From 1926, when on the death of his father he became a Director of Tata Sons at the age of 22 and then its Chairman 12 years later, till his death in 1993, JRD Tata’s life was one of continuous and outstanding achievement for the national cause.
As leader of India’s largest and most successful group of industrial enterprises, he made an enormous contribution to the development and growth of the nation.
Born in Paris on July 29, 1904, Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhai Tata was the son of Jamsetji’s nephew Ratanji Dadabhai Tata and his French wife Sooni. The Tatas had five children who grew up and schooled in France, and sometimes in Bombay whenever the family visited the city.
Though JRD would rather have been in Cambridge, he had to serve the French Army for a year in 1924 instead. The next year, RD Tata recalled him to Bombay to join the Tatas and placed him under the charge of Mr. John Peterson, the Director-in-charge of Tata Steel at Bombay House.
Through the ups and downs of the decades that followed, Tatas had the good fortune to be steered by a man who stood for all the ideals that were dear to Jamsetji such as the principles of justice and equity, and of trusteeship. In a speech, JRD observed that had the Tatas chosen they would be many times bigger than they were but there was no question of abandoning all the principles they had always cherished. Like Jamsetji and Dorabji he visualised the creation of wealth not merely for individual profit, but as a “sacred trust” that is graciously received from society and generously ploughed back to the nation and its citizens.
A measure of Mr. Tata’s vision for the group can be gleaned from the growth of the Tatas which had 14 companies when he took over the reins. After 53 years of his stewardship they had either started or had a controlling interest in 95 enterprises across a range of industries encompassing steel, power generation, engineering, hotels, consultancy services, information technology, consumer and industrial products.
One of the first moves he made on becoming the Chairman of Tata Sons, the apex body for various Tata ventures, was to give autonomy to all the group’s companies. However, all the enterprises the group invested in were only those which adhered to one of Mr. Tata’s guiding principles that the needs or interests of the country and the people should be served, and the task is achieved in fair and honest means.
Mr. Tata placed ethics and humanitarianism above everything. It was he who, in 1943, gave shape to the idea that men were as important as machines if not more so, and that looking after them was a prerequisite of good management.
His foresight and concern led to the establishment of a Personnel Department and introduction of social welfare schemes at Tata Steel to be followed later by a system of joint consultations in 1956. As a result of this, Jamshedpur has never known any strife for more than sixty years which is a unique feat in industrial relations in India, and perhaps the whole of Asia.
JRD Tata realised the importance of family planning as a precondition for improving the quality of life.
As early as 1951, in his annual speech to Tata Steel shareholders, he made an impassioned plea calling immediate attention to this problem.
Tata Steel’s Family Welfare Programme, now one of the most successful ones in the country, was the brain-child of JRD. In September 1992 the United Nations conferred on him the Population Award in recognition of the contributions that he made to national causes like family planning and population control by crusading relentlessly for them.
Indian and foreign universities showered Mr. Tata with honorary degrees and doctorates. He received the Padma Vibhushan in 1955, the Tony Jannus award in 1979, the rank of Commander of the French Legion of Honour in 1983, the Bessemer Medal of the Institute of Metals, London, in 1986, and the Daniel Guggenheim Medal in 1988.
Three years later, he relinquished his position as Chairman of Tata Sons in favour of Mr. Ratan Tata but continued to serve on the board as Chairman Emeritus. In 1992, the Government of India conferred on him the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest honour, awarded for the first time since its institution to an industrialist.
Always more than an industrialist though, he made a unique contribution to the development of the sciences and art. He played a pivotal role in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the Tata Memorial Cancer Research Centre and Hospital, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the National Centre for Performing Arts and the National Institute of Advanced Studies.
Besides his social concerns that distinguished him, he was also the undisputed pioneer of civil aviation, and helped to usher in an era of air transport in India. Chairman of the nationalised Air India from 1953 to 1978, Mr. Tata was the first qualified Indian pilot. He had flown solo from India to England as a competitor for the Aga Khan prize in 1930.
Two years later, in 1932, when he founded Tata Airlines, later renamed Air India, the country’s first national carrier, he personally piloted the Karachi-Bombay sector of the inaugural flight. Fifty years later, a 78-year-old JRD Tata re-enacted solo the inaugural flight “to instil a spirit of adventure in the younger generation.”
Mr Tata died in Geneva in Switzerland on November 29, 1993, at the age of 89. His wife Thelma, whom he married in 1930, and who had been ailing for some time, passed away soon thereafter. JRD will be remembered for his simplicity, old-world grace and charm, transparency and generosity.
Although he was constantly in touch with power he never let it touch him. He did not hesitate to speak his mind on issues which caused him concern.
What Mr JRD Tata has done for Jamshedpur in the more than 40 years that he was Chairman of Tata Steel till 1984, is known to all those who benefited from his good deeds and vision. ‘Si monumentum quarris, circumspice’ Why do you search for a monument to JRD? Just look around you.