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Purported Comments

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Ratan Tata's office has since denied them but even if they are not his, his comments need to be seriously considered. He is an Indian icon — not in the same way as Shah Rukh Khan or Sachin Tendulkar, but equally admired in his field. He would make news even if he wore a purple shirt; so it is not surprising that he caused ripples with his forthright remarks on the managers of his factories in Britain.

His observations on the work culture of the management in his British plants were more consequential, because he would need their cooperation in his efforts to turn the plants around. It should be noted that he was not speaking about the entire work force. In fact, he asked for much more from his workers and got much better cooperation from them than he did from his white-collar workers. He dismissed hundreds of workers. British trade unions were once known for their militancy; while that reputation has declined, the lion is only sleeping. They cooperated with him; the reductions in the labour force have been achieved peacefully.

In his comments made two months ago, he had a complaint against the managers — that they were not prepared to work as hard and with as much dedication as his Indian managers. It is not clear whether the occasion was a specific one. It would seem that he called a meeting late in the afternoon; when office time was over, the managers simply got up and left. If this is what happened, it amounted to rudeness, which must have had some cause. Maybe what Ratan Tata told them was unwelcome, and rather than listen to more of it, they called it a day. Perhaps he was trying to make them do or agree to something they found unacceptable; their walkout may have been a silent if mannerless protest. Maybe it happened when he was not present. But there was probably a more general point also — that they were not prepared to make the sacrifices his Indian managers and engineers would make if their company was in trouble. What he was really commenting on was the esprit de corps in India and its lack in England.

This seemed to be made out as a cultural difference. It may be one, but it also shows that his relations with his managers were better in India than in Britain. And this is not entirely due to cultural differences. His managers in India were carefully selected, and most would have worked for many years in the Tata empire. They would have much greater loyalty, bordering on love. That emotional bond was obviously lacking in England, and had in fact no reason to be present there. The problem he faced is not one of cultural difference but emotional distance. His diagnosis was not wrong, but it was not entirely relevant. He needed more committed managers in England, and maybe needed to restructure his management. From the clarification his office has issued, something on these lines would appear to have been done.

That brings me to Ratan's comment on Mukesh Ambani's Antilla. Whether it was accurately reported or not, I agree with it; I think the building is an eyesore. I am sure there are many who share my opinion. Millions have passed along Bombay's west coast since it was built; many of them must have regretted the presence of Mukesh's residence. Ratan's remarks on it, if they were made, were pointless since the building cannot be removed. But I take them to be less about Mukesh's tower, and more about the social ethic of industrialists.

There has been an Indian tradition of rich people living quietly and inconspicuously in the society; it is a tradition that has something to say for it even now. Mukesh was not the first to disregard the tradition. His father had a family mansion which was also the tallest in Bombay in its time. But this is only a part of the growing distance between the rich and the poor in India. There was a time when both sprawled across the land; the rich had big mansions, and the poor had small hovels. But they were neighbours. Now the rich are moving into gated communities of high-rise buildings, whilst the poor are relegated to slums in the periphery; buses carry them to serve the rich across vast distances. To us Indians, this may look very modern and fashionable. But we are only reproducing the landscape that Brazilian cities created decades ago. Those cities are also associated with social dissension and high levels of crime; we are asking for it. The Prime Minister has lamented it often. His disapproval is unlikely to slow it down, let alone reverse it; but the rich have a problem they need to think about. They should use some of their riches, enterprise and innovation to making India more consensual and convivial.

The author is Consultant Editor of Businessworld.

ashok(dot)desai(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 25-07-2011)