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JRD Tata

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JRD Tata – A Profile

India's first pilot; established Air India International as India's first international airline; Chairman of Tata & Sons for 50 years; recipient of Bharat Ratna in 1992... there are many personas of this one personality. Enterprising, indomitable and undaunted – JRD Tata is the pioneer who was driven by the spirit of the skies.

Born on July 29, 1904 in Paris, Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, was fondly referred to as JRD by commoner and king. Representing an exalted idea of Indian-ness: progressive, benevolent, ethical and compassionate, JRD Tata is recognized as the most enterprising Indian entrepreneurs of all times. Recognised as the fourth Chairman of the Tata Group at the young age of 34 only, JRD is credited with placing the Tata Group on the international map.

On the personal front, flying was a passion with JRD. He was the first person to qualify within India to fly. He got his license, which bore on it Number 1, on 10 February 1929. As an aviator and pioneer flier, he was the one who brought commercial aviation to India. JRD went on to establish Air-India International in 1948 and became the president of Inter-national Air Transport Association (IATA) within 10 years of its establishment. He remained at the helm of Air India till 1978, making it one of the most efficient airlines in the world.

Nobody could have guessed that this is how destiny would unfold, when JRD was born to RD Tata, a business partner and relative of Jamsetji Tata, and his French wife Sooni. JRD, the second of four siblings, was educated in France, Japan and England before being drafted into the French army for a mandatory one-year period. JRD wanted to extend his stint in the forces (to avail of a chance to attend a renowned horse-riding school), but his father would have none of it. Leaving the French army saved JRD his life, because shortly thereafter, the regiment he served in was wiped out while on an expedition in Morocco.

JRD then set his mind on securing an engineering degree from Cambridge, but his father summoned him back to India (JRD would forever regret not being able to attend university). He soon found himself on the threshold of a business career in a country he was far from familiar with.

JRD entered the Tatas as an unpaid apprentice in December 1925. His mentor in business was John Peterson, a Scotsman who had joined the Group after serving in the Indian Civil Service. At 22, soon after his father passed away, he was on the board of Tata Sons, the Group's flagship company. In 1929, aged 25, he surrendered his French citizenship to embrace the country that would become the central motif of his life. In the same year on February 10, JRD became the first Indian to pass the pilot's examination. With this distinctive honor of being India's first pilot, he was instrumental in giving wings to India by building Tata Airlines, which ultimately became Air India. His passion for flying was fulfilled with the formation of the Tata Aviation Service in 1932.

At the age of 34, in 1938, JRD was elected Chairman of Tata & Sons making him the youngest head of the largest industrial group in India. His leadership at Tata Sons, at the beginning, had 14 enterprises which half a century later had expanded to a conglomerate of 95 enterprises. During his tenure, the group expanded into diverse fields such as chemicals, automobiles, tea and information technology. Breaking with the common practice of having members of one's own family run different operations in a business, JRD urged to bring in professionals to the table. He turned the Tata Group into a business federation where entrepreneurial talent and expertise were encouraged to flower.

During his tenure, JRD initiated a program of closer "employee association with management" to give workers a stronger voice in the affairs of the company. He, for the first time, pioneered the system of developing ‘employee welfare schemes’ in corporate India and steered the principles of an eight-hour working day, free medical aid, workers' provident fund and accident compensation schemes, which were later, adopted as statutory requirements in India.

Under JRD’s aegis, in the year 1979, Tata Steel instituted a new practice; a worker is deemed to be "at work" from the moment he leaves home for work till he returns home from work. Hence the company is financially liable to the worker if any mishap takes place on the way to and from work.

JRD stepped down from his position as Chairman in 1991, to hand over the baton to Sri. Ratan Tata.

Self-effacing, modest, wistful and endearing are a few of the adjectives used to describe JRD. During the 89 years of his life and as an established corporate citizen of India,

JRD Tata was honoured with a number of awards. He received the Padma Vibhushan in 1957 for his remarkable contribution to the aviation industry, the Guggenheim Medal for aviation in 1988. In 1992, JRD Tata was awarded India's highest civilian honor - the Bharat Ratna - in recognition of his selfless humanitarian endeavours. In the same year, JRD Tata was also bestowed with the United Nations Population Award for his crusading endeavors towards initiating and successfully implementing the family planning movement in India, much before it became an official government policy.

JRD and his wife, Thelma, whom he married after a Paris romance in 1930, did not have any children, but JRD always appeared most comfortable with kids. Be it adult or children, to him, it was people who mattered. With his demise on November 29, 1993, in a Geneva hospital, an epoch had come to an end. A noble bit of India  - and Indian-ness  - was gone forever.

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