"Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick-growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens; reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks; earmark areas for Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches."
Incredibly, these were the instructions given by Jamsetji Tata to his son Dorab way back in 1902, when he was building the Tata Steel Company and developing an industrial township around it. The town came to be known as Jamshedpur, India’s first planned city.
Jamshedpur was developed on the site of a village called Sakchi in present-day Jharkhand, when iron ore deposits were found nearby. It was just what the Tatas, one of India’s biggest industrial houses, had been looking for when they set out to build India’s first steel factory, now called Tata Steel.
– The city has consistently ranked high on indices that reflect quality of life, making this ‘company town’ – one that is virtually owned by one single company – India’s most successful, privately-run city.
The Tatas’ steel plant, also India’s very first, was developed in a semi-wasteland at the confluence of the Subarnarekha and Kharkai rivers known as Domuhani. Construction began in 1907-08, and it was designed by engineers Julian Kennedy and Axel Sahlin based in Pittsburgh (America’s Steel City). Their plan envisioned a ‘company town’ for about 10,000 residents with bungalows and quarters for housing managers and skilled workers, a recreation ground and a bazaar.
However, architectural thinkers Amita Sinha and Jatinder Singh, who have studied the development of Jamshedpur, point out that this plan ignored the acute need to house labourers, with the result that clusters of mud huts sprang up around the towns and close to the factory gates.
Steel for The War
Within 10 years, the township grew to 50,000 residents, largely courtesy of the First World War. In 1919, the Governor-General and Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford, said in a speech delivered at Sakchi, “I can hardly imagine what we should have done during these four years if the Tata Company had not been able to gift us steel rails which have been provided for us, not only for Mesopotamia but for Egypt, Palestine and East Africa, and I have come to express my thanks.” The company had supplied 300,000 tonnes of steel to the Allied effort. In recognition of this, Lord Chelmsford renamed Sakchi ‘Jamshedpur’, after its founder Jamsetji.
– The steel produced was also vital for building infrastructure and industry in India, from railways and bridges to factories and housing. To accommodate the growth, the company acquired 12,000 acres in addition to its earlier 3,000 acres of land.
But the Tatas didn’t let the expanding township get out of hand. After the War, Frederick Charles Temple, sanitary engineer for Orissa and Bihar, was appointed Chief Engineer of Jamshedpur, to accommodate the growing population and plan for this growth. He brought in concepts of the then newly-designed British city of Letchworth, with an approach to environmental and community planning. Temple was influenced by how the earlier tribal settlements had made use of the topography in the construction of their huts.
According to Sinha and Singh, “To protect the riverfront from industrial pollution and town waste and to preserve its scenic quality, Temple designed a low-level outer circle road with an intercepting sewer, connected to the inner circle road by ‘links’.” The drainage and sewage systems that were installed in this Indian town were ahead of their times.
A Compliment From Gandhi
In 1925, Mahatma Gandhi visited India’s Steel City in response to a special invitation from his close friend C F Andrews, who was at that time a labour leader in Jamshedpur. Andrews had sought Gandhi’s guidance to resolve some labour issues. Gandhi was surprised to find progressive labour-oriented policies in the company like eight-hour workdays, medical leave, bonus and provident fund, and skill development programmes. He remarked in his journal, “This town owes a debt of gratitude to the courage of Jamsetji Tata.”
– It was indeed a tribute to the Tatas, who realised early that the workers’ physical and social infrastructure contributed to morale and thus productivity.
In the 1930s, Major PGW Stokes, who had restored Quetta in present-day Pakistan after the 1934 earthquake, came to refurbish Jamshedpur, where he focused on expanding housing. He was followed by Otto Koenigsberger, the German chief architect of Mysore, who converted Jamshedpur into a garden city.
The advent of the Second World War further increased the demand for steel, leading to a surge in employment. The population of Jamshedpur was now about 1.5 lakh. Due to its importance to the Allies, Jamshedpur ran the risk of being the chief target of an Axis air raid in Eastern India when Japan entered the China-Burma-India theatre of war.
Several bomb shelters were thus built across Jamshedpur along with tar boilers, to produce smokescreens during Japanese air raids. Tata factory hooters doubled as air-raid sirens.
In the next few years, more industries sprang up in the region, like Tata Motors (formerly known as Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company, 'TELCO') in 1945, with its own residential colonies. The best part about these colonies was not only the excellent civic amenities and the quality of life they offered, with schools, hospitals, clubs and parks within them, but their cosmopolitan nature.
A socio-economic survey in 1959 revealed that more than half the migrants who flocked to Jamshedpur for jobs with the Tatas were from outside the state. These were largely skilled and educated people from across the country. For these individuals and their small families, Jameshedpur and their neighbours became their whole world.
Also, Jamshedpur is the only city in India with a population of more than a million that does not have a municipality. There have been moves to set one up but it has been vetoed more than once in favour of the Tatas overseeing its administration.
Due to how well it was planned and successfully it was run, Jamshedpur was one among six cities chosen in 2005 to participate in the UN Global Compact Cities Pilot Programme, which addressed acute social, economic and environmental issues in the urban context around the world. The idea was to come up with innovative solutions by working in partnership with government, business, academic organizations and civil societies. The other five cities were Melbourne (Australia), Porto Alegre (Brazil), Tianjin (PRC), Nairobi (Kenya) and Sans Francisco (US).
It’s been quite an incredible journey from a semi-arid wasteland to holding its own as a model city in a country where quality of life comes at a premium. Clearly, politicians, bureaucrats and other decision-makers elsewhere in India have plenty to learn from India’s Steel City and its farsighted founder who was way ahead of his time.
Photos courtesy: tata.com
This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.