Air Commodore(Hon.) Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, Indian Airforce

Air Commodore(Hon.) J.R.D. Tata


His was a life which often shaped history. Pioneering civil aviation on the subcontinent, funding Dr Homi Bhabha's ambition to catapult India into the nuclear age, initiating the family planning movement much before it became the official policy and bankrolling the efforts to record and preserve for posterity the country's priceless folk arts which were in danger of obliteration. J.R.D. Tata was indeed a legend in his time.

Born in Paris on July 29, 1904, Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata was the second child of Mr Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata and his French wife Sooni. The young Tata spent his early years in Hardelot, a beach in France, where his interest in flying was sparked off. He had varied interests, desired to become a scholar at Cambridge, had a passion for fast cars, and served in a regiment called Le Saphis(The Sepoys) with the French army in 1924.

In 1925, Mr Tata arrived at Bombay House to work under Mr John Peterson, the director-in-charge of Tata Steel. In 1938 when Sir Nowroji Saklatvala, the Chairman of Tata Sons expired, Mr Tata was catapulted to head the country's largest industrial empire. He was barely thirty four! And he guided the destiny of India's largest Industrial house for well over half a century.

In 1939 Tata Chemicals started its struggle towards pioneering a self reliant, basic inorganic chemical industry for India, in the face of repeated crises. Just before India’s Independence, Tata Steel promoted the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (TELCO) in 1945 with an objective to produce locomotives for the Indian Railways. Today Telco has emerged as India’s largest Commercial Vehicle producer.

JRD's passion for flying was fulfilled with the formation of the Tata Aviation Service in 1932. The first flight of Indian Civil Aviation took off at Drigh Road airfield in Karachi on October 15, 1932, with Mr Tata at the controls flying the Puss Moth solo to Ahmedabad and on to Bombay. In its first year of operations, the Tata Aviation Service, achieved cent percent punctuality and chalked up a profit of Rs. 10,000.

Arrival of the inaugural mail flight from Karachi to Bombay : (from left) Nusserwanji Guzder, Homi Bharucha, J.R.D. Tata, Nevill Vincent and two officials of the postal service.

The Leopard Moth in which J.R.D made a commemorative flight in 1962, on the 30th anniversary of the first mail flight from Karachi to Bombay. Alongside is an Air-India Boeing 707.

On every flight which Mr Tata flew, he made key observations and suggestions to emphasize on the quality of service. Even though, over the years, Air India International had struck a high note for Indian Aviation, the domestic airline scenario was in a mess. The government decided in 1953 to nationalize the entire airline business and invited Mr Tata to chair the enterprise. He devoted a disproportionate time with Air-India while his group companies were all run by efficient chief executives he had personally recruited.

Air Chief Marshal Arjun Singh with J.R.D at the latter's investiture as Honorary Air Commodore.

J.R.D. at the controls of a Vampire jet.

In 1978, Mr Tata's services in Air-India were terminated by Mr. Morarji Desai, India's Prime Minister. This was a body blow for JRD and compared the experience to losing a child he had nurtured for years.

J.R.D. with the Leopard Moth in 1982 on the 50th anniversary of the inaugural mail flight.

Despite enormous pressures on his time, Mr Tata took the role of a citizen very seriously and never failed to be of service to the nation. The concept of establishing Asia’s first Cancer hospital in Bombay was implemented under Mr Tata’s purview in 1941. The Tata Memorial Hospital was the first large contribution of India to the international fight against cancer. Citizen Tata’s greatest gift to the scientific establishment came in 1945 when he gave the founding grant to Dr Homi Bhabha to set up the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. This Institute has proved to be, in Dr Homi Bhabha’s words "the cradle of our atomic energy program".

Mr Tata was among the first Indians to be drawn to the cause of population control when he realised the drag unchecked population growth could have on the country’s developmental efforts. It was in 1951 when he came across statistics which revealed that the country had crossed the mark of 350 million people, Mr Tata sounded out Prime Minister Pandit Nehru on the issue and the latter ignored it. JRD didn't wait for the government to act, but part funded Mrs. Avabai Wadia’s efforts in starting the Family Planning Association of India. In 1970, he started the Family Planning Foundation jointly with the Ford foundation and was instrumental in conditioning the thinking of an entire generation, treating the issue as one of essential transformation of the society. For his crusading endeavours in the field, Mr Tata was bestowed the United Nations Population Award in 1992.

The President of India, Mr. R. Venkataraman conferring the Bharat Ratna.

For his enormous contributions to India, Mr Tata was awarded the country’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1992, one of the rare instances when the award was granted during the person’s lifetime.

And with his death on November 29, 1993, India lost one of its pioneering sons. The Indian Parliament, in an unusual gesture for a private citizen, was adjourned in his memory and the state of Maharashtra declared three days of public mourning.