, Jamsetji launched his Scholarship Scheme for Higher Education for Indians in 1892.

These scholarships helped aspirants equip themselves to succeed. By the 1920s, one in five Indians in the Indian Civil Service was a JN Tata Scholar.

Training Indians to administer themselves was only one objective — Tata Scholars were also chosen across various fields like medicine, engineering and law. The scholarships were always a loan, and never a grant. For Jamsetji believed that self-respect and self-esteem were essential building blocks of self-reliance.

The JN Tata Scholarships today feature amongst some of the most prestigious aids for higher studies.

Amongst these scholars include names like KR Narayanan, former President of India; Raja Ramanna, renowned physicist; and RA Mashelkar, former Director-General of CSIR, who made seminal contributions to India’s progress.

As we pay tribute to this legend who lives on, long after he has gone, the lessons from Jamsetji’s his life serve as useful reminder of what grit, passion, perseverance and, above all, courage can achieve.

For one man’s courage — the courage to dream audaciously, the courage to fail without getting disheartened and the courage to do what no woman nor man has done before — helped a nation boldly embark on the path of economic, scientific and intellectual self-reliance.

The writer is an officer in the Tata Administrative Service, and works with the Corporate Brand & Marketing team at Tata Sons. Read more about Jamsetji Tata’s life and legacy at tata.com/jntata

Published on March 02, 2021

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