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Spanner in the Works

Nehru and Indira were scared of Indian businessmen getting too big for their boots. So they tried to keep them deliberately down

Tata Steel, once the India's most famous company, will celebrate its centenary next year. The first ingot of steel rolled out of its furnaces in 1907, the year since its mills have not stopped rolling.

For those of us who were studying engineering during the last war, Jamshedpur was a dream town. We all wanted jobs in the company, which was the only real engineering company in the country. Many of our friends were already working there and they sent back reports that made us swoon.

I first visited Jamshedpur during the war in the course of a study tour when we were shown round the works by a roly-poly man called Russi Mody, who was then looking after Tata Steel's public relations. When some years later, I was back as a consulting engineer, Mody had switched to personnel but he did remember me. For a town that made steel, Jamshedpur was most un-steel like. You could hear the usual buzz of a busy steel works, but the city was otherwise very quiet, almost like an English suburb. I had half a mind to settle down, but there were too many other irons in the fire, and making steel was not one of them.

Ten or twenty years later - how time flies - I visited the place again, this time in the company of JRD Tata himself, who was attending a special board meeting. That was my first meeting with JRD and I remember asking him why the company had stuck at 2 million tonnes of steel - or was it iron? - and why he was not expanding.

It is easier said than done, Tata said, as the company's plane put us down at Jamshedpur at the height of a scalding summer. The government doesn't want us to produce more steel, he said, as we might encroach on their own steel companies.

I am reminded of all this, as I read about Lakshmi Mittal and his steel empire which now accounts for ten per cent of global steel capacity. Tatas, who were among the first to make steel in India, and were producing over a million tonnes when Mittal was not even born, are now stuck at just under, or maybe over, five million tonnes, against Mittal's 110 million.

Incidentally, all the Indian steel companies produce no more than 40 to 45 million tonnes, less than half Mittal's output.

This is true, not only of steel, but almost everything else in India. Because Nehru & Co and later Indira Gandhi, were scared of Indian businessmen getting too big for their boots, the latter were deliberately kept down. This was precisely that by keeping down private business, they were keeping down India herself, but this probably never occurred to them.

Jamshedpur was a labour of love and it shows. It is a miniature India, almost a state within a state and its common tongue is steel. In my own office, there were Biharis - Jamshedpur was part of Bihar then - from Motihari, Parsis from Bombay, Goan cooks, Tamil typists, Bengali clerks, burly Punjabi firemen, and an American from Indiana, Ohio. What was he doing in Jamshedpur, ten thousand miles away from home? He was doing what we were all doing, earning our keep, and, of course, making steel.

Mittal is said to be eyeing India, after his triumph Europe. Does that mean Jamshedpur? I hope not.