Salt of the Earth book review: From desi firm to global giant

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March 15, 2015 12:13 AM

Salt of the Earth takes us on a ride to the past and future of Tata Chemicals

Salt of the Earth: The Story of Tata Chemicals
Philip Chacko & Christabelle Noronha
Pp 392

WHEN JAMSETJI Tata was first sparked by the iron and steel idea, he found his path blocked at every other turn by what his biographer Frank Harris called “those curious impediments which dog the steps of pioneers who attempt to modernise the East”. This melancholy account of the situation that prevailed in colonial India could well sum up the genesis of Tata Chemicals.

Tata Chemicals was born amid a turbulent India and surging nationalist sentiments. It was about the time Indian entrepreneurs were encouraged to venture into industries that were the preserve of Britishers.

During the late 1910s, Kapilram Vakil, a Manchester-educated enthusiast of the subject of chemistry, unknowingly laid the founding stone for the would-be-giant of India’s chemical industry. He had just returned to his homeland and started a salt production unit. Long before Tata Chemicals, which came into being in 1939, Tata Group had acquired Okha Salt Works, a company Vakil founded in 1926.

But it was in 1944 that Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, or JRD, made an attempt to venture in the chemicals industry. His efforts bore buds (if not fruits) when Tatas established their first heavy chemicals plant in Mithapur, a coastal village in present-day Gujarat.

The authors of the book, Philip Chacko and Christabelle Noronha, offer a nuanced account of the greater and lesser moments of Tata Chemicals’ coming into being and its growth.

The book gives a vivid account of Vakil’s life, the high risks that the firm’s management had to take during its adolescence, the hurdles to Tata’s diversification attempts during the 1980s and 90s, and the transformation and rediscovery of Tata Chemicals after February, 1992, thanks to the opening up of the domestic economy.

After a journey of three quarters of a century and numerous ups and downs without which the company could never have got as far as it has, Tata Chemicals is ready to embrace the future, which could be as eventful as its past.

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