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Train to Jamshedpur: The story of Tata, India’s global giant

A BBC documentary in which Dr Zareer Masani tells the story of this 150-year-old Indian giant with a reputation for ethical capitalism.

India’s biggest industrial plant is hidden away in what were once the jungles of Bihar. Jamshedpur, named after its founder, Jamsetji Tata, is a four hour train journey away from Calcutta. And its remote location is the result of pioneering prospecting way back in the early 1900s, when the founder’s son and a small band of American engineers and geologists discovered rich deposits here of coal and iron ore.

Article by Zareer Masani | The Daily O

04SM_Zareer_1_jpg_939386eThey spent months travelling on horseback and camping in tents in forests still populated by tigers. My own trip was rather less arduous. The Gitanjali Express from Calcutta, named after a famous Tagore heroine, was as crowded and chaotic as any other Indian train. Even though our seats were reserved, we had to fight our way through a mad rush of other passengers and porters. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, we managed to squeeze ourselves and our very bulky BBC filming equipment on board. A middle-aged gentleman seated opposite was fascinated that BBC radio and television were both making documentaries about the House of Tata, India’s biggest business for a century and a half and now Britain’s largest manufacturer too. “Jamshedpur”, he assured us, “is still the cleanest city in India, and that’s because it’s run by Tata and not some corrupt elected municipality. You won’t see even a dead leaf on the streets, let alone rubbish.”

I soon discovered that the picture isn’t quite so simple. The Tata-administered town was built as one of the world’s first model industrial towns, laid out, according to its founder’s instructions, with broad tree-lined avenues, plenty of green open spaces and purpose-built workers’ housing with electricity and modern sanitation. Tata Steel was Asia’s first steel plant, and its working conditions compared with the best in the world, with an 8-hour day, paid annual leave, pension and sickness benefits introduced much before they were required by law. Tata, then and now, are considered India’s most philanthropic business, with free health care and education offered to their employees, many of whom have been promoted up the company hierarchy for generations. Tata charity, or what today is pompously called Corporate Social Responsibility, has spread out from Jamshedpur into surrounding areas populated by tribal communities who have suffered pollution caused by Tata mining.

In one such tribal village, I was shown a class of about a hundred tribal women being taught about basic health and nutrition. It’s a women’s self-help project run for Tata by a remarkably feisty lady, herself of tribal origin. She marched me across a field to an artificial pond, which the village women have dug to promote better irrigation and more rotation of crops. Tata, she assured me, also has a policy of greening over all its exhausted mines with newly planted trees. Back in Jamshedpur, the enormous factories, belching out clouds of smoke, are still surrounded by stately parks and boulevards, with the whitewashed mansions of managers encircled by a periphery of workers’ housing and a picturesque river. It’s easy to forget you’re at the heart of one of the world’s biggest industrial complexes, producing 7 million tons of steel a year. And yet Tata has its critics.

Once you cross the river from the Tata-administered town, you’re back in the rubbish-strewn streets and insanitary slums so characteristic of Indian cities. I was taken to a shanty town of Dalits of the former “untouchable” caste, who complained that Tata had laid them off work. I was shown allegedly toxic effluent flowing from Tata factories into the river. And an elderly, retired local businessman told me about the legal battle he’s been waging for the past decade, right up to India’s Supreme Court, to force Tata to hand over to elected local councillors.

When I put these demands to the present and former Managing Directors of Tata Steel, their answers were similar. Tata could hardly be blamed for pollution caused by other industries which have sprung up around their own complex. Local referenda had shown that people were overwhelmingly in favour of continued Tata administration. What was undeniable was that even the disaffected Dalits in their slum dwellings were unanimous in demanding that Tata, not any elected municipality, should come to their aid. It’s testimony that Tata ethics, though far from perfect, still command far greater trust than the politicians who run the world’s biggest democracy.