Steely Tatas, Russi Mody and Indra Singh

Nehchal Sandhu

Steaming into Tatanagar railway station 40 years ago, in a tortuously slow ‘express’ train that traversed remote tracts and ultimately a disorderly industrial estate, unease was roused that we were heading into an industrial centre that would not in any way match the uncommon and singularly unique environment of Ladakh, which we had reluctantly left behind after a wondrous 30-month sojourn.

Our apprehensions mounted as we traversed through the chaotic Jugsalai into the busy commercial district of Bistupur. But these were quelled, as we soon encountered verdancy with colonial-era bungalows set amidst large treed lots on both sides of uncluttered streets sufficient to carry the modest traffic that was the order of the day. This was TISCO Town, Jamshedpur, our home for another 30 months. The pristine environs gave no hint about the location within the town of India’s oldest steel plant, privately owned, and producing millions of tonnes of steel.

The township was built by Sir Dorabji Tata in the early 20th century, as a gridded settlement based on a blueprint drawn up by Julian Kennedy of the US and Axel Sahlin of Sweden, both based in Pittsburgh (the Steel City of the US). After subsequent iterations by engineers FC Temple and Major PGW Stokes, it fell to the lot of renowned German urban planner Dr Otto Konigsberger to translate the vision of JRD Tata, then Chairman of Tata Sons, into a Master Plan in 1943, which remains the idee fixe even today. Lord Chelmsford, Viceroy of India, had, in 1919, christened this quickly growing habitation “Jamshedpur” in honour of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, who, having secured approval from Lord George Hamilton, then Britain’s Secretary of State for India, in 1900 for setting up a steel plant, worked doggedly for four years until his death towards selecting an apposite site with access to adequate quantities of iron ore, coal, limestone and water.

Within eight years, Dorabji Tata eventuated his father’s dream by commissioning the first integrated steel plant in India in early 1912, which expanded by 1939 to be acknowledged as the largest steel unit in the British Empire. Lord Chelmsford had lauded (1919) the stellar role of this plant in gifting 1,500 miles of rails and 300,000 tonnes of steel which were used in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine and East Africa during World War I. Later, the “Tatanagar tank”, a wheeled armoured vehicle, was developed by this concern; more than 4,600 of these were used by reconnaissance and air defence regiments in the North African desert during World War II. Despite challenges posed by vicissitudinous market conditions, the plant upped its output from 2 million tonnes in 1958 to 13 million tonnes at this juncture.

By the time we got there, Russi Mody had been Managing Director of the steel behemoth for eight years. His cheerful visage reflected confidence arising out of knowing well all that transpired in his extensive domain. Having joined the concern as an Office Assistant at the age of 21, after graduating from England in 1939, he was a veteran with an impressive panoply of skills in the realms of industrial relations and operations, and a validated ability for artful and adroit management of the stakeholder landscape of the business. Promotion of sports was a passion with him.

His easy demeanour as the ‘first citizen’ of Jamshedpur naturally led to a very convivial atmosphere marked by an active social life. Quite the people’s person, he reached out and assembled what might be regarded as a large happy family. On Sundays, he would don an apron and take charge of the makeshift kitchen at the Beldih Golf Course (founded in 1922) and make large quantities of akuri (Parsi-style spiced scrambled eggs) enough for all present; at home, he was rumoured to relish a 16-egg omelette.

Jamsetji Tata’s birthday (March 3) has been observed as Founder’s Day since 1932, to commemorate his sterling contribution towards conceptualisation of the steel plant. The 500-acre Jubilee Park in the heart of the town, inaugurated by Pandit Nehru in 1958 to mark completion of 50 years of TISCO, is the venue of a spectacular display of lights on Founder’s Day, which remains an abiding attraction for workers and their kin.

Seven years after he took over as TISCO’s first Indian General Manager in 1938, Sir Jehangir Ghandy became the first Director of Tata Engineering & Locomotive Company (TELCO), extending the output of the recently acquired East Indian Railways Workshop at Jamshedpur from just locomotives to heavy engineering machinery. Consonant with the Tata culture, a colony was set up for engineers and workers. Although well located, TELCO Town does not match the charm of TISCO Town.

Betwixt the two lay a 400-acre swath housing Indian Steel and Wire Products and Jamshedpur Engineering and Machine Manufacturing Company, owned since 1920 and 1934, respectively, by the enterprising Sardar Bahadur Sardar Indra Singh, hailing from Dumna, Ropar district, Punjab. He enlarged the repertoire of these facilities from wires to wire rods in 1935, and then onto rolls and castings in the Nineties; the latter two products attracted customers from across the globe. In recognition of his exhibited entrepreneurial potential and sterling contribution to the War effort, Sardar Bahadur Sardar Indra Singh was knighted in January 1946. Misunderstandings about commitments led to the takeover of this enterprise by TISCO in 2003, disrupting a long-standing symbiotic relationship.

We lived on Straight Mile Road in TISCO Town, which was barely one mile long but not straight. The grand bungalow of Sir Jehangir Ghandy’s widow and its sprawling lawns necessitated a significant inflexion in the alignment. But neither that nor anything else marred our delightful stay in Jamshedpur.

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