Steel frame of standards: Jamshedji N Tata
Given the kind of factionalism that India is witnessing today, and the general air of intolerance that sweeps our land, there are very few things we can truly be proud of. One of them happens to be the fact that Tata Steel celebrated its 100th Founder’s Day on March 3 in Jamshedpur: a town where it all began.
But this is not about fêting that birth or even remembering the founder, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, who was born on this day, March 3, in 1839, but instead about celebrating a way of life that is not just inspirational but one which has withstood the cynical realities of our times. Realities where material wealth and balance sheets are more about income and expenditure rather than about investment in either nation-building or, for that matter, about engaging with societies with which corporations coexist.
I believe it could only have been a Navsari priest who would have had the gall and the spirit to set up a steel plant where no one thought it possible. And to do that in the face of all odds. Without the support of the government of the day or the generosity of fellow industrialists.
In many ways, Tata Steel represents the birth of Indian industry. It was not only India’s first steel plant, but also, more importantly, the country’s first real investment in what we now refer to as core infrastructure. But then again, that alone is not reason enough to celebrate.
The reasons for celebration have more to do with Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata’s vision than with what he eventually set up in terms of factories and companies. A vision which saw the birth of an endowment; a vision that later gave birth to the Indian Institute of Sciences and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, not to mention Air India. The seeds of this expansion were sown in Jamshedpur. It was the heartbeat of the Tata empire. But in these hundred years, a lot has changed.
India today is a trillion-dollar economy; we are busy conquering the world; our filmstars get mobbed in Eastern Europe; there is a buzz about India. There is a confidence that has suddenly begun to embrace riches, at times ignoring the cultural anchors that helped India get here. The namaste has been replaced almost everywhere by Western greetings except in five-star hotels where it is the new byword for servility and not greeting.
The people we celebrate have also changed dramatically. There are ‘rich’ lists galore. Not one ‘give’ list. People are entering billion-dollar clubs and talking about exploring the world in their new-found vehicles of unabashed wealth. There was a time when we watched cricketers play: today we watch them being sold. There was a time when Members of Parliament were found in Parliament; today they strike deals in fancy restaurants in luxury hotels. The India of today may be likened to a dragon and is no longer the stodgy elephant that it was when we were growing up. But in all this rush towards unbridled prosperity, we seem to have lost our moorings. As more and more factories take shape, so do old-age homes. We don’t have the time to take care of our parents any more.
The irony is that more and more of these so-called Indian icons are talking about corporate social responsibility and value organisations. Companies which are headed by those who fight their shareholders and don’t want to retire, win awards from prime ministers and then promptly advertise those wins in every national newspaper so that they too can get public recognition. The irony is that while we have produced more billionaires in the last two years than any other country, even today, 77 per cent of our population subsists on less than Rs 20 a day! The fact that today India is a net importer of food is a signal to the changing paradigm of our gross domestic product drivers. Agriculture is no longer the bulwark. Nor, for that matter, is industry.
If this is the reality of today’s India, then why do we need to celebrate? I guess the fact that one way of life, the Tata way of life, has remained unchanged is a reason for hope. And for celebration. It is a signal to those young men and women who will inherit tomorrow’s India that you can be honest and make a mark. Not all is lost at the altar of greed as is made out to be. For me personally, Jamshedpur is not about a steel plant or a company but is instead a Lighthouse, which beams signals of progress and values that have been unspoilt by the machinations that one normally associates with big business. For me the luminosity that emerges from the blast furnaces pales in comparison to the tears of joy that glisten on the face of tribal girls who have now entered the mainstream of life by getting an education sponsored by Tata Steel. For me this is more than the million of tons of steel that the company produces. The fact that the Tatas today can
see beyond the borders of this country is not a planned step that will help them globalize. It will be perhaps a step in business diplomacy that India deserves and none better than the Tatas to help fly that flag.
But this all began with the belief that Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata had. The belief that business without a heartbeat was no business at all. The belief that steel plants had to nestle alongside parks and fountains because the purpose of business was not just the creation of wealth but instead the guaranteeing of happiness. It is this happiness that you can witness on the faces of all who have come in contact with the Tatas. He talked about corporate social values and not just responsibility, which could be construed either as burdensome or as a duty that needed to be performed. It was a philosophy that he propounded which today has become the DNA of all that the Tatas do.
In many ways, March 3 is not the celebration of someone’s birth. It is indeed a tribute to someone’s vision. To Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata’s nationalism and his overarching care and compassion for his fellow human beings, no matter in which country they lived. It is important to celebrate a way of life that India so desperately needs to adopt. We can’t keep talking about inclusive growth and doing nothing about it. But more than anything else, it is a celebration of civility and of the triumph of greater good over petty gains. It helps set standards. The Tatas are following those even to this day, though the lessons are for the others to learn as well.
In a strange way, Jamshedpur has many stories to tell the world. But the story that must be told, and one which will endure is of compassion and care. Of promises and progress. Where real wealth is the wealth that can be shared by all segments of society. Where profits are not just currency-denominated but joy-driven. That will be the true lesson we will learn from March 3.