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The Story of Jamsedji Tata

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The American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” Jamsetji Tata (b. 1868 – d. 1904) did exactly as Thoreau advised. Jamsetji had strong, passionate dreams for India and laid solid foundations to make these dreams a reality.

While the Tata Group is highly regarded for its business practices and philanthropy, many of Jamsetji’s ambitions and ideas are not fully appreciated. Two key aspects where he is less well understood are his primary business objective and his views and efforts in philanthropy.

Nation Building

Jamsetji’s primary driver was to achieve freedom from the British through making India self-reliant industrially. Jamsetji wrote, “The strength to defend freedom can itself only come from widespread industrialization and the infusion of modern science and technology into the country’s economic life.”

Jamsetji’s business efforts should, therefore, be viewed with this paramount nation-building objective in mind. It was this that drove Jamsetji to lay the foundations for India’s first iron and steel company, first hydro-electric company, and a world-class research and educational institution. These were all essential requirements for India in the early 1900s.

It is this nation-building that also drove Jamsetji to look towards the well-being of all stakeholders. While planning the township (now the city) of Jamshedpur around which his future iron and steel company (now Tata Steel) was to be built, Jamsetji advised his eldest son: “Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick-growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens. Reserve large areas for football, hockey, and parks. Earmark areas for Hindu temples, Mohammedan mosques and Christian churches.” For Jamsetji, looking at this human angle was the only way for India to fully develop.

Philanthropy for the brightest and the best

Regarding philanthropy, Jamsetji’s view was that it was best “to help on the regeneration of India by helping those elements of Indian life, which displayed symptoms of vitality and leaving the rest to take care of themselves”. Jamsetji wrote, “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.”

This approach to philanthropy – with a focus on the brightest and the best – is very different from that generally seen today. Jamsetji set the tone for his immediate successors to build India’s foremost educational, health, research, and cultural institutions: the Indian Institute of Science, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and the National Institute of Advanced Studies. These institutions have provided a home for many of India’s brightest to flourish.


Jamsetji could not have foreseen that his companies would ultimately be controlled by philanthropic trusts. It is perhaps destiny that Jamsetji’s two sons, Dorabji and Ratanji, had no children. (Ratanji’s wife adopted a son after her husband’s death.) Thus, left without direct heirs, Dorabji and Ratanji both bequeathed most of their shares to Tata Trusts. The Trusts now collectively own 65.9% of Tata Sons, the holding company of the Tata Group.

A large part of Jamsetji’s dreams have become reality but there is still a lot we need to do. Today the Tata Group is a huge global enterprise, but Jamsetji’s focus on nation-building and his views on how best philanthropy should be done are lessons we should all remind ourselves about.

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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