Jamsetji Tata: The World’s Biggest Philanthropist

By Outlook Planet Desk March 03, 2023

Apart from the life and times of the Tata Group founder, #TataStories by Harish Bhat captures the little known tales of individuals, events and places that have shaped the India we live in

Jamsetji Tata: The World’s Biggest Philanthropist
Harish Bhat chronicles the lesser-known stories of people, places and events from the Tata Group.

Today is the 184th birth anniversary of Jamsetji Tata. The founder of the Tata group is an iconic figure not only for the business empire he founded, but also for his philanthropy.  

He is the world’s biggest philanthropist of the last century ahead of donors like Bill and Melinda Gates, according to the list of 50 global philanthropists compiled by Hurun Research and EdelGive Foundation. 

Over the years, the Tata Group has shaped the India we live in India. Harish Bhat, currently the brand custodian at Tata Sons, captures the little known tales of individuals, events and places from the Tata Group in his #TataStories. 

Extract from #TataStories 

Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, is known for establishing very successful, pioneering business ventures that have gone on to shape Indian industry. But did you know that the tale of his life is also the story of a man who never ever stopped dreaming.

During the first three decades after founding the Tata Group in 1868, Jamsetji had already established very successful textile mills—Empress Mills in Nagpur, Swadeshi Mills in Mumbai and Advance Mills in Ahmedabad. He had conceptualized India’s first integrated steel plant in Jamshedpur, which would bloom into Tata Steel. He had planned the country’s most ambitious hydroelectric power plant at Walwhan on the Western Ghats and had begun working towards establishing the fabulous Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. He had even embarked on creating India’s first full-fledged science research university, the Indian Institute of Science, at Bangalore, and launched the country’s first scholarships for higher education overseas for Indians. Put together, these pioneering and ambitious ventures make for the story of a complete and fulfilling life. Surely their planning and execution must have kept Jamsetji Tata substantially preoccupied. Indeed, one of his early biographers wrote: ‘Had he no other title to recognition, his conduct of the mills would suffice.’ But all this did not stop him from dreaming about many other possibilities for his beloved nation.

One of his most imaginative projects centred on creating adequate cold storage for the city of Mumbai. He wanted to increase the food supply and prevent constant shortages in the period immediately after the devastating bubonic plague of the 1890s by setting up a cold storage plant for fruits and fish. Therefore, around 1900, he began drawing up plans for a huge building to be constructed on the land that is now occupied by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (earlier called the Prince of Wales Museum).

This was to be a circular building surrounding a huge house of ice where the manufacture of artificial ice would cool the entire structure. The external perimeter of the building would contain offices that could be leased out, or even rooms for concerts, all of which would be suitably ‘air-conditioned’ by the central icehouse. Jamsetji’s dream was evidently ahead of its time and this project would not come to fruition in his lifetime. It would take another twenty years before his dream was realized, albeit in a different format, when the iconic Crawford Market in Mumbai became equipped with adequate cold storage and refrigerators

Another dream that Jamsetji pursued with passion was the establishment of India’s own shipping line. He believed that a country which depends on the ships of another nation faces a permanent disadvantage. He also resented the exorbitant charges on the transport of Indian cotton yarn levied by the British-owned Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) line, which held a monopoly on shipping out of India in those days. So, he travelled to Japan and after reaching an agreement with the well-established Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) line, he established the Tata line, for which he bought two ships, Annie Barrow and Lindisfarne, which would carry Indian cotton goods and yarn, alongside the Japanese ships of NYK, at reasonable freight charges.

The Indian media commended the courage of Jamsetji in trying to break a huge monopoly. Soon, however, the P&O line, which was subsidized by the revenues and taxpayers of India, decided to safeguard their monopoly and ruthlessly crush all competition by reducing rates to hugely unviable levels. They even made the unusual offer of carrying Indian cotton to Japan free of charge if shippers signed suitable declarations with them. Jamsetji Tata took up this matter strongly and repeatedly with the Secretary of State for India in the British government but to no avail. The cotton mills of Mumbai gradually withdrew their contracts from the Tata line. So, the two ships were sent back to England, and the relatively small Tata line shut down. However, the venture did help Japan’s NYK get an initial foothold in the Indian market, which eventually created some degree of competition, to the benefit of Indian manufacturers and merchants. 

This reversal did not stop Jamsetji from pursuing other equally ambitious dreams. At Bangalore, he created a silk farm to implement in India many of the scientific principles of sericulture, which he had seen in Japan, and therefore, he also created the required skillsets in the country. The Tata Silk Farm was quite a successful venture. While the farm no longer exists, back then it provided the impetus for the revival of the local silk industry. Some of the giants of Indian sericulture, such as Appadorai Mudaliar and Laxman Rao, were amongst the Tata Silk Farm’s first trainees. Many years later, in 1949, the Central Silk Board was also established in Bangalore.

Yet another dream was the desire to encourage the growth of Egyptian cotton in India. Here, the intent in Jamsetji Tata’s mind was to help Indian mills spin yarn of finer counts, for which Egyptian cotton was eminently suitable. He studied this subject in detail and was concerned that countries like Germany, Austria, Belgium and England were flooding the Indian market with their manufactured cotton goods. Therefore, in a rallying cry, he implored all Indians to save India’s ‘young and only’ industry from utter destruction. He passionately argued: ‘If India were enabled to grow for itself the long-stapled varieties, she would derive immense benefit in three different directions— such an expansion would assist agriculture, conserve the money of the country, and improve the exchange.’ Experiments to grow Egyptian cotton in India began in right earnest. In some districts in the central provinces, these ventures achieved success, whereas, in many other places, they failed. This was already the twilight of Jamsetji Tata’s life; he was deeply immersed in his steel, hydroelectric, hotel and science education ventures, and he eventually concluded that from a cost–benefit standpoint, it would not be advisable to give further attention to this project. Jamsetji’s capacity to dream remained with him until the very end.

The last days of his life were spent in Europe consulting expert doctors. Although still robust in spirit, his heart had grown weak, and he suffered from sleeplessness and immense breathing difficulties. So, in San Remo, Italy, on an occasional good day, he would go to the marketplace and buy fresh fruits, something he loved eating. There, he began to dream of cultivating dates and other Mediterranean fruits in India, given their nutritious content. A few days later, he passed away, warmly ensconced in the love of his family. We do not know what his final dream was, but there can be no doubt that it must have been a dream that brought alive his deep love for India, the nation that he worked for and championed throughout his life.

Never stop dreaming. Dreams are the visions that help unfold and enrich our lives. Despite having created such pioneering and successful businesses, and notwithstanding many challenges and a few failures too, Jamsetji Tata never stopped dreaming throughout his life. Why should we?

(Excerpted with permission from #TataStories: 40 Timeless Tales to Inspire You, Harish Bhat, Penguin Books India.) 

Title: #TataStories: 40 Timeless Tales to Inspire You 

Author: Harish Bhat 

Imprint: India Portfolio 

Published: May/2021 

ISBN: 9780670095322 

Pages: 304  

Price: ₹599.00