Obituary: J. R. D. Tata

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The Independent Online
Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, businessman: born Paris 29 July 1904; Chairman, Tata Sons Ltd 1938-91; Chairman, Air India 1953-78; married 1930 Thelma Vicaji; died Geneva 29 November 1993.

J. R. D. TATA was head of India's largest industrial empire for five decades, and a pioneering aviator who founded the international airline Air India.

In 1932, 'JRD' caught India's imagination by flying solo on the first ever civil flight from Karachi (now in Pakistan) to Ahmedabad and on to Bombay in a Puss Moth aircraft. The journey took four days with overnight halts en route in Madras and Belary, south India. Soon after, JRD launched Tata Aviation which later became Air India International. And while JRD was chairman Air India succeeded in providing what it is vainly struggling to achieve today - service, punctuality and profitability.

This same sense of adventure imbued all JRD's subsequent undertakings ranging from heavy industry and scientific research to social work. He not only enlarged post-independent India's industrial infrastructure by expanding the aviation, steel, automobile, hotel and consumer goods sector but also contributed significantly towards developing India's nuclear energy programme.

As head of the monolithic Tata group of companies which had a turnover of 100bn rupees ( pounds 2.2bn) when he voluntarily stepped down in 1991, JRD ushered in an industrial culture which encompassed townships like the Tata steel city of Jamshedpur, eastern India, a professional corps of managers and a work ethic which pierced India's prevailing umbrella of corruption, maintaining reasonably successfully a base line of professionalism and accountability. Under JRD all Tata group companies were synonymous with good planning, efficiency and above all, honesty.

JRD held two factors chiefly responsible for retarding India's industrial growth - the socialist policies of the prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, which he said contributed only to redistributing poverty, and India's astronomical population growth. Unsuccessfully he challenged succeeding prime ministers over these problems, often inviting their wrath. But he persisted and was ultimately vindicated when India opted for a market economy in 1990.

Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata was born a Parsee of the ancient Zoroastrian faith in 1904 in Paris, the second of five children of the prosperous Ratanji Dadabhai Tata and Suzanne, his French wife, renamed Sooni after her long golden hair.

From 1909 to 1917 JRD alternated between India and France, studying at the Janson Besailly School, in Paris, and Cathedral High School in Bombay. French was his first language and later in life he regretted being unable to speak fluently any Indian language.

At the end of the First World War JRD returned to France. He was drafted into the French Army just as he was about to go to Cambridge University in 1924, having spent a year at a crammer in London. After completing National Service in France, he returned to Bombay and joined Tata Sons, then a modest but expanding industrial house, as an unpaid apprentice. In 1929 he renounced his French citizenship.

By now JRD's passion for flying had become an obsession. He had been introduced to aeroplanes at the age of five at Hardelot, in Normandy, where his family regularly took a summer beach house in the same neighbourhood as Louis Bleriot, the first man to fly across the English Channel, in 1909. The sight of Bleriot's aircraft landing on the beach thrilled JRD and he was determined one day to emulate his hero.

In Bombay, JRD's passion was rekindled by one Neville Vincent, an RAF boxing champion travelling around India as a surveyor. Egged on by Vincent, JRD acquired a flying licence in 1929 and persuaded Tata's to sanction the purchase of two Puss Moth aircraft.

Air India International was formed in March 1948 and in the first year of operation made a profit of around 100,000 rupees. JRD continued as Air India's chairman after it was nationalised in 1963 until he was arbitrarily removed in 1978. JRD said his removal was like losing a beloved child. But, still a keen flyer, he re-enacted the solo Karachi-Bombay flight in the original Puss Moth in 1962 and again in 1982 to mark the golden jubilee of Indian civil aviation.

In 1930 JRD married Thelma Vicaji, the daughter of 'Prince' Vicaji, a colourful lawyer whom he hired to defend him on a charge of driving his Bugatti too fast along Bombay's main promenade, Marine Drive. Eight years later JRD was unanimously selected chairman of Tata Sons which he remained for 53 years before stepping down in favour of Rattan Tata, his nephew.

In 1944 JRD briefly flirted with the anti-British independence movement and even declined a knighthood. But he soon developed ideological differences with his friend Jawaharlal Nehru, then India's prime minister-in-waiting, over his socialist policies and opted instead to expand his business empire. Besides successfully achieving this, JRD also founded the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and was the prime mover behind the founding of the International Institute of Population Studies in collaboration with the United Nations in 1956.

JRD lived in an unpretentious, rented bungalow, The Cairn, in Bombay's posh Cumbala Hill area. Local children were never barred from the compound, and whilst playing they would often run into a spare, elderly man, dressed in starched white trousers and shirt, with a benign air about him. Few realised he was one of India's best- known businessmen.

JRD was stylish, modest and self- effacing, never imposing his seniority on any employee. When awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award, he is known to have remarked, 'Oh, my God, why me? Can't we do something to stop it?'

(Photograph omitted)