Zoroastrian Heroes: Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata

Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (1904-1993)

The last of the corporate legends, his preferred style was easy informality, which is why few would have referred to Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata with the full pomposity of his given name. ‘JRD’, or just ‘Jeh’ to friends, was the highest flying of them all, in fact and figuratively, yet he was also the most down- to- earth of business barons. He was a citizen of the world, but no less an Indian for that. He was the paterfamilias of Indian industry, but the public’s fondest image of him is that of a dashing half-Parsi, half-Parisian young man posing by the frail Puss Moth in which he’d made the pioneering air mail flight from Karachi to Bombay in 1932.

The exacting standards he inculcated in the fledgling Tata Airline would make it one of the best regarded in the world, even through the early years of Nationalisation; its subsequent decline would be his deepest anguish. The same unblending ethic permitted Indian business to hang on to the last vestige of integrity during the corrupting years of the licence-permit raj.

He famously clashed with the other Titan, Jawaharlal Nehru, mincing no words on the misguided idealism which had held the economy in a strangle hold. He also blueprinted development in the “Bombay Plan”, a document endorsed by G.D. Birla, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, Purshotamdas Thakur and Sri Ram, that was in 1944; It would take an expensive half century for the Indian Government to realise the wisdom of corporate autonomy.

His scientific temperament led him to fund Homi Bhabha’s dream of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. His futuristic mind easily enabled him to visualise a demographic death: sounding the alarm bells, he laid the foundation of what would become the international Institute for population studies in 1956. This contribution was recognised by the UN population award bestowed on him in 1992, the same year in which the country acknowledged his services with its highest honour, The Bharat Ratna.

He breathed his last amidst the Swiss mountains in 1993. In the unpretentiousness that marked his life, death came in a Swiss public hospital where he’d made none of the demands his stature would have justified.

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