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The man of steel with a heart of gold

Celebrating the legacy of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, whose birth anniversary was on March 3

March 03, 2015 05:28 pm | Updated 05:28 pm IST

Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata

Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata

The nation which gains control of iron, soon acquires the control of gold.

This is a love letter to the man who gave his name to my hometown Jamshedpur, whose boundless vision and courage laid the foundation of the Tata Group. Today, I remember a man whose life work enriched that of a common Indian’s beyond measure, a visionary industrialist who set an example of how there can be a perfect marriage of industrial growth and human development. What the Tatas did first, the world followed suit, be it the introduction of the eight-hour day, accident and sickness benefits, paid leave or retirement pensions.

The Tata name is highly visible in modern India — emblazoned on commodities from tea to motors, steel to salt. In recent years, it has become a global name after the acquisition of venerable British brands such as Corus and Jaguar Land Rover. But before the company went on a shopping spree, it built its core business in India. Jamsetji made it big in the textile business before turning his gaze towards making steel in India, the audacity of his dream provoking a disgruntled British officer, Frederick Upcott, to say that he would eat every pound of steel rail the Tatas succeed in making. There are no reports confirming whether he indeed began a steel diet when the plant began operating in 1907, and India became the first Asian country with its own steel plant.

A pioneer unlike any, a philanthropist who turned profits into social capital with the same zeal with which he sought out new frontiers in industry, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata is a name the people of Jamshedpur know well. The image of his kind face and deep intelligent eyes is embedded deep in our conscience. The history of India would have shaped up very differently if not for the gumption of this buccaneering industrialist.

That his vision carved out a model industrial town from the jungles of the Chota Nagpur plateau is a matter of immense pride for us Jamshedpurians. I took for granted the excellent standard of public services that the Tata Company provided, with abundant water supply, wide tree-lined avenues, clean drinking water, social clubs for family outings… the list is long. It is only when I began travelling to other towns and cities of India did I notice the wide discrepancy. What the government of India still struggles to provide its people, Tata Steel keeps at its core of operations, following the vision of the man who died three years before he could see his dream of India’s first steel plant come true.

Jamsetji recognised that a stable business needs to invest as much in human capital as in the latest technology, and his philanthropy bears testimony to his values.

“Be sure to lay wide streets lined by shady trees, every other of the quick-growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens. Earmark areas for Hindu temples, Mohammedan mosques and Christian churches,” Jamsetji wrote in a letter to his son Dorab. And thus came about India’s first Steel City.

Jamsetji was deeply influenced by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, whom he had met during a sea journey. Swamiji’s message of self-reliance and ‘Swadeshi’ took deep root in Jamsetji, who also set up the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, which grew to be an institution of formidable reputation in an area where India made great technological strides. A large bulk of Jamsetji’s personal wealth was left to charity upon his death in 1904. His spirit lives on in the way his successors shaped the company to become the global behemoth it is today. His life is a source of inspiration at an age where we are beset by stories of institutional crime and corruption at every level of public and private life, where most people harbour nothing but cynicism and scepticism for public figures. It is with deep love and admiration that I write this paean to the giant among men, the extraordinary man in a Parsi dugli and pagdi .

Born March 3, 1839, died May 19, 1904.

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