The forgotten characters of Tata Steel


April 27, 2016

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IN SEPTEMBER 1945, E. M. Forster, who had been hired by George Orwell to host a literary programme for BBC’s India service, chose to discuss a slim book called “A Steel Man in India”. It was a memoir by John Keenan, the recently-retired general manager of the Tata Steel Iron and Steel Company. Then the largest steel plant in the British Empire, it was located in Jamshedpur—a company town in east India that the Western press had dubbed “the Pittsburgh of the east.”

Article in The Economist

Aglow with details of pig iron, blast furnaces, ingots, and “the roaring, pulsating, pounding, hissing organism that is a steel mill”, Keenan’s memoir was an odd book for Forster to choose. But something about the whisky-drinking, tall-talking American writer’s appetite for life, his lusty cosmopolitanism (he could cuss in Serbian, Turkish, Croatian, Hungarian and Hindi), and, above all, his unabashed affection for India, left Forster touched and amused. Read this book, he urged his faraway listeners.

As Tata Steel prepares to sell its loss-making steel plant in Britain, Keenan’s book makes for fascinating reading. Tata Steel’s links with Britain did not start nine years ago when it bought Corus (formerly British Steel) for £6.2 billion. Forged well over a century ago, and tested by Empire, war, recession and nationalism, the long and bittersweet relationship between Britain and the Indian multinational started with a monumental snub. In the early 1900s J. N. Tata, the founder of the Tata Group, approached the colonial government for help setting up his business. He was mocked. Sir Fredrick Upcott, chairman of the Indian Railways, even promised to “eat every pound of steel rail” made in India to British specifications. India did not forget; when the Tatas bought Corus, the Times of India ran the quote across its front page.

The Tata family, like many businessmen of the era, were Empire loyalists. Knighted for their contributions to industry, they had, like the Sassoons of Bombay, started out as silk and opium traders to China before diversifying. On the day Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India— New Year’s Day in 1877—Tata named his first textile mill the ‘Empress Mills’. Yet Tata was also an economic nationalist who dreamed of a self-reliant India in the modern age. It was a dream he knew could only be realised if India constructed its own industrial backbone: steel.


In 1902, Tata sailed to America, where the press dubbed him “the J. P. Morgan of the East Indies.” He hired two key men: one to build his steel mill and the other to run it. Tata Steel started in 1908, and four years later the first steel ingot was produced. Keenan, who had studied Greek and Latin at Yale, but had experience working on blast furnaces in Indiana, joined in 1913. Soon other American, German and British engineers followed to man the operations and train an Indian team. Keenan stayed on for 25 years, the last eight as general manager. It was an immensely powerful post that made him the “Irish-American maharajah of Jamshedpur”, according to one friend.

With the outbreak of the first world war, the Tata’s steel mill proved invaluable. Keenan writes about how the men worked overtime to produce 8,000 tonnes of five-inch-round steel shells and harnesses for the horses that pulled field guns. At the end of the war, the grateful Viceroy of India Lord Chelmsford said, “I can hardly imagine what we would have done if the Tata Company had not given us steel for Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine, and East Africa.” During the second world war, too, steel sheds, water pipes, sleepers, shells and guns streamed out of Jamshedpur. The Japanese, Keenan notes, would not have been stopped without this steel.

But for the company itself, the most perilous years were those that followed the first world war. These years form the most interesting part of Keenan’s memoir, especially in light of Tata Steel’s current predicament. If the current glut of cheap Chinese steel has Tata haemorrhaging losses of £1m a day, in 1922, the company was brought to the brink of ruin by the flood of “cheap Continental steel smelted out of scrap from the French and Flemish battlefields”. At one point it seemed that they were not going to weather “the boatloads of Belgian steel raffled off and dumped in Calcutta and Bombay for next to nothing”. The situation became so bleak that someone suggested the colonial government be asked to take over. But the son of J. N. Tata—he had died in 1904—“pounded angrily on the table and shouted that day would never come as long as he lived”.

Fortunately, there was a plan beyond the theatrics. The company approached the government with figures to prove that it was impossible to survive against tariff-free continental steel. The government acted decisively and set up a Tariff Board to create a protective Act. It saved the day. Soon the company was back to paying shareholders a handsome dividend. All this, acknowledges Keenan, “largely because of the staying hand of a much-maligned Government.”

Years later, Keenan got a chance to meet Sir Fredrick Upcott, who came out to Jamshedpur for a tiger shoot. “I told him how many millions of tonnes of steel, made to the rigid British Standard specifications, the Tata mills had turned out”. By then, Indian engineers had long been running the mill. Upcott smiled and said, “I can see now that my appetite in the old days must have been enormous.” One wonders what he might say today.