December 11, 1999
The compassionate visionary
Most people will remember Darbari Seth as a technocrat par excellence who built and ran truly world-class businesses in India, that too at profits that delighted the fussiest of investors. And when he was getting on in years, he delegated wisely and opted to retire gracefully when others in similar positions waged grim battles to hang on just a bit longer.
Remarkable as his vision and achievements are, the mark of his true greatness is manifest in another area altogether. He consolidated the Tata tea holdings under Tata Finley, later to become just Tata Tea. With the acquisition of Consolidated Coffee, Tata Tea became India’s largest plantation company, with vast estates and factories in Assam, Kerala and Karnataka. It was the shareholders’ darling, with consistent annual payments of 100 per cent or more as dividends.
Plantations were far more than just cash cows to Seth. They took him back to the land and people, both of which he loved with a passion. He was aware ofthe anomaly of this business. The British had created it by taking over large tracts of land and had caused unsettling upheavals to the people of the area. Peasants became workers on wh-at used to be their lands. Although they earned higher, more secure incomes this way, their sense of loss was real and unmitigated. Realising this, Seth started a number of welfare activities and ran them as successfully as the main corporate business itself. Tata Tea operates a large network of schools, clinics and hospitals in the areas it is in, and far more efficiently than the local government.
Even so, he knew that the alienation could not be overcome completely. He was constantly re-aching out to the people, seeking ways to assimilate them into the mainstream. Despite this, militancy in the form of ULFA, Bodo and other similar organisations sprang up, making plantations its prime target. Executives were kidnapped, at times killed, to extract ever greater concessions from the corporates.
When so threatened about adecade ago, the er-stwhile Brooke Bond Lipton refused to deal with the militants. In a well-publicised move, it airlifted its personnel from Assam and quit the state, rather than give in to the militants’ demands. Many admired this show of resoluteness and compared it unfavourably with the Tata response of talking to the militants, in India and elsewhere.
I have often asked myself why Seth did not act in a manner similar to that of his competitors and endear himself as a strict no-nonsense captain of In-dian industry. I had by then got to know him well enough, working closely with him on various sc-hemes for the development of Coorg in Karnataka. He had sensed that unless the plantation owners acted fast, the proud Coorgis, too, would feel alienated in their own home. Although we talked intermi-nably on such issues, I never had the courage to ask him this question.
On reflection, I now understand why he did not do so and persisted with his approach. All the Assamese, ULFA and Bodo militants included, werehis people. They may have wo-rked for his companies or bought his products, but they were much more than just personnel or customers to him. He understood that they had real aspirations and a historic sense of injury and injustice done to them. To uproot his operations fr-om Assam would have been the easy way out and the temporary loss would have been more than made good elsewhere. But that would be abandoning his people and responsibilities, and hence was simply unthinkable.
He needed to work with the people, helping them find equitable and lasting solutions to their problems more than simply making profits. He made sure that his key lieutenants shared this belief and worked towards a solution, even if it meant inviting public opprobrium in the process. Tata Tea to Darbari Seth was not just John Company which made profits; its mission was to do so with a sense of honour and commitment to all the people.
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