The man of steel with a philanthropic heart: remembering Jamsetji Tata on his 178th birthday
“In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder in business, but is in fact the very purpose of its existence.”
Business can be ruthless. The common notion that a successful business holds no room for emotion is not uncommon in a world that is profit-obsessed. However, there are always the few shining individuals who rekindle our faith, showing us that it doesn’t have it be quite as exaggerated as that. Before business moguls began to endorse a somewhat expected philanthropic zeal, there was one individual whose life-long purpose had been to help his people first and his business after.
I speak of none other than Jamsetji Tata, business legend and the Founder of the Tata Group. Strong-willed, ambitious, and deeply humane, Jamsetji’s aim to build a successful business was based on his vision for a greater modern society, empowering the Indian masses in a disadvantaged colonial age.
To present a glimpse of this man’s impetus, when Jamsetji was still a young man working as an apprentice in his father’s firm, he walked into one of Mumbai’s most expensive hotel, only to be asked to leave because of the ‘no-brown’ policy of the British officials that made up the board. Incensed and insulted, Jamsetji swore that he would open up a hotel which would be ten times as magnificent and most importantly, which would welcome Indian guests.
And in 1903, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel opened its doors on the waterfront of Mumbai. Under Jamsetji’s watchful eye, the heritage hotel called for a confluence of cultures, being the first building in the city to have electricity, American fans, German lifts, and English butlers.
This was one of the many dreams of Jamsetji Tata, and unfortunately the only one he lived to see implemented. The others – setting up an iron and steel company, generating hydroelectric power, and creating a world-class educational institution that would tutor Indians in the sciences were all credited to his efforts, posthumously.
And today, on his 178th birthday, we wish to give him the credit he is due, for helping turn India into a worthy contender for the global gold and stand proud in the list of the world’s most important economies.
“With honest and straightforward business principles, close and careful attention to details, and the ability to take advantage of favourable opportunities and circumstances, there is a scope for success.”
While the great Industrial Revolution had tilted the Western market and economy for the better, the phenomenon did not cross overseas into India, whose industries at the time were being ruthlessly exploited by the British for their own gains. However, this didn’t deter Jamsetji, who was determined to build a steel plant in India which would compete with its greatest counterparts across the world. Considering it a key ingredient necessary for economic progress, Jamsetji went about inquiring about its manufacturing and production costs from the key people in this field overseas. However, the current economic conditions of the country didn’t pave the way for the building of a steel-plant then. Tata Iron and Steel was finally built by his son Dorabji Tata, on the basis of the guidelines his father had left him, eight years after the latter’s passing.
Along with this, Jamsetji also wished to set up a hydro-electric station in India because to him, “Clean, cheap and abundant power is one of the basic ingredients for the economic progress of a city, state or country.” This dream was also fulfilled by Dorabji, who in 1915 set up the country’s first power plant, a 72MW hydroelectric station in Khopoli, near Mumbai.
“Freedom without the strength to support it and, if need be, defend it, would be a cruel delusion. And the strength to defend freedom can itself only come from widespread industrialisation and the infusion of modern science and technology into the country’s economic life.”
Other than opening up a luxury hotel for Indians, in light of the mistreatment meted out to the former in British-owned hotels, Jamsetji also set about launching some of the country’s first textile mills to provide employment to the scores of Indians going hungry every day. A dedicated follower of ‘Swadeshi’, Jamsetji aimed to empower the Indian workers so they could produce their own commodities and boycott the British-made goods. He was in good terms with influential leaders like Swami Vivekananda, whose help he had requested for the opening up of a world-class Indian university, to help empower Indian students in the realms of natural sciences.
“I am far from decrying the noble spirit which seeks to help a poor or suffering fellow being… [However] what advances a nation or a community is not so much to prop up its weakest and most helpless members, but to lift up the best and the most gifted, so as to make them of the greatest service to the country.”
Even at a time when labour-laws were not realised across the world, and were certainly not enforceable in nature, Jamsetji introduced a series of welfare schemes for all his employees. These included measures like introducing pensions (1877), the eight-hour working day (1912), and maternity benefits (1921) for their employees.
In a letter to Dorabji, he had written down the instructions for the creation of a small industrial town for his workers which included measures to provide their every comfort. Today, this is known as Jamshedpur. A part of the letter read: “…reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks. Earmark areas for Hindu temples, Mohammedan mosques and Christian churches.” This goes to prove that this legendary businessman was well aware of cultural conflicts and attempted in his own way, to provide enough space for each to practice its own.
Finally, this great visionary had one more thing to achieve – the establishment of a world-class Indian university where the future generations would receive lessons from some of the country’s finest professors in all fields- with a special emphasis on science. This was so that these future generations would receive the educational access to building and creating what would bring the country progress, in the times to come. To this end, he donated half of his personal wealth, 14 buildings, and four landed properties in Mumbai, towards the creation of the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, which later schooled eminent scientists like CV Raman, Homi J Bhabha, Vikram S Sarabhai, and CNR Rao.
It’s true what they say about the people whose names are etched in our history books today: they were born to change the world.