In conversation Anuj Kumar speaks to Christabelle Noronha and Philip Chacko, the co-authors of “Small Wonder – The Making of the Nano”
W hen Ratan Tata was putting together Nano, he wasn't really putting together a car; he was putting together people — inside and outside. This is the impression one gathers while reading “Small Wonder: The Making of the Nano”, written by three Tata employees — Philip Chacko, Christabelle Noronha and Sujata Agrawal. In Delhi to promote the book, Chacko and Noronha insist that it is not a commissioned book. Published by Westland, another Tata company, the claim doesn't seem absolutely true but one doesn't mind taking it at face value when Noronha says it's not just Tata's story, it is people's story and that India could produce a cost effective world class product.
Vehicle of change
In that sense Nano is not just a car, it is a vehicle of change. Being an architect by training, the basic idea germinated while Tata, riding on the confidence of Indica, was doodling during a boring boardroom meeting. “His idea was to produce an aspirational product that would make the life of those who drive a two-wheeler safer. A family on the scooter is a common sight in India,” says Noronha. Recalling the boardroom incident, Noronha says, “Tata said, ‘Most of us are victims of environment…we lose sight of the fact that we have a greater responsibility to serve the communities we live in, to improve the quality of life of the people we work with.”
At the internal level, Nano project inculcated fresh energy in a company learning to accept the competitive realities of the post liberation era. Noronha says qualities like fighter and aggressive were not attributed to Tatas. “This has changed in the last few years and Nano has played a big role in it.”
The people who worked on the project were in their '20s and '30s and they got an opportunity to interact directly with their leader. “At times Mr. Tata was the leader and at times he played a participant, a team member. He used to call the young engineers to his Lake House for informal discussions, where everybody got an opportunity to express his views.” Chacko says it gave a huge fillip to the company.
But didn't his words lack pragmatism when he declared the cost of the vehicle even before the research started, it must have put pressure on his team? “Which businessman makes statements like ‘a promise is a promise'? That's how he works. When the newspaper reported it, he could have easily wriggled out of it by saying that he was quoted out of context but he said, let's make it the target. The cost was paramount but so were safety and emission norms,” says Noronha.
She goes on to add that this interesting combination of cost and quality, resulted in some innovative engineering leading to 32 pending patents for the company. Interestingly, what started as a rural vehicle with no doors and windows — a glorified autorickshaw so to say — ended up as an urban car with almost every basic thing that a customer expects from his car. However, the egg like design has been criticised. “A number of mules were tried and Mr. Tata tried each one of them and one of the factors that worked for this design was comfort. Also, every design takes time to get acceptance,” says Chacko.
Somehow, Tata's eagerness gives an impression that he was more interested in image makeover than the business but Chacko feels otherwise. “See, only the size of the car is small, everything else is huge. It's a game changer where volumes will matter and the market feedback suggests that it's on the right track. The company is also looking at the European market.”
The book also covers the Singur controversy and the eventual shifting of the company to Sanand. Noronha says it was perhaps the first time when the entire industrial unit was shifted from one place to another without producing a single unit. Was it again a decision made more from the heart than with mind? “Everybody would agree that the East of the country needs industrial development and the factory did generate employment…The allied business had started to take root. People had bought autos, tea shops had cropped up. Today, there are just sheds on the huge tract of land. It gives an eerie feeling,” says Noronha. Chacko says every State has a different culture. “Bengal didn't have consensus on development. But that's how democracy works. The company got offers from different States and the political environment aside the land at Sanand is firmer, more suited to industrial facility and is very near to the highway.”