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The Ugly Face of Tata

This article was published on the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal on February 20, 2007.


The Tata Group, a family-owned Indian multinational with 2005 revenues of Rs. 76,500 crores ($17.8 billion), has an unjustifiably good reputation. The corporation’s flagship company Tata Steel made its riches through large-scale takeover of tribal lands in Jharkhand and Orissa and opportunistic business deals with the British colonial powers and the East India Company. Until the onset of liberalisation, Tatas remained the undisputed king of the license-raj, covering its trail of human rights, labour and environmental violations with liberal philanthropic give-aways. As the realities of operating in a globalised environment began sinking in within Tatas, more and more people, including its loyal employees, are beginning to understand that talks of nation-building and corporate social responsibility aside, Tata companies have no obligation to anybody but their own shareholders. As the rapsheet below will corroborate, the corporate house’s reputation is a result of Tata’s successful public relations strategy rather than a reflection of reality.


In December 1984, when the Government of India arrested Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson for his role in causing the Bhopal gas disaster, Mr. J.R.D. Tata was one of the few Indians to condemn the arrest. Decisions made by Anderson to save costs by eliminating safety systems and approving untested technology at the Bhopal factory were directly responsible for the disaster. Incidentally, significant sections of the Bhopal factory’s sewage and utilities were constructed by Tata Consulting Engineers. In November 2006, Ratan Tata offered to bail out Union Carbide, and facilitate investments by Carbide’s new owner Dow Chemical, by leading a charitable effort to clean-up the toxic wastes abandoned by Carbide in Bhopal. At a time when the Government of India has held Dow Chemical liable for the clean-up and requested Rs. 100 crores from the American MNC, Tata’s offer of charity is aimed at frustrating legal efforts to hold the company liable. Also, admittedly, the offer is motivated by a desire to facilitate Dow’s investments in India. The company has restrained itself from major investments in India out of fear that the campaign for justice by Bhopal victims will derail plans and increase risks of any Dow venture in India.


Dictating Indian Policy: In 2005, prompted by the corporate-friendly overtures of the Manmohan Singh Government and the Bush administration, business houses in the US and India set up the US-India CEO Forum comprising a select coterie of US and Indian CEOs. The forum has “a mandate to develop a road map for increased partnership and cooperation between the two countries at a business level.” Co-chaired by Ratan Tata, the Forum has made several recommendations to craft new laws, change existing laws and establish policy to make India more investor-friendly. The Forum is pushing for weaker labour laws, facilitation of Special Economic Zones, increased focus on post-graduate education, relaxing liability laws and expediting resolution of disputes especially following events such as the Bhopal disaster. The high-level consent that the Forum has from Indian and US Governments makes it a force parallel to the Indian parliament in law-making. Holding on to Corporatocracy: Tatas own and operate the only private city in India. The steel city of Jamshedpur, which was founded by Jamsetji Tata in 1904, is one of few Indian cities that does not have a municipality or any local elected Government. Tata Steel-owned Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Company administers the entire town with population of nearly 600,000. The 74th Amendment to the Constitution of India devolves powers to locally elected urban bodies such as municipalities, and requires that all states enact laws to hold regular elections to such local bodies. Converting the Tata-controlled town to a democratically controlled municipality met with stiff resistance from Tata Steel who seemed to suggest that a benevolent rule, such as Tata Steel, was more desirable than a democratic set-up. Defending corporate rule over democracy, Tata Steel’s managing director B. Muthuraman is reported as saying “While you have one successful model which has been there for a hundred years, would you like to bring in some other model which however lofty may not yet have been tried.” Business with Military Junta: The Myanmar military government which is shunned by the world for its blatant human rights violations has found a friend in India. At a time when several multinationals like PepsiCo have pulled out of Myanmar in a bid to pressure the military government to give way to democratic forces, Tata Motors is striking deals to supply the oppressive regime with hardware and automobiles. The Myanmar military junta is accused of widespread rape and pillage, and the use of forced labour to construct infrastructure for the exploitation of Myanmar’s rich natural resources. For more than two decades, tribal groups have fought a hard and violent battle against the military junta for autonomy. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since 1989.


Parched Earth Tactics: Tatas’ steel town came up in close proximity to thickly forested lands that had the misfortune of carrying some of the richest iron ore deposits. Tribal people then and now seldom have paper titles to their lands. The company initially acquired 3564 acres of land comprising villages at the cost of Rs. 46,332. When the lands were handed over to Tatas for mining in Noamundi and for the Jamshedpur township by the British-controlled Government of India, the tribals were evicted. In 1907, after Tatas had taken over the Noamundi area for mining iron, local adivasis refused to work the mines. In a bid to tame them, Tatas reportedly mowed down the Kusumgaj (Kosam) trees. These trees were the lifeline for the adivasis who collected lac from the lacworms that nest on these trees. In desperation and with no other recourse for a livelihood, more and more adivasis started digging iron ore for Tatas. In 2000, Tata Steel allegedly bulldozed a spring that was the only source of water for the indigenous people of Agaria Tola – a 22-household hamlet on the periphery of Tata’s coal mines. Besides yielding water, the spring was the centre of social interaction for the nearby villagers. Chrome Poisoning: The Down to Earth magazine reports that the Comptroller Auditor General of the Government of India singled out the chromite mines in Sukhinda Valley as a highly polluted area. Tatas are one of the largest mining companies in the valley. The Domsala River and 30 streams that run through this valley are contaminated with dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium leaching from overburden dumps. Hexavalent chromium causes irritation of the respiratory tract, nasal septum ulcers, irritant dermatitis rhinitis, bronchospasm and pneumonia. One study funded by the Norwegian Government under the Orissa Environment Program found that almost 25 percent of people living less than 1 km from the sites suffered pollution-induced diseases. Luxury Resort in Tiger Country: In the mid-1990s, the Tata-owned Taj Group of Hotels leased a piece of land in the middle of the Nagarahole National Park and Tiger Reserve in Karnataka to build the Gateway Tusker Lodge. Proposed as a jungle camp, the plans for the Lodge resembled those of a 5-star resort complete with tourist facilities, diesel generators, and conference rooms. No clearance was sought from the Ministry of Environment, despite the fact that any activity inside a National Park is very stringently regulated. Massive tribal opposition to the project and a legal challenge eventually forced the Tatas to withdraw from the Tiger’s hunting grounds.


Gua Massacre: State violence against tribal people is commonplace, particularly in the mining districts of Eastern India. According to an eyewitness, on 7 September, 1980, villagers whose lands were taken over to accommodate a Tata aerodrome in Noamundi went to the aerodrome to confront then Tata Steel chairman Russi Mody and present him a memo. On seeing the crowd, Mody’s aircraft returned to Jamshedpur without landing. All this happened at a time when long-oppressed tribals were asserting their rights, and the struggle for a tribal state was at its peak in the Jharkhand region of Bihar. Tatas and other vested interests are said to have pressed the State Government to take stringent action against tribal activists. The 8 September firing against innocent tribals in the Gua marketsquare, and the subsequent killing of 8 unarmed tribals inside a hospital was the “strict action” that was taken to quell tribal discontent. Kalinganagar Massacre: On January 2, 2006, a police battalion armed to the teeth opened fire into a crowd of tribal villagers in Kalinganagar, Orissa. The tribal people were protesting the illegal construction of a compound wall by Tata Steel on lands historically owned by them. The local people had made it clear that Tata Steel was not welcome. Just days before the massacre, Tata Steel had three meetings with the chief minister of Orissa. Five corpses returned after post-mortem were mutilated; one dead woman’s breast was ripped off, and a young boy (also killed in the firing) had his genitals mutilated. All had their palms chopped off. Tata has said the incident was unfortunate, and that it will continue with plans to set up a steel plant at the location despite the opposition. Singur Oppression: In 2006, Tatas obtained a bonanza. More than 900 acres of fertile agricultural lands in Singur, near Kolkata, was handed over to Tata Motors by the West Bengal Government for a project that will churn out Rs. 100,000 ($2000) cars. Farmers, many of whose lands were forcibly acquired, opposed the handover of their lands to Tata. Goaded by Tatas, the West Bengal Government has come down heavily on the Singur farmers and their supporters, converting this once-peaceful village into a war-zone with round-the-clock presence of armed police providing protection to Tata Motors site and workers.


Saline wastes: In September 2003, an effluent spill from Tata Chemicals’ soda ash factory in Mithapur, Gujarat, spread over more than 150 acres of the sea in the Gulf of Kutch Marine National Park. The National Park covers one of the most biodiverse regions – mangroves, corals, mudskippers, whale sharks — in the coast of India. About 10 km_ of the marine protected area has been considerably degraded due to the settlement of solids associated with the effluent of the industry, according to the National Institute of Oceanography. The salt pans in the Mithapur area are also named as the cause for the rapid salinity ingress into the groundwater. Several villages have lost their farmlands to accommodate open unlined dumps for Tata’s saline effluent. Hell on Earth: Patancheru, a chemical industrial estate near Hyderabad, is referred to as Hell on Earth owing to the unlivable environmental conditions in that area because of industrial pollution. Rallis India, a Tata subsidiary manufacturing pesticides here, was singled out by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes which identified the company’s toxic waste dump to be a toxic contamination source of concern. The company’s wastes are stored in massive solar evaporation ponds that stinks up the air with poisonous chemicals, villagers say. Mountains of Waste, Jugsalai: Thousands of tonnes of boiler ash generated from Tata Steel units are dumped in the open in the middle of Jugsalai town near Jamshedpur. During the dry months, the heavy metal laced dust from the mountain of ash flies in the air causing visibility problems and breathing distress. Groundwater in the area is polluted, as per Tata Steel’s own admission, and contains higher than permissible levels of hardness and dissolved solids. Joda Mines: Begun in the 1950s, the mining boomtown that houses Tata, Birla and Jindal iron ore mines, has fuelled the riches of several corporates but has gained nothing in the process. Joda town and the road to it, according to one journalist, is one big pothole. The constantly plying ore trucks, and the round-the-clock mining has meant that local residents, workers and commuters have no fresh air to breathe. It is a wonder that these dustiest of dusty mines are located at the edge of the Sidhamatha Reserve Forests, home to the elephant and tiger. Coal Slurry Dumping: Tata Steel’s collieries in West Bokaro and its coal washeries in Bokaro have been discharging a coal-dust-rich slurry into the Bokaro River, effectively killing the river by smothering the river bed. The process also uses large quantities of freshwater and discharges it along with the coal-dust as effluents.


Founder’s Day Fire: On March 3, 1989, a fire broke out in the VIP gallery during the Founder’s Day celebrations. Sixty children were killed and 111 injured in the fire that was caused by negligence and poor planning that prevented fire tenders from arriving at the scene of the accident in time. The problem was further exacerbated when Tatas refused to move the injured and dying to a burns speciality hospital in a bid to cover up the event. A Factories Inspectorate report lays the blame squarely on Tata Steel. More than 10 years after the tragic event, Tatas had still not paid compensation to the legal heirs of the deceased or to the injured. Even the Supreme Court alluded to pay-offs by TISCO, asking TISCO how much it was paying the Court-appointed arbitrator.


In the 1920s and 1930s, when it was still called Tata Iron and Steel Company, TISCO’s largely tribal workers fought pitched battles with the European and Parsi management. Work conditions and the right to organise were important rallying issues, and over the years, the company developed a reputation for union-busting often by violent means. Worker Suicides: After Ratan Tata took over in 1991, the Tata Group companies have witnessed aggressive streamlining and down-sizing. In 2003, two contract workers who were part of the Tata Hydrocompanies Employees Union doused themselves with kerosene and set themselves on fire outside the Tata headquarters. Along with 68 other workers from the Tata Power Company, the two suicidal workers were protesting the illegal termination of their contract in 1997 by Tata. As land prices skyrocketed in Mumbai in the 1980s, textile mills sitting on prime real estate in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) began starving as mill managements failed to invest in modernisation and upkeep. Mill-owners preferred to run their establishment into the ground in the hopes that lucrative land deals would allow them to shut down the mills and make money in the process. Tatas, which ran Svadeshi Mills — one of the oldest textile mills in Mumbai – had earlier obtained permission to sell a fourth of its landholding, and hand-over half the land for a recreation ground, a public housing scheme and a public sector factory to employ retrenched labourers from the textile mill. While a fourth of the land was sold, the latter did not happen. Workers allege that whatever was sold was undervalued to allow the company to siphon funds meant for mill revival or rehabilitation of workers to other group businesses. Driven to desperation, at least one Svadeshi mill worker committed suicide after the August 2000 closure of the mill forced 2800 factory-floor workers into destitution. Sub-contracting: Fostering Insecurity: According to highly placed sources within the Tata company, Tatas have resorted to large-scale deployment of contract labour in a bid to cut costs. In contravention of the Contract Labour and Regulation Act, contract workers are engaged in prohibited activities, including those that can only be performed by trained permanent staff, and works of perennial nature. Workers allege that the company discriminates between its employees and contract workers. At Tata Steel in Jamshedpur, for instance, company employees eat better food in superior ambience than contract workers. Wage differences are also wide although the nature of work performed by contract workers is no different from that of company employees. Contract workers also work longer hours on harder jobs. Lack of skill and work pressure has meant that contract employees meet with more accidents. Lay-offs: Contrary to Tata’s much-touted credentials of providing employment security, the corporate house’s massive downsizing at its flagship Tata Steel provides a case in point. Tata’s workforce stood at 78,000 in 1994. By 1997, it was down to 65,000. By 2002, another 15,000 jobs were eliminated, and the total workforce in 2006 stands at 38,000, slightly more than half of what it started out with at the onset of liberalisation. Of this, more than 25,000 people received voluntary retirement benefits. However, many allege that the scheme was not all that voluntary. Able-bodied workers were rendered jobless as they succumbed to intense emotional pressure. Reports allege that teachers were asked to sweep roads if they did not take up “voluntary retirement.” Union busting: In 1989, workers belonging to the trade union Telco Kamgar Sanghatana at Telco’s plant in Pune struck work demanding wage hikes. Tata management attempted to break the strike by offering a wage hike to rival unions and warning every employee of dire consequences if labour unrest continued. In September 1989, about 3000 workers went on an indefinite hunger strike. As the strike progressed with workers fainting and no signs of a rapprochement, the State Government came under intense pressure from Tatas and other capitalists. On September 29, under cover of darkness the State Reserve & Pune City Police launched Operation Crackdown. 80 buses were deployed to round up and take fasting workers to jail. Tata had managed to break the strike with the help of the police. Killings:In the past, at least two prominent Tata trade unionists – Abdul Bari and V.G. Gopal – were gunned down by rival unionists as they were setting off for negotiations with the management. In both instances, Tata workers and independent observers allege the behind-the-scenes involvement of Tata management.


Tata’s unpopularity is evident from the fact that local people in various places around India have successfully thwarted the company’s attempts to set up businesses on their lands. The ongoing struggle in Singur, the stand-off in Kalinganagar are merely the most recent and prominent. About a decade ago, protests by tribal residents in Orissa forced Tatas to pull out of a venture to mine bauxite from the sacred Baphlimali hills in Rayagada district. In 2000, three tribal youth were shot dead by the police during a peaceful demonstration near the proposed mine site. In 2000, Tatas were forced to abandon a proposal to set up a steel plant in Gopalpur-on-Sea, a coastal town in Orissa following massive protests from the more than 20,000 people that were to be evicted to make way for the plant. This project too ended only after blood was shed. In August 1997, the police opened fire at a protest rally in Sindhigaon, where two women were crushed to death in the ensuing pandemonium. In the late 1990s, Tatas shelved a proposal to convert large portions of Lake Chilika – a massive brackish water lake of international prominence – into an aquaculture farm after protests by the 120,000-strong fishing community that depended on the lake for a livelihood.


Drug Running: Tata archives that talk in glowing terms about Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata fail to record the family’s involvement in shipping opium to China in the mid- to late 1800s. The opium was grown in India and shipped to China by agents such as Tata for the British. Empress Mills: Tata’s first industrial venture, a textile mill in Central India’s cotton-growing region, was opened on 1 January, 1877 – the day Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. The event was commemorated by naming the company Empress Mills. Fueling British Expansionism: Commissioned in 1908, the Tata Iron and Steel Company in Jamshedpur cut its teeth supplying the British empire with steel rails that were crucial in Britain’s war effort in Northern and East Africa during the 1st World War. When the war was over, Viceroy Lord Chelmsford said: “I can hardly imagine what we should have done if the Tata Company had not been able to give us steel rails which have provided not only for Mesopotamia, but for Egypt, Palestine and East Africa.” Supplying the British Army: The American civil war ended in 1865, re-opening raw cotton supplies from the Southern states of the US for England’s textile mills. That sent India’s cotton suppliers on a tailspin. Many didn’t recover, but the Tata family managed to stay afloat by securing a lucrative contract to supply food and clothing to the British Army’s Magdala campaign in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1868.

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