Building of the Steel City

Right from its early beginnings it was clear that the mission and the working of the various companies within the Tata group is societal. From all the companies in the world I have known, Tata is unique in this perspective… what makes Tata different is that its societal work is a key part of its total mission.

– Ram Charan,
Well known Management Consultant.

Here is a brief story of Tata Steel and the Man behind it, an inspiring saga of vision, courage, determination and enterprise.

The Vision and the Visionary

Jamsetji Nusserwanjee Tata – the visionary and industrialist who ushered India into the age of the Industrial Revolution. It is he, who at the beginning of the century conceived for India the first steel plant, the first hydro-electric project and a University of Science, ‘the like of which England did not have at that time.’ Jamsetji died in 1904 but he had laid the lines for development and by 1912 all the three projects were well advanced.

Just five years earlier in 1907, when Sir Frederick Upcott, Chief Commissioner for Railways in India, heard that Tatas were going to set up a steel plant, he replied:

‘Do you mean to say that Tatas propose to make steel rails to British specifications? Why, I will undertake to eat every pound of steel rail if they succeed in making.’

In the next decade Tatas supplied to the British Government for the First World War, 1,500 miles of steel rails which made possible the shifting of troops and war materials in Mesopotamia. Jamsetji’s son, Sir Dorab Tata, dryly commented that had Sir Frederick Upcott kept his promise, ‘he would have had some slight indigestion.’

In recognition of the contribution of Tata Steel, Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy, came in 1919 to Sakchi in eastern India where the steel plant was located. Standing on the steps of the Director’s bungalow the representative of the British Crown said:

‘I can hardly imagine what we should have done during these four years (of war) if the Tata company had not been able to give us steel rails which have been provided for us, not only for Mesopotamia but for Egypt, Palestine and East Africa, and I have come to express my thanks…. It is hard to imagine that 10 years ago this place was scrub and jungle; and here, we have now, this place set up with all its foundries and its workshops and its population of 40,000 to 50,000 people. This great enterprise has been due to the prescience, imagination and genius of the late Mr. Jamsetji Tata…. This place will see a change in its name and will no longer be known as Sakchi but be identified with the name of its Founder, bearing down through the ages the name of the late Mr. Jamsetji Tata. Hereafter, this place will be known by the name of JAMSHEDPUR.’

Today, Jamshedpur, the town Tatas created, still run, and has 7,50,000 inhabitants.

When Jamsetji died in May 1904, the Times of India wrote in an obituary:

‘His sturdy sense of character prevented him from fawning on any man however great, for he himself was great in his own way, greater than most people realised. He sought no honour and he claimed no privilege; but the advancement of India and her myriad peoples, was with him an abiding passion.’

The same paper spoke of Jamsetji’s, ‘quiet, strong, stem, unselfish determination to pursue-his calling.’ And in so doing, Jamsetji became the founder of modem industrial India. Jawaharlal Nehru was to say of him:

‘When you have to give the lead in action, in ideas – a lead which does not fit in with the very climate of opinion, that is true courage, physical or mental or spiritual, call it what you like, and it is this type of courage and vision that Jamsetji Tata showed…’

From Dream to Reality

In the 1860s when Jamsetji Tata was about thirty, he went to a talk in Manchester by Thomas Carlyle. The steel age was just beginning. With vision Carlyle had declared: ‘The nation that has the steel will have the gold.’

Ships were of timber at the time and so were bridges. The words of Carlyle hummed in Jamsetji’s ears and some years later, in 1882, when Jamsetji was forty-three years old, he carried samples of coking coal and iron ore from India to Germany for testing. The ore was good but not the coal. The licensing laws of the British did not encourage private mining. Jamsetji postponed but did not abandon his plans. For the next seventeen years he kept a scrapbook of press clippings on minerals in India. In 1899 a report by Major (later General) Mahon was published. It said the time was ripe to establish an iron and steel industry in India. Mahon pointed to Eastern India where, at Ranigunj coalfields, coking coal had been discovered. Soon after, Lord Curzon wisely relaxed the rules for the licensing of mines. Jamsetji wasted no time and booked a passage to England. He arrived there in the twilight of the glorious reign of Queen Victoria. He saw Lord George Hamilton, Secretary of State for India, and told him of his desire to see the steel industry take root in India under Indian management.

Lord Hamilton, who held Jamsetji in high regard, encouraged him. Jamsetji told him that when he first thought of establishing a steel industry two decades earlier, he was young and ambitious. He would have undertaken the task for his own sake. Now he was sixty, and more than blessed with all he needed for himself. If, at this stage, he undertook a project as major as this, it would be for the sake of India. Hamilton was moved and said he would back him. Jamsetji replied that Viceroys come and go and a project as major as steel, with a long gestation period, needed a policy decision in writing. Hamilton promised to write to Curzon to support the Tata project. And he did.

Speedily Jamsetji cabled his office in Bombay to obtain prospecting licences for minerals and proceeded to the United States. He wanted the best technical advice. He studied coking processes at Birmingham, Alabama; visited the world’s largest ore market at Cleveland; and in Pittsburgh met the foremost metallurgical consultant of the time, Julian Kennedy. Kennedy warned the enthusiastic, though ageing, Indian that even preliminary investigations would cost a fortune and there was no guarantee of returns. If, said Kennedy, a thorough scientific survey was made of raw materials and conditions, he would build the plant. He suggested the name of Charles Page Perin as the best man to undertake the survey. To Perin, Jamsetji went. Perin later described his encounter;

‘I was poring over some accounts in the office when the door opened and a stranger in strange garb entered. He walked in, leaned over my desk and looked at me fully a minute in silence. Finally, he said in a deep voice, “Are you Charles Page Perin?” I said, “Yes.” He stared at me again silently for a long time. Then slowly he said, “I believe I have found the man I have been looking for. Julian Kennedy has written to you that I am going to build a steel plant in India. I want you to come to India with me, to find suitable iron ore and coking coal and the necessary fluxes. I want you to take charge as my consulting engineer. Mr Kennedy will build the steel plant wherever you advise and I will foot the bill. Will you come to India with me?” ‘I was dumbfounded, naturally. But you don’t know what the character and force radiated from Tata’s face. And kindliness too. Well, I said, “Yes, I’ll go.”And I did.’

Before Perin arrived he sent his partner, geologist C.M. Weld, to prospect for the raw materials. Weld arrived in the summer of April 1903 and in the searing heat of Central India set out exploring with Dorab Tata and a cousin, Shapurji Saklatvala. Chanda district was one of the finest in the country for shikar. The party, however, was not hunting for tigers but for Iron ore. They travelled by bullock cart over rough terrain. Clean water and food were difficult to obtain. As the days went by, the immensity of the task they had taken on began to dawn on the prospectors.

After many an adventure in prospecting a letter arrived from an Indian P.N. Bose, who had originally mapped the Durg area for ore. Now working for the Maharaja of Mayurbhanj, he had discovered rich iron ore in the state. It was within range of the Bengal coalfields and the ruler was keen to develop his state. In the wooden hills where elephants roamed and tribal Santhals eked out a precarious existence, the lofty Gorumahisani Hill rose to 3,000 feet. It was a superb storehouse of iron ore, later estimated at thirty-five million tons. The iron content was sixty per cent. Other neighbouring hills were also rich in ore. All the prospects were pleasing, but where was the water? A proposed reservoir had proved impracticable. Early one morning Weld and his Indian assistant, Srinivas Rao, plodded down a dry stream on their horses. It was heavy going through the sand. Said C.M. Weld:

‘At length we came upon a sight which filled us with joy; a black trap-dyke, crossing the river diagonally, and making an almost perfect natural pick-up weir. It seemed too good to be true.’

Weld and Srinivas Rao clambered up the river bank shouting with excitement. They found themselves close by the village of Sakchi, near the meeting point of two rivers, Kharkai and Subernarekha, meaning “gold-streaked”, which between them, never run dry. A couple of miles away was the railway station of Kalimati (now renamed Tatanagar.) They had come to the end of their search in 1907. Jamsetji had passed away in 1904 but his vision was to outlast him.

A year after the site was found, a visitor to Sakchi village records:

‘There were no roads from the station to the Sakchi camp. Job seekers had to find their way with much difficulty along the Susingeria Jungle (where the Susingeria Gate now stands.) In the beginning, a few tents and thatched huts dotted amidst a Jungle clearing, housed the small colony of people who were helping to lay the foundation of the Steel Works. The Pioneers spent a hard and adventurous life, defying all dangers and discomforts. No one could move out of his tent at night as wild animals from the neighbouring hills howled and prowled all around. The normal amenities of life were unknown. A cup of tea or milk was a luxury to us. Water was brought in wooden barrels from the Subernarekha and distributed on a rationed basis. Sometimes, we had to go without water for hours, and there were occasions when we had to boil eggs and potatoes in aerated water!’

Only three years later Lovat Fraser, an English journalist, noted:

‘I walked through street after street of commodious one-storey brick houses, all well ventilated, all supplied with running water and lit by electric light. Many of the houses possessed electric fans.’

It was still a hazardous undertaking to get to Sakchi and one could, waylaid by robbers even if one took one of the eight tongas which Pathans drove to the city. Then, as now, some trains arrived at odd hours and people preferred to sleep at Tatanagar station till dawn, before they resumed their journey. Each arrival was a great event. As many as ten men would accompany a friend safely to his train or collect him on arrival; occasionally passengers were pressed into service at the steel plant. Recruitment officers, it is said, would crane their necks into crowded compartments and when they saw a well-built man they would invite him to stop off at Tatanagar, if he wanted a job as carpenter, welder or in semi-skilled trade. ‘You could not afford to be idle in those days,’ recalls P.K. Chatterjee, who arrived as late as 1921. ‘If a cluster of idle men were located, company officers who usually travelled on horseback would ask them to come along, give them a brass token and they started working that day or the next.’

Putting up the Works itself was a mammoth venture. The main machinery arrived by train from Bombay or Calcutta. An entire City laid out, the first planned modern city of India (New Delhi and Chandigarh were to follow.)

In 1902 before the site of the steel plant was even located, Jamsetji, when abroad, described his dream city of steel to his son Dorab in a letter: ‘Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees of a quick-growing variety. 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.

Two decades after Jamsetji penned these lines, J.R.D. first visited Jamshedpur. The dream had come true. In the intervening years men of steel had raised city out of a jungle.

Russi M. Lala

Russi M. Lala was the director of Tata’s premier foundation – The Dorabji Tata Trust for eighteen years. His book ‘The Heartbeat of a Trust’ is based on this Trust. He has authored a large number of books. He is also co-founder of the ‘Centre for the Advancement of Philanthropy’ and has been its chairman since 1993.

This article was made from “Beyond the Last Blue Mountain” by R.M. Lala, published by Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.

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