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JRD Tata: The aviator and a perfectionist who founded Air India

JRD Tata will always be 
remembered as the stalwart who reached for the skies — in more ways than one.



by

Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Fri 28 Jan 2022, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Sat 29 Jan 2022, 10:11 AM

“If you want excellence, you must aim at perfection. It has its drawbacks, but being finicky is essential” — these were the immortal words of Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy (JRD) Tata (June 29, 1904 — November 29, 1993).

Posterity remembers JRD as the father of Indian civil aviation, industrialist, entrepreneur and the chairman of the Tata Group — a 153-year-old Indian multinational conglomerate headquartered in Mumbai with an annual turnover of Dh550.95 billion.

JRD was born in Paris in 1904, into a wealthy Parsi family; his mother was Suzanne RD Tata (née Suzanne Brière), a French woman. It was his love for flying that made him leave Paris, and the soon-to-be aviator moved to India, his father Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata’s homeland. He renounced his French citizenship and took up Indian nationality in 1929 — the year he also obtained a commercial pilot licence.

In October 1932, JRD launched Tata Airlines as India’s first carrier and flew mails between Karachi in the then undivided British-ruled India and Bombay (now known as Mumbai). He had steered a vintage Puss Moth aircraft as India made civil aviation history.

JRD’s civil aviation ambitions were soaring amid the tumultuous changes sweeping across the globe — including World War II (1939-45) and India’s Independence and Partition (1947).

However, the breakout civil aviation ambitions in a monopolistic market faced strong headwinds, thanks to independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

In 1953, the then Nehru-led government nationalised Air India — the new name for Tata Airlines — even though JRD vehemently opposed the move.

Though initially JRD was upset 
with the government’s nationalisation drive, later he reconciled with the 
policy decision. He became the state carrier’s chairman — a job he did pro bono — and held the position for the next 25 years till 1978, when JRD was asked to step down as the carrier’s chairman by the then Morarji Desai-led government.

Last October, as the Tata group was all set to regain the debt-laden Air India, senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh took to Twitter to share a letter written by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that was addressed to JRD after he was removed as the chairman of Air India on February 1, 1978.

Ramesh tweeted: “In February 1978, JRD Tata was summarily removed by the Morarji Desai government as the chairman of Air India — a position he had occupied since March 1953. Here is an exchange that followed between JRD and Indira Gandhi, who was then out of power. Her letter was handwritten.”

Mrs Gandhi offered her condolences for the government’s decision 
and praised JRD’s efforts in building 
Air India:

“You were not merely chairman, but the founder and nurturer who felt deep personal concern,” her letter read. “It was this and the meticulous care you gave to the smallest detail, including the decor and the saris of the hostesses, which raised Air-India to the international level and indeed to the top of the list,” she further wrote.

“We were proud of you and of the airline. No one can take this satisfaction from you nor belittle the government’s debt to you in this respect,” she added.

Acknowledging the “misunderstanding” between the two of them, Mrs Gandhi said she had to function under great “pressure”, and also indicated that there were “rivalries within the Ministry of Civil Aviation”.

Tata graciously responded to the letter after nearly two weeks.

He said, “I was touched by your kind reference to the part I played in building up the airline. I was fortunate in the loyalty and enthusiasm of my colleagues and staff and the support I got from the government without either of which I could have achieved little.”

The letter reflects JRD’s belief in innate human values.

And all his life he strove for 
“perfection” even though it “has its drawbacks”… but then, “being finicky 
is essential”.


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