memoirs – one of the pioneers of Tata’s enterprises abroad – Syamal Gupta
memoirs – recount the growth of a young engineer’s lifetime employment
and his meritorious career within the Tata Group over the years
In 1972 when we landed in Singapore it appeared more like a small Indian town with its narrow roads, old buildings and small corner shops.
You could see a lot of Indians in dhotis selling foreign exchange in the markets.
That is how Syamal Gupta, one of the pioneers of Tata’s enterprises abroad , remembers in his book Quintessentially Tata.
My journey over 55 summers.
These memoirs recount the growth of a young engineer’s lifetime employment and his meritorious career within the Tata Group over the years, recalls Ratan Tata.
Mr Gupta, now in his eighties, began life with the Tatas as a highly trusted, talented young engineer and went on to start several Tata companies,
head several of them.
There is a lot in the memoirs about technology and engineering. But let me recount some of the more interesting anecdotes.
Several years ago in Jamshedpur Ratan Tata asked Gupta for a ride on his scooter and rode double seat with people watching in amazement.
Mr Tata’s imported American car did not work sometimes because it was difficult to get spare parts in those days.
There was no way he could get in touch with the mechanic in the garage during days when telephone connectivity was poor and mobiles were unheard of.
R Gopakkrishnan, senior Tata director and friend of Gupta, calls him a bricklayer of the Tata Group and
Gupta says this is a bricklayer’s perspective of years from 1970s onwards.
That reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem A Worker Reads History in which the worker points out that
history books tell us about the exploits of Alexander and Ceasar and the big monuments of ancient times.
The question is what about the masons ? Where are their names ?
A Tata executive can well tell his story but what about an ordinary worker ? Who will remember, record the contribution of ordinary workers ?
Interestingly, we do have an account of workers’ contribution to the building of the famous
Golden Gate bridge in the U.S. in a book written by labour historian Schwartz based on oral
testimonies of some of the workers who worked in the most hazardous conditions. We will come to that later.
Mr Tata begins his foreword to Gupta’s book by paying tributes to Sumant Moolgaonkar, a Tata pioneer,
for his talent in picking talented men like Gupta. Gupta also pays rich tributes to Moolgaonkar.
He says Moolgaonkar looked like a radiant scholar. That is true. I was impressed too when I interviewed Moolgaonkar for TOI several years ago.
His wife Leelatai was also a pleasant lady whom humourist P.L. Deshpande jokingly called bloodthirsty
because she was a big name in collecting blood and was a pioneer in blood bank work.
There are some interesting photographs thanks to the Tata Archives. How many industrial houses have archives ?
Very few like Tatas and Godrej. Not only industries, workers, trade unions too should write their histories,
create their own archival material, else we will have history only of the winners, dominant groups.
Mr Gupta recalls that when he was in Singapore he got a call from the Indian high commission saying Mumbai
Mayor Murli Deora wanted to see mass housing projects He took Mr Deora around. The Mayor wanted to replicate this in Mumbai.
Mr Gupta does no go further on this but the point is much of the housing work in Singapore was done by the government
and it controlled the land. On the contrary, the governments, both in the Centre and in the States in India actually overturned
good urban land law and handed over so much surplus land to industries, builders and racketeers.
Mr Manmohan Singh’s record as on this score as finance minister could be seen as most unimpressive.
I very much remember a Congress election campaign he launched in Mumbai and his main concern was how to overturn
the urban land ceiling Act. As if so many other pressing problems did not exist. The main demand of the corporate sector
then was land prices were high because of the Act What on earth has happened after the subversion of this Act ?
Things have got worse. This is an absolute disgrace. The government does not have enough land for its own important projects,
nothing shows the utter bankruptcy than the current desperate search going on for land for the Metro railway depot.
That the government has gone in for this monstrous project without any adequate provision for land
or finance shows extreme incompetence at high level.
Mr Gupta has seen the spectacular rise of Singapore from its early days when he led Tata Precision Industries
TPI and then Tata Exports where he promoted several international ventures and won numerous awards.