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Jamsetji Nasarwanji Tata

founder of India's textile, iron and steel, and hydroelectric industries

J.N. Tata

Jamsetji Nasarwanji Tata was born in the village of Navsari, Gujarat, on March 3, 1839. His family lineage included a number of prominent Parsi priests. His father, Nasarwanji Ratanji, however, broke with family tradition and became a businessman in Bombay. Jamsetji joined his father's firm at the age of 14, married at the age of 16, and graduated from Elphinstone College in 1858.

In 1859 Jamsetji's father sent him on a business trip to Hong Kong, where he subsequently opened a branch of the family business. Over the next four years he established a network of connections and buyers for the business.

In 1863 Jamsetji made his first trip to England, where he worked to establish an Indian Bank. The venture was unsuccessful, however, and the difficulties surrounding the venture ultimately resulted in the Tata firm declaring bankruptcy. Jamsetji rallied back, however, and in 1868 was able to put together enough capital to establish his own trading company.

While in England, Jamsetji visited a large number of British textile mills and learned much about the textile business. Upon returning to India in 1869, he determined to transform India's textile industry into one that would rival that of England. That year he bought a dilapidated mill in Chinchpokli (a suburb of Bombay), renamed the property Alexandra Mill, and converted it into a working cotton mill. Two years later he was able to sell the mill to a local cotton merchant at a significant profit.

In 1872 Tata made another trip to England, during which he studied the Lancashire cotton trade. In 1874 he founded the Central India Spinning, Weaving and Manufacturing Company at Nagpur, near the heart of the Maharashtra cotton country. On January 1, 1877, the same day Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, he established Empress Mills at Nagpur. Empress Mills soon became the most prominent textile mill in India, outproducing all British-owned mills and becoming well known for its quality. Tata went on to establish textile mills across much of India. His mills were known as some of the best managed in the world, and they incorporated policies that were decades ahead of their time -- worker training, guaranteed pensions and tips, medical care, accident compensation, daycare for women employees who had children, etc. He also worked to improve the quality of Indian-grown cotton, and even published a pamphlet entitled Growth of Egyptian Cotton in India.

Having established India's textile industry, Tata next set his sights on establishing India as a major producer of iron and steel. In the early 1880's he hired surveyors and geologists to locate the most suitable site for a steel plant, and he laid out plans for a "company town" that included public parks, lots set aside for temples and churches, and plenty of other employee amenities. Tata would not live to see the fruits of his labors, but his sons carried on his work and, on August 26, 1907, registered the Tata Iron and Steel Company, sited in Sakchi, about 150 miles west of Calcutta. By 1911 the mill was producing about 70,000 tons of iron per year, and by World War II had become the largest single steel complex in the British Commonwealth.

In 1892 Tata established the JN Tata Endowment, which continues to allow Indian students of all castes and creeds to pursue higher education. In 1898 Tata pledged a portion of his vast personal fortune towards the establishment of an Indian Institute of Science. He donated land for the project, drew up a blueprint of the shape it should take, and solicited support from every sector of Indian society, including the Governor-General. The Institute was established at Bangalore in 1911 (seven years after his death).

Tata also worked to build a hydroelectric power plant in India. The Tata Electric Power company, based in Bombay, is today the largest private sector electricity generating company in India.

Tata's last major project was the establishment of a magnificent hotel at which all Indians would be welcome. Completed in 1903, the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay was the first building in Bombay to use electricity, and provided its guests with American fans, German-built elevators, Turkish baths, English butlers, and much more.

While on a business trip in Germany in 1904, Tata became seriously ill. He died in Nauheim on May 14, 1904, and was buried in a Parsi cemetery in Woking, England. The Tata Group of companies he founded is today one of the largest businesses in India.

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The Robinson Library >> Economics >> Economic History and Conditions: Asia

This page was last updated on March 03, 2018.