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Jamshedpur: The city of steel

The Tata Steel factory in Jamshedpur. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

The Tata Steel factory in Jamshedpur. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty  

A hundred years ago, on January 2, 1919, in a speech delivered from the Director’s bungalow in Sakchi, the Governor-General and Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford, remarked upon the conclusion of World War I: “I can hardly imagine what we should have done during these four years if the Tata Company had not been able to gift us steel rails which have been provided for us, not only for Mesopotamia but for Egypt, Palestine and East Africa, and I have come to express my thanks.”

When Sir Dorabji Tata founded the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) in 1907, Sakshi was just brushwood and jungle. In 10 years, the township had 50,000 residents. In order to run an industry that required a little over 1,500 acres, the Tatas went on to manage a city of 15,000 acres. In memory of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the founder of the Tata Group, Chelmsford renamed the town Jamshedpur.

On the right track

The Great War paved the way for the meteoric rise of TISCO, and for an enduring relationship between the company and the government. The government promised to purchase 20,000 tonnes of steel rails annually, and ended up taking nearly three times that quantity, besides 1,500 miles of railway tracks.

It’s no surprise that during World War II, Jamshedpur ran the risk of being the chief target of an Axis air raid in eastern India, next in importance to Calcutta. Jamshedpur was to Calcutta what Uxbridge was to London — a conurbation of bunkers and air-bases. Instead of the Germans, the Tatas were fighting the Japanese Air Force. In the early 1940s, the Japanese had gathered great strength in the China-India-Burma corridor. Wartime Calcutta would frequently telegraph yellow signals to Jamshedpur, which had turned into a fortress of bomb shelters. Anti-aircraft artillery was installed on the outskirts of the steel city, besides tar boilers within the township to produce smokescreens during Japanese air raids. Tata factory hooters doubled up as air raid sirens. Meanwhile, an air base came up at Kalaikunda, about 90 miles from Tatanagar, the main railway station, for overland bombers targeting Japan.

Inside one of the production units at Tata Steel. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Inside one of the production units at Tata Steel. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury  

Then, when the Allies fell short of supplies of Armoured Fighting Vehicles, the Tatas were once again called to the service of the empire. To Ford truck chassis imported from Canada, Tata Steel attached armour-plate hulls. These armoured cars sent to the warfront from India came to be known as ‘Tatanagars’. The company supplied nearly 5,000 units to the Allies, making them in the workshops of Jamshedpur.

The Tatanagars could approach speeds of 80 km/hr, and were used to transport troops, to mount anti-aircraft artillery, and for reconnaissance. As John Keenan, Tata Steel’s post-war general manager, said: “The Japanese would not have been stopped without Jamshedpur’s steel.”

Impressing Gandhi

In 1925, Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, the great-grandson of Jamsetji, first conceived the idea of advertising Tata Steel’s swadeshi and socialist background. He was in an army barracks in the South of France, and wanted to use Gandhiji’s visit to Jamshedpur for ‘free propaganda and advertising.’ Gandhi, who had come to the factory to resolve labour discontent, was surprised to find pre-existing labour-oriented policies and practices in the company. Already, since 1912, there had existed 8-hour workdays, medical leave, bonus and provident fund, and skill development programmes. Gandhi was impressed, as much by this as by the town-planning and enormity of the plant. The promotional campaign, however, had to wait for another 44 years, until Gandhi’s birth centenary in 1969, when Tata Steel declared in an advertisement that when the Mahatma ‘visited Jamshedpur in 1925 and 1934, he was happy to see the cordial relations there and felt their further extension would help to achieve a Miniature Swaraj.’

Garden city

In 1902, much before the city-planning activities began, Jamsetji Tata wrote to his son to “be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick-growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens. Reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks. Earmark areas for Hindu temples, Mohammedan mosques and Christian churches.” Architectural thinkers Amita Sinha and Jatinder Singh, who have studied the development of the city, believe that ‘Jamshedpur has received surprising little attention from urban planners and historians and its omission from planning literature is a gap in urban history of South Asia.’

The original town was planned by Julian Kennedy of Pittsburgh, who came to India with Jamsetji Tata and Perin. After World War II, Colonel Frederick Charles Temple, an English sanitary engineer, was chosen as architect. Temple brought in concepts of the garden city and industrial township from the then newly-designed British city of Letchworth. In the 1930s, Major P.G.W. Stokes, who had restored Quetta after the 1934 earthquake, came to refurbish it, followed by Otto Koenigsberger, the German chief architect of Mysore.

In 1977, the company — and the township of Jamshedpur — narrowly escaped nationalisation. George Fernandes, Industry Minister of the Janata Government, had intended to do just that, but the company ran a campaign against the proposal, outlining its charitable activities and ending with the tagline: ‘We also make steel.’ It could well have also said, ‘We also make cities.’

The writer teaches English at O.P. Jindal Global University, and is author of The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2020 8:21:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/jamshedpur-the-city-of-steel/article26341043.ece

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