J.N. Tata was born in 1839 at Navsari. J.N. Tata’s father Nusserwanji Tata learnt the rudiments of trade from a country banker and moved to Bombay and joined a Hindu merchant. J.N. Tata joined his father in Bombay and was enrolled in Elphinstone Institution and passed out as Green Scholar (Graduate) in 1858. In 1859 he joined his father’s firm Nusserwanji and Kaliandas, General Merchants, as a co manager of a new branch at Hongkong.
The American Civil War was raging at the time. It had disrupted supplies of raw cotton from the Southern states to the mills of Lancashire. Desperate for cotton, Lancashire offered India twice the normal price for its cotton. Fortunes were made overnight. J.N. Tata meanwhile had returned to Bombay. Premchand Roychand, Nusserwanji Tata’s partner wanted to open a branch of his bank, Asiatic Banking Corporation in London and wanted J.N. Tata to head it. The bank was doing well and it was due to the fact of the boom experienced by the Indian economy as a result of the American Civil War. J.N. Tata set sail in December 1864 carrying a sheaf of bills on the China market and also authorised to dispose of heavy cotton shipments from India to Liverpool. In early 1865 the American Civil War wound to a close with the surrender of General Lee. With American Cotton supplies opening up again, the crash came. J.N. Tata’s sheaf of China bills was waste paper. He honestly explained the situation to his firm’s creditors and bankers and they appointed him the liquidator because they trusted him.
In 1867 J.N. Tata heard Thomas Carlyle at Manchester expounding the maxim “The nation which gains control of Iron, soon acquires control of gold”
J.N. Tata’s maiden expedition to England, and others that he made in subsequent years, convinced him that there was tremendous scope for Indian companies to make a dent in the prevailing British dominance of the textile industry. J.N.Tata made his move into textiles in 1869. He acquired a dilapidated and bankrupt oil mill in Chinchpokli in the industrial heart of Bombay, renamed the property Alexandra Mill and converted it into a cotton mill. Two years later, J.N. Tata sold the mill for a significant profit to a local cotton merchant. He followed this up with an extended visit to England, and an exhaustive study of the Lancashire cotton trade. The quality of men, machinery and produce that J.N. Tata saw during this sojourn was impressive, but he was certain he could replicate the story in his own country. J.N. Tata believed he could take on and beat the colonial masters at a game they had rigged to their advantage. The prevailing orthodoxy of the time determined that Bombay was the place to set up the new project, but J.N Tata.’s genius told him otherwise. He figured he could maximise his chances of success if he factored three crucial points into his plans: close proximity to cotton-growing areas, easy access to a railway junction, and plentiful supplies of water and fuel. Nagpur, near the heart of Maharashtra’s cotton country, met all these conditions. In 1874, J.N.Tata had floated a fresh enterprise, the Central India Spinning, Weaving and Manufacturing Company, with a seed capital of Rs 1.5 lakh. Three years later, his venture was ready to realise its destiny. On January 1, 1877, the day Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, the Empress Mills came into existence in Nagpur. At the age of 37, J.N.Tata had embarked on the first of his fantastic odysseys.
J.N. Tata was in full sympathy with the views of Indian National Congress and was present at the first session of the Indian National congress in Bombay, was financially supporting it and a remained a member of the Congress all his life.
J.N.Tata’s philanthropic principles were rooted in the belief that for India to climb out of poverty its finest minds would have to be harnessed. Charity and handouts were not his way, so he established the JN Tata Endowment in 1892. This enabled Indian students, regardless of caste or creed, to pursue higher studies in England. This beginning flowered into the Tata scholarships, which flourished to the extent that by 1924 two out of every five Indians coming into the elite Indian Civil Service were Tata scholars. The objective of creating the Indian Institute of Science came from the same source, but here, as with the steel plant, J.N.Tata had to endure long years of heartburn without getting any tangible recompense in his lifetime. J.N.Tata pledged Rs 30 lakh from his personal fortune towards setting up the institute, drew up a blueprint of the shape it ought to take, and solicited the support of everyone from the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, to Swami Vivekananda to turn it into reality. Swami Vivekananda, in his backing of the idea, wrote in 1899, “I am not aware if any project at once so opportune and so far reaching in its beneficent effects has ever been mooted in India… The scheme grasps the vital point of weakness in our national well-being with a clearness of vision and tightness of grip, the mastery of which is only equalled by the munificence of the gift that is being ushered to the public.” Despite this and similar endorsements, it would take a further 12 years before the splendid Indian Institute of Science started functioning in Bangalore in 1911.
J.N.Tata in later years was consumed by what has to be the three great ideas of his life: setting up an iron and steel company, generating hydroelectric power, and creating a world-class educational institution that would tutor Indians in the sciences. None of these would materialise while J.N.Tata lived, but the seeds he laid, the work he did, and the force of will he displayed in fulfilling this triumvirate of his dreams ensured they would find glorious expression.
Thomas Carlyle sparked the iron and steel idea when J.N.Tata, on a trip to Manchester to check out new machinery for his textile mill, attended a lecture. He had set his heart on building a steel plant that would compare with the best of its kind in the world. This was a gigantic task. The report of Major Mahon in 1899 actually provided J.N. Tata with the opportunity of giving India a steel industry before that the Indians were not allowed to set up a steel plant by law.The report led to Lord Curzon liberalising the license system The industrial revolution that had transformed Britain and other countries had, by and large, bypassed India. Officious government policies, the complexities of prospecting in barely accessible areas and sheer bad luck made matters worse. J.N.Tata found his path blocked at every other turn by what his biographer, Frank Harris, called “those curious impediments which dog the steps of pioneers who attempt to modernise the East”.
The torturous twists and turns the steel project took would have defeated a lesser man, but J.N.Tata remained steadfast in his determination to see the venture come to fruition. Along the way he had to suffer the scorn of people such as Sir Frederick Upcott, the chief commissioner of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, who promised to “eat every pound of steel rail [the Tatas] succeed in making”. There is no record of where Sir Frederick was when the first ingot of steel rolled out off the plant’s production line in 1912. J.N.Tata had been dead eight years by then, but his spirit it was, as much as the efforts of his son Dorab and cousin R. D. Tata, that made real the seemingly impossible.
The brick-and-mortar endeavours that J.N.Tata planned and executed were but one part of a grander idea. How much of a man of the future he was can be gauged from his views about his workers and their welfare. J.N.Tata offered his people shorter working hours, well-ventilated workplaces, and provident fund and gratuity long before they became statutory in the west. He spelled out his concept of a township for the workers at the steel plant in a letter he wrote to Dorab Tata in 1902, five years before even a site for the enterprise had been decided. “Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick-growing variety,” the letter stated. “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.” It was only fair that the city born of this sterling vision came to be called Jamshedpur.