Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata or JRD Tata, fondly referred to as JRD, was one of India’s most innovative business tycoons, a great visionary and is known as the Father of Civil Aviation in India. Under JRD, the Tata Group grew into one of the most esteemed and successful industrial groups in India. He personified the lofty ideals of ethics, compassion, generosity and dynamism and was India’s most enterprising entrepreneurs ever.
JRD Tata was born in the distinguished and industrious Tata family, as Jehangir on July 29th 1904 to Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata and his French wife Suzanne in Paris. He spent a major portion of his childhood in France. JRD was educated in France, London, Japan and India. His mother died at the young age of 43. After her death, his father sent him to England for higher studies. Meanwhile, a law was passed in France that all French boys aged 20 had to enlist in the army for at least a year. He was in the French army for a year after which his father asked him to return to India.
JRD joined Tata Sons in 1925 as an unpaid apprentice. In 1929, he gave up his French citizenship and became an Indian citizen. From a young age, JRD was adventurous and had been spellbound by aeroplanes, inspired by the pioneer Louis Bleriot. He pursued his passion of flying and obtained India’s first pilot licence in 1929. He was a stickler for perfection and excellence in all walks of life. He married Thelma Vicaji in 1930. The couple had no children. JRD was known for his out-of-the-box thinking and his sharp business strategy. He demonstrated his keen entrepreneurial spirit by plunging into the fledgling aviation industry in India. He established India’s first commercial airline – Tata Airlines (which later became Air India) in 1932. He pioneered civil aviation in India by piloting the inaugural flight from Karachi to Bombay in 1932. JRD again performed his solo Karachi-Bombay flight to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Air India. In 1982, the Commemorative Golden Jubilee Flight from Karachi to Bombay was piloted by JRD, then 78 years young!
When JRD was just 34 years old, he became Chairman of Tata Sons – the largest Indian conglomerate, and while abiding by high ethical values, he led the group to unprecedented success. He was an outstanding leader of men – he identified and leveraged the individual strengths of his team members, while downplaying their limitations, thus attaining success for the organization. He promoted entrepreneurial talent and proficiency in his team. JRD Tata’s latent genius for man management came to the forefront when he settled into his role as Chairman. JRD Tata had the noble, unselfish thought that what is good for India is good for Tatas.
As Trustee of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust from 1932 for more than 50 years, he was instrumental in the founding of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 1936, Tata Memorial Centre for Cancer Research and Treatment in Mumbai in 1941, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1945 and the National Centre for Performing Arts in 1969. He established Tata Engineering & Locomotive Company (TELCO –now Tata Motors) in 1945, with collaboration from Daimler-Benz of Germany.
In 1948, JRD launched India’s first international airline – Air India International. In 1953, Air India was nationalised by the Govt of Jawaharlal Nehru, a decision which JRD had opposed with unrelenting effort. JRD was then appointed by the Govt of India as Chairman of Air India and Director on the board of Indian Airlines – posts he held for the next 25 years. He was unceremoniously sacked as Chairman of Air India by the then Govt of India in 1978. In an interview, JRD said: “It was the biggest moral and mental setback I had ever to suffer. I felt like a parent who had lost his favourite child.” In 1980, JRD was reappointed to the Boards of Air India and Indian Airlines.
JRD Tata was far ahead of his times. He was deeply concerned about his workers. In 1956, he took the initiative of closely associating workers with the management and gave workers a stronger say in the interactions of the company. He was a strong advocate of employee welfare and championed the cause of a working day of eight hours (much before USA or England had formally included it in their legislation), provident scheme, free medical aid, and accident compensation plans for workers, which were later implemented as statutory requirements in the country. He would always say that he wanted India to be a ‘happy country’ rather than an economic superpower.
In 1968, JRD Tata established the Tata Computer Centre (now Tata Consultancy Services). In 1979, Tata Steel introduced a new practice: a worker was considered to be “at work” from the moment he left home for work till he returned home from work. Thus, the company was made financially liable for any calamity of the worker on the way from and to work. Considering the quality of life, welfare, roads and sanitation provided by Tata Steel, Jamshedpur was chosen as the first South Asian city to join the select band of six cities in the world for the UN Global Compact Cities Pilot programme in 2005.
It was under JRD’s insightful leadership that the Tata Group expanded in diverse fields like automobiles, steel, power, tea, chemicals, hospitality and information technology, becoming one of India’s most trusted and best known global brands. When he started, he had 14 companies under his leadership; when he left five decades later, Tata Sons had become a gigantic organization comprising 95 enterprises which they had either founded or in which they had controlling interests. He was instrumental in placing the Tata group on the international map. JRD stepped down as Chairman of Tata Sons in 1991 and Ratan Tata succeeded him.
The assets of the Tata group grew exponentially under JRD’s leadership from Rs. 62 crores in 1939 to over Rs. 10, 000 crores in 1990. JRD Tata passed away in Geneva, Switzerland at the age of 89 years on November 29, 1993. With his demise, an era came to an end. The Indian Parliament was adjourned in his memory – a rare honour, rarely given to those not members of Parliament. He was buried in Paris.
JRD’s constant attempts to make the world a better place won him several valued awards. In 1948, he was bestowed with the honorary rank of Group Captain by the Indian Air Force. He was promoted to Air Commodore rank and further promoted in 1974 to Air Vice-Marshal rank. For his contribution to aviation, he was awarded the Tony Jannus Award in 1979, the Gold Air Medal of the Federation Aeronautique International in 1985, the Edward Warner Award of the International Civil Aviation Organisation in 1986 and the Daniel Guggenheim Medal in 1988. In 1955, JRD received the Padma Vibhushan. He was conferred The French Legion of Honour in 1983. He was conferred India’s highest civilian honour – the Bharat Ratna – in 1992 for his noble humanitarian deeds. He was also awarded the United Nations Population Award in 1992 for his vigorous campaign of starting and effectively putting into action the family planning movement in India. It was only much later that family planning became an official policy of the government. The Maharashtra Government also honoured JRD Tata by naming its first double-decker flyover at Nasik Phata in Pune as ‘Bharat Ratna JRD Tata Udaan Pul’.
When JRD was informed of the government’s decision of awarding him the Bharat Ratna, he reportedly said: “Why me? I don't deserve it. The Bharat Ratna is usually given to people who are dead or it is given to politicians. I am not prepared to oblige the government on the former and I am not the latter.”
It is less known that JRD was an ardent writer of letters. The Tata Archives in Pune have over 40,000 letters JRD wrote to his family, friends, political leaders, business acquaintances and the common people. Young people wrote to JRD, asking for his advice. He would reply them with sincere and intense conviction. A young lady of the Indian Institute of Science, who was annoyed at an advertisement of TELCO (now Tata Motors) that said that women need not apply, wrote a letter to JRD that it was unbefitting of a respected group like the Tatas. She received a telegram asking her to attend an interview. The lady, none other than Sudha Murty, wife of Narayan Murty of Infosys, got the job.
Despite the fact that JRD was the leader of the largest business group in India, he would offer lifts to people on the road, in his car. This speaks volumes for his simple nature.
He advocated a business mantra of ‘Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta’, which means ‘good thoughts, good words and good deeds’. Here are a few of JRD Tata’s quotes, which serve as a guide for entrepreneurs even today:
* If I were to attribute any single reason to such success as I have achieved, I would say that success would not have been possible without a sustained belief that what I did or attempted to do would serve the needs and interests of our country and our people and that I was a trustee of such interests.
* No success or achievement in material terms is worthwhile unless it serves the needs or interests of the country and its people and is achieved by fair and honest means.
* I do not want India to be an economic superpower. I want India to be a happy country.
* Live life a little dangerously.
* Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without deep thought and hard work.
* To lead men, you have to lead them with affection.
* Making steel may be compared to making a chappati. To make a good chappati, even a golden pin will not work unless the dough is good.
* If you want excellence, you must aim at perfection. It has its drawbacks, but being finicky is essential.
* The future belongs to the young. We must not only trust them with responsibility but must thrust it upon them whilst they are still young and full of energy, zest, hope and even illusions. However heart-breaking it may be to ourselves, we must make way for the new generations even when we feel we are still in our prime.
This was the message of one of JRD Tata’s companies in appreciation:
He touched the sky and it smiled.
He stretched out his arms and they encircled the globe.
His vision made giants of men and organizations.
On the occasion of JRD's 113th birth anniversary, let us pay our tribute to the doyen of Indian industry and remember the traditions, values and business ethics he lived by.
Anup Y. Attavar
B.E. Mech. [COEP], P.G.D. – International Trade [IIFT, New Delhi]
Author – 'World Famous Indian Scientists'
Creative Writer: Articles; Speeches; Citations; Business Profiles
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Special Correspondent (Western India): Dwarka Parichay Newspaper
US Higher Education Counsellor for Statements of Purpose (SOP)