The origins and ascent of Tata Steel are a tribute to India's original iron man and the remarkable people who followed in his footsteps


Think of steel bending and, stretching your imagination in every which direction, re-shaped and applied in newer and yet newer ways. That is the story of Tata Steel: defying and redefining conventional wisdom in myriad ways. Taking a material thought to be a grey, dull and mundane metal, beyond the current flats, longs, rings and tubes.

You thought branding was for less serious things like clothes? Then identify Tata Shaktee, Tata Tiscon, Tata Pipes, Tata Bearings and Tata Agrico. Yes, they're all made of steel.

Where does it all come from? Take a look at Tata Steel's integrated value chain, from the mining of different raw materials, through their processing, right up to the final product. You will see that all activities sales and distribution, material management, finance are lean and mean with the use of SAP (ERP). The company operates seven collieries and 14 mines and quarries spread over Jharkhand, Orissa and Karnataka, all of which are comprehensively e-connected.

Move over to its state-of-the-art cold-rolled mills, set rolling in 2002. Capture the glint of galvanised steel. At the hot-rolled mills the orange-red lure of the liquid metal affixes your gaze. Like a movie camera, your eyes zoom out slowly, very slowly.

The long and short of this story is that steel has never been more trendier. So how and when did our solid nation builder gain all this stylishness?

We stand first at the fag end of a revolution the fifth and 'final' stage of Tata Steel's modernisation, and we can not but salute the founder's penchant for the latest in technology. In fact, the word 'final' is not and has never been part of the Tata Steel lexicon; it only spells out the present and, maybe, the foreseeable future. It describes the phasing out of old units and outdated technologies, and the use of the very latest. Through this process, Tata Steel keeps up the tradition of getting the best resources in the world involved for the creation of wealth and the continuing development of a basic industry for nation building.

The first modernisation drive came with the completion of the 2 million-tonne programme in 1958-59. Launched in the year 1951, it was with this programme that Tata Steel became the highest producer of crude steel in the country. The year 1958 also saw the company celebrating its golden jubilee.

As we look backwards at the first 50 years towards the starting point, let's pause at some interesting milestones.

1942: The armoured cars being used extensively in World War II. Look at them closely. They are called Tatanagars and are fitted with bulletproof plates and rivets made by Tata Steel. It was in this year that the company got involved in the production of armour plates and alloy steels.

1932: Tata Steel celebrates Founder's Day on March 3 for the first time.

1924: New rail, merchant and sheet mills go into operation. In the early years, rail mills were the mainstay of the plant, till the company decided to diversify in 1917.

1917: The landmark Howrah Bridge in Kolkata used 80,000 tonnes of the company's steel. It still stands tall.

1914: In the First World War Tata Steel supplied 1,500 miles of rail and 300,000 tonnes of steel material at concessional rates for military campaigns in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Salonica and East Africa.

1911: This is the year the first ingot rolled out of the Tata Steel works. Coke ovens were fired and blast furnaces with 200 tonnes capacities regularly exceeded 220 tonnes production and often even touched 280 tonnes.

The beginning is even more fascinating: The plant was set up in a mere three years. The construction engineers spent seven weeks drawing up the plans. These engineers were Julian Kennedy and Sahlin & Company, invited by Tata Steel from Pittsburgh, USA, and Brussels respectively.

Imagine geologist CM Weld and his assistant Srinivas Rao clambering up a riverbank near the iron rich Gorumahisani Hills to spot a village called Sakchi at the meeting point of the rivers Kharkai and Subarnarekha. They came here after Indian geologist PN Bose wrote a letter saying he had discovered rich iron ore deposits in the princely state under the Maharaja of Mayurbhanj.

Weld was a partner of Charles Page Perin, who described his first meeting with Jamsetji Tata: "I was poring over some accounts in the office when the door opened and a stranger in a strange garb entered. He walked in, leaned over my desk and looked at me for a full minute in silence. Finally, he said in a deep voice, 'Are you Charles Page Perin?' I said, 'Yes…' 'Will you come to India with me?' I was dumbfounded, naturally. But you don't know what character and force radiated from Tata's face. And kindliness, too. 'Well,' I said, 'yes, I'll go.' And I did."

A world-class engineer was not the only asset Jamsetji Tata brought to his steel project. He met Julian Kennedy, who told him: "Produce the coal, the iron ore, and the limestone. Give me the analysis and I will build a plant as large as you desire." He also suggested that Jamsetji Tata meet Perin. Jamsetji Tata wanted and sought the best technical advice. He studied coking processes in Birmingham, Alabama, and visited the world's largest ore market at Cleveland.

But this was before 1899, when the mineral concession policy was liberalised. The spirit of perseverance that has been institutionalised in the company can be gauged from the numerous clippings on minerals in India which the founder maintained painstakingly for 17 years before anything could be translated into reality.

All for an idea so daring that it provoked the Chief Commissioner for Indian Railways, Frederick Upcott, to say: "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 they succeed in making."

Where does this story begin? When 43-year-old Jamsetji Tata read a report by German geologist Ritter von Schwartz which stated that the best iron ore deposits were in the Chanda district of the Central Provinces? Or when he heard the axiom: "The nation which gains control of iron soon acquires the control of gold," from the much admired Thomas Carlyle at a lecture in Manchester in 1867? Or even before that?

How does one believe that such an elaborate and illustrious saga started in the dream of one man? Reality often beats fantasy hollow.