The Saga of Jamsetji Tata’s Dreams
Continued from “Those who Built the Superstructure”
Mangers Galore – Part IV
It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.... Paulo Coelho
Would you recall the story of The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream − the enchanting fantasy of the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho? Its storyline, dazzling at once in its simplicity and wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of treasure buried in the Pyramids. Early into his journey, he meets an old king, who introduces him to the idea of a Personal Legend (which is always capitalized in the book).
He convinces Santiago that “Your Personal Legend is what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is”. He adds prophetically that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”. This is the core theme of the book which has captivated millions of readers since its publication in 1988.
Image (c) Tata's Archives
There was in India too such a person possessed by a Personal Legend. His name was Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata. However, nothing of his childhood suggested he would create his own destiny. Born on March 3, 1839, in the sleepy town of Navsari in Baroda district of Gujarat, he was the first child and only son of Nusserwanji Tata, the scion of a family of Parsee priests. Many generations of the Tatas had joined priesthood, but the enterprising Nusserwanji broke the mould, becoming the first member of the family to try his hand at business.
Jamsetji joined his father in Mumbai at the age of 14 and enrolled at the Elphinstone College completing his education as a ‘Green Scholar’ (equivalent of today’s graduate). He was married while he was still a student. He graduated from college in 1858 and joined his father’s trading firm. It was a turbulent time to venture into business in the years immediately following the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
TTo begin with Jamsetji worked in his father’s company. In 1868, aged 29 and wiser for the experience garnered by nine years of apprenticeship under his father, he founded a trading company of his own with a capital of Rs.21,000. His first venture was to buy a bankrupt oil mill at Chinchpokli in 1869 and converted it to a cotton mill, which he renamed Alexandra Mill. He sold the mill two years later for a profit. He set up another cotton mill at Nagpur in 1874, which he named Empress Mill. Was it to commemorate the proclamation of Queen Victoria as the Empress of India in January 1877?
Jamsetji's maiden expedition to England, and many others that he made in subsequent years, convinced him that there was tremendous scope for Indian companies to make a dent in the prevailing British dominance of the textile industry.
Two years later, Jamsetji sold the mill for a significant profit to a local cotton merchant. He followed this up with an extended visit to England, and an exhaustive study of the Lancashire cotton trade. The quality of men an machinery that Jamsetji saw during this sojourn was impressive, but he was certain he could replicate the story in his own country. Jamsetji believed he could take on and beat the colonial masters at a game they had rigged.
Jamsetji’s knowledge expansion occurred during the successive trips abroad, mainly to England, America, and continental Europe, which convinced him that there was tremendous scope for Indian companies to forge through and make a foray in the British dominated textile industry.
Jamsetji’s Personal Legend crystallized into a dream. It had four strands, namely, to set up an iron and steel company, a world-class learning institution to access science and technology – the gateway to economic growth, a hydro-electric plant and a unique hotel. And there’s a legend behind each.
While in England in 1867, Jamsetji attended a lecture in Manchester by Thomas Carlyle. Jamsetji was spellbound by Carlyle’s statement “the nation which gains control of iron, soon acquire control of gold”. He instantly made up his mind to set up a steel plant in India.
Back home, he very seriously addressed himself to give a concrete shape to this all important constituent of his Personal Legend. All conceivable odds were stacked against him. Far from helping the young entrepreneur, the British were determined to defeat his plans. In 1902, he travelled to Pittsburgh to seek the help of American geologist and metallurgist Charles Page Perin.
After thorough search Charles Perin found first-rate iron ore in the area where today stands Bhilai Steel Plant. The Wardha coalfields had then not been geologically surveyed. So, a disappointed Perin requested Jamsetji to relieve him to return.
“Please continue,” said the visionary to him. “Go instead to Chota Nagpur where a Bengali geologist friend of mine tells me there’s every likelihood of both first-rate iron ore and coal existing side by side.”
Looking at the withered face of Jamsetji, Charles Perin noted in his diary that the old man “was not thinking of himself but for the next century.”
The torturous twists and turns the steel project took would have defeated a lesser man, but Jamsetji remained steadfast in his determination to see the venture come to fruition. Along the way he had to suffer the scorn of people such as Sir Frederick Upcott, the chief commissioner of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, who promised to “eat every pound of steel rail [the Tatas] succeed in making”. There is no record of where Sir Frederick was when the first ingot of steel rolled out of the plant’s production line in 1912. Jamsetji had been dead eight years by then, but his spirit it was, as much as the efforts of his persevering son Dorab and cousin R. D. Tata, that made real the seemingly impossible.
The founder of the Tata Iron & Steel Company – now called Tata Steel – never lived to see it incorporated. TISCO was born in 1907, three years after Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata died. The man had been pursuing the dream of setting up a steel plant since at least 1882. What over-arching vision, what dogged determination, what an exhilarating Personal Legend!
Only the hotel became a reality during his lifetime, with the inauguration of the Taj Mahal at Colaba waterfront in Bombay (now called Mumbai) on 3 December 1903 at the cost of four crore rupees (about 15 billion rupees at today’s prices). At that time it was the only hotel in India to have electricity. It was the only first rate hotel in the country where not only the white-skinned but Indians too could check in.
Will to Carry On
On the passing away of President Franklin Roosevelt, the great American columnist Walter Lippmann wrote:
The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on. . . . The genius of a good leader is to leave behind him a situation which common sense, without the grace of genius, can deal with successfully.
How many leaders in the myriad world of industrialists fulfill this acid test of leadership that Jamsetji does? He had fired the imagination of his son, Dorab to scrupulously ensure the fulfillment of his dream. His successors’ work led to the three remaining ideas fructifying, namely,
Tata Steel (formerly TISCO – Tata Iron and Steel Company Limited) was Asia's first and India’s largest steel company. It became world’s fifth largest steel company, after it acquired Corus Group producing 28 million tonnes of steel annually.
Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, the pre-eminent Indian institution for research and education in Science and Engineering.
Tata Hydroelectric Power Supply Company, renamed Tata Power Company Limited, currently India’s largest private electricity company with an installed generation capacity of over 8000MW.
Elton Mayo (about whom I wrote in the last essay in this series), Professor of Industrial Management at the Harvard Business School, in the 1920’s was the first academician to draw attention to what is today a universally accepted philosophy, the importance of human relations in industry. He famously said:
SSo long as commerce specializes in business methods which take no account of human nature and social motives, so long may we expect strikes and sabotage to be the ordinary accompaniment of industry.
He lived on to write that classic The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization. He had cogently argued that the worker’s morale, or mental health, depended on his perception of the social function of his work. He saw the solution to industrial unrest in sociological research and industrial management rather than in radical politics.
At least two decades before Mayo crystallized his thoughts; Jamsetji had the prescience to write to his son sharing his vision for the township that would one day be translated into reality of Jamshedpur.
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.
The industrialist in Jamsetji was a pioneer and a visionary, possessed of a spirit of entrepreneurial adventure and acumen never seen before or since in India. The nationalist in him believed unwaveringly that the fruits of his business success would enrich a country he cared deeply about. These attributes, by themselves, would have been enough to mark him as an extraordinary figure. But what made Jamsetji truly unique, the quality that places him in the pantheon of modern India’s greatest sons, was his humaneness.
Take the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Jamsetji pledged Rs 30 lakh from his personal fortune towards setting up the institute, drew up a blueprint of the shape it ought to take, and solicited the support of everyone from the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, to anyone who could support his idea.
Jamsetji solicited Vivekannanda’s views on the proposal in a famous letter in November 1998. Vivekananda supported this project most unreservedly by responding that “I am not aware if any project at once so opportune and so far reaching in its beneficent effects has ever been mooted in India…The scheme grasps the vital point of weakness in our national well-being with a clearness of vision and tightness of grip, the mastery of which is only equaled by the munificence of the gift that is being ushered to the public”.
Who said heavens quicker when great minds meet?
Despite this and similar endorsements, it would take a further 12 years before the splendid Indian Institute of Science started functioning in Bangaluru in 1911.
When Mr Jamshetji thought of building a 72 MW Hydroelectric Power Station at Khopoli, Lonavala to bring electric power to Mumbai, did he order a Padta first as a G D Birla would have or bribe lavishly the officials as Dhirubhai Ambani would have? Making a profit was the last thing on the man’s mind. His vision was to ensure cheap, clean and abundant power for the people of Bombay as their basic need and a sinew of economic progress.
The hydroelectric project too could not be completed while Jamsetji was alive. Frank Harris put it succinctly in his biography when he wrote,
“He was one whose work lived after him in such a way that it is well-nigh impossible to draw a dividing line between conception and maturity. The tributes paid to his memory always show how much the influence of the dead strengthened and inspired the deeds of the living.”
Most appropriate indeed is the tribute that Jawaharlal Nehru paid to Jamsetji Tata:
When you have to give the lead in action, in ideas – a lead which does not fit in with the very climate of opinion – that is true courage, physical or mental or spiritual, call it what you like, and it is this type of courage and vision that Jamsetji Tata showed.
JJamsetji Tata didn’t build for himself a 27-floor, 570 foot high structure on the up-market Altamont Road worth about worth about $1 billion USD. He lived a modest life. He had stipulated in his will that not more than Rs 2000 should be spent on his funeral. He didn’t forget to mention in his will the names of various servants who had at different stages of his life served him, as beneficiaries of his personal wealth.
Instead, he built the foundations – imperishable foundations – for future generations to build an India of his dreams.
Visionary, seer, pioneer are pale adjectives to describe the man whose vision touched not just tomorrow, but day after tomorrow. He wasn’t just a unique person. He was a phenomenon that does India proud.