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In the first Finshots edition of the new year, we’ll tell you the story of how Tata might once again take the keys to the city of Jamshedpur and the concept of ‘company towns’.
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In 1908, the Tatas had an ambitious dream. They wanted to set up India’s biggest steel companies. And they were out and about looking for a spot to set it all up. They hired a geologist to find the most conducive spot. And he came across a village called Sakchi in the eastern part of the country. It had coal to the north. There was iron ore to its south. And a railway line and the port city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) were in close proximity as well. It was the perfect choice.
So Tata decided this was where its dream would take shape.
The only problem?
It was a village. It didn’t have big city amenities. No proper roads. No waste disposal mechanisms. No reputed hospitals. Nothing. Why would workers and management even ponder moving here? Even if Tata threw money at them, it wouldn’t be an exciting proposition.
So Tata decided to do something outrageous. It decided to take matters into its own hands and build a full-fledged town in Sakchi!
Yup, it leased land from the government and got to work. It set up the Tata Town Services to handle the infrastructure needs — treating sewage waste and garbage disposal, making roads using plastic, getting electricity in place, and even ensuring security. It began setting up schools and established the Tata Main Hospital (which still exists). It built parks and sports infrastructure.
Basically, Tata did everything that you’d expect a local government to do for a city. And Sakchi became the first ‘planned’ city in India. This simply meant that it was something that didn’t just emerge organically as people migrated and companies were set up, but, it was something built brick by brick with an objective in mind.
But wait…how does Jamshedpur fit into all of this, you ask?
Well, Sakchi* is Jamshedpur. It just took a global war to change the name.
You see, during World War I, Tata supplied a lot of steel at cheap rates to the British Empire. And this steel went into building railways in other parts of the world to help with transporting troops and supplies. In fact, this was so crucial that after the war, a British parliamentary report stated, “It would have been impossible to carry on the campaign without the iron and steel of India.”
So as a ‘thank you’, the British — who lorded over India then — decided to rename the town after the founder of the Tata Group — Jamsetji. That is how Sakchi became Jamshedpur.
And for 100 years, Tata ran the show in Jamshedpur. It was the only city with a population greater than 1 million people that functioned without a municipal corporation — without the interference of the local government. Jamshedpur was a ‘company town’.
But in 2018, it hit its first major hurdle.
A group of folks filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against Tata. The petitioners didn’t want a ‘private’ city. The basic problem was simple — Tata concentrated its efforts on providing amenities only in the core areas where their employees resided. They didn’t pay as much attention to the other parts of Jamshedpur. So the development was lopsided. Tata didn’t seem to care about the ‘outsiders’ of Jamshedpur. And there wasn’t any local government body who’d step up and do the work either.
So Jamshedpur was caught in a limbo.
What was the way out then?
Well, the simplest thing to do would be to hand over the governing rights to a local body. Set up a municipal corporation and make the state government responsible for development. Make it like any other town or city in the country. And that’s what the Jharkhand government initially decided.
But you can imagine the Tata’s weren’t too happy about it. They’d built the city from scratch nearly 100 years ago. And they didn’t want to cede control. They said that people trusted the city because of the Tata name — I mean it was the only city in the state where people could, at one point, drink water straight from their taps too.
So, there had to be an alternative arrangement. And that might be to declare Jamshedpur as an ‘industrial town’.
What's that? you ask.
See, there is a special provision under the Indian Constitution to enable a private entity to run a city. There will be a municipal council, but it will include folks from the Tata Group, some government nominees, and locals of the area. This way, Jamshedpur could get the best of both worlds. The residents know that Tata is unlikely to mess up the functioning of a city named after its founder. But, the power to run the city will not be concentrated in the hands of a few. It’s more democratic since the locals will have a voice. And maybe the outer areas of Jamshedpur won’t be ignored anymore.
We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out now in what is probably India’s first and last ‘company town’.
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*A locality called Sakchi still exists in Jamshedpur city
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