Cover image of "The Tatas," a group biography of the Tata family of India

With a population of 1.38 billion and the fifth largest economy in the world, India is a giant among nations. Yet a single family has played an outsize role in building the economic engine that makes India what it is today. In no other large nation has any family loomed so large in modern history as the Tata family has in India. Their two-century story is the subject of newspaper editor Girish Kuber’s eye-opening 2019 biography, The Tatas.

Building one of the world’s biggest businesses—and much more

The sheer number of businesses the Tata family has built over the years is extraordinary and includes many of India’s most iconic institutions. All told, the Tatas have established more than 100 companies, including Tata Consultancy Services, Tata Steel, Tata Motors (including Jaguar and Land Rover), Tata Chemicals, Indian Hotels Company (including Taj Hotels), Tata Power Company, and Air India. Every one of these businesses is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. The Tata Group as a whole employs 935,000 people and has a current market cap of $311 billion.

But two-thirds of the Tata Group’s stock is held by various philanthropic trusts established by the family. The pioneer industrialist who founded the firm, Jamsetji Tata (1839-1904), set the pattern for the family. He himself gave a total equivalent today to more than $100 billion in his lifetime, making him the world’s most generous philanthropist (yes, even more so than Bill and Melinda Gates). To date, the family’s many trusts have contributed a total of $832 billion to charity. No other institution comes even remotely close to that record.

The Tatas: How a Family Built a Business and a Nation by Girish Kuber (2019) 314 pages ★★★☆☆

Photo of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, built by the Tata family more than a century ago
Mumbai’s 560-room Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one of many monuments to the achievements of the Tata family throughout India. The Taj is one of the most elegant and distinguished hotels in the world. It was built by Jamsetji Tata and inaugurated in 1903 shortly before his death. Image: Wikipedia

Practicing corporate social responsibility

Tata family enterprises are extraordinary in another respect as well. Some people who found successful companies turn to philanthropy late in life after having amassed fortunes through cut-throat competition. By contrast, the Tatas have always placed humane values at the top of the agenda in running their businesses. For example, the family pioneered “the world’s earliest worker welfare policies.” And they consistently treated their employees well over a century and a half of operations. The Tatas practiced Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) nearly a century before the term came into use.

Unfortunately, this book is deeply flawed

Girish Kuber writes in Marathi, a language spoken largely in southwestern India. The book has been translated into English. Unfortunately, the result is an account that reads as though it was written by an adolescent who learned English as a third language. Clearly, the translator was not a native English speaker. The book is full of awkward phrasing and grammatical errors. To make matters worse, the translator sprinkled exclamation marks throughout the text, as though some unremarkable declarative sentence every page or two deserves wide-eyed attention.

It’s also notable that the author barely mentions the Tata family’s religion. They are Zoroastrians—originally, ethnic Persians called Parsis in India. Although some of the major figures in the family over the past century and a half have married outside their faith, most have not. And it’s a mistake to overlook the influence that the Parsi emphasis on charity has played in their commitment to using their accumulated wealth to benefit the Indian public.

About the author

Photo of Girish Kuber, author of this history of the Tata family
Girish Kuber. Image: OpIndia

Girish Kuber is an Indian journalist and author who is the author of at least five books. He writes in Marathi. Kuber is the editor of the daily Marathi-language newspaper, Loksatta. The paper’s reported circulation is around 347,000. The Indian Express Group publishes the paper in nine cities in the state of Maharashtra, India, including Mumbai and Pune.

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