‘We have to rekindle hope’

Ratan Tata still believes “there is something good that comes into play” when calamity strikes, namely that people everywhere set aside their differences and band together for a common cause. It says much about the Chairman of the Tata Trusts and his optimistic worldview that he continues to hold on to such convictions in the face of a pandemic that, while causing havoc worldwide, has revealed the strengths as well as frailties of human beings.

The positive and the affirmative are constants for Mr Tata, who opens up in this conversation with Christabelle Noronha on a range of issues, from the rural economy and collaborative social development to the path the Trusts have chosen and the lockdown-induced haziness of “not knowing whether it’s a Monday or a Tuesday”.

The world has been turned on its head in recent times. As someone who has lived through and experienced so much, what would be your advice to keep our collective sense of balance?

First of all, let me with humility say that I don’t think anyone in the world has had the experience that we have endured with Covid-19, short of World War II. We really have three parts to the present situation. There is the global economic downturn. In India it’s a virtual recession and that has been coupled with the coming of the virus.

There is no solution as yet in the form of either a vaccine or a protocol that can save lives. People are hopeful that by October or the start of the new year there will be a solution, but we don’t know as yet whether that will happen.

That’s the backdrop against which we have to engineer a recovery of the economy, industrially and agriculturally. Capital markets, the demand for goods and services, tackling unemployment and feeding and caring for the millions who are jobless today — all of these are concentrated in the third leg. The economic recovery aside, we have to rekindle hope, the feeling that we have good tidings to look forward to.

Having said all that, one doesn’t really know what lies ahead. One doesn’t know what the government will do, or what the government can or cannot do. It’s a tremendously difficult task.

I think we ought to be concentrating on India’s agricultural output. It is going to take a long time for industry to reestablish itself but the rural economy can be a starting point for revival. A buoyant rural economy can enable us to tide over the current troubles and the Trusts could play an important role here.

“We are proud to have played a part in improving healthcare in India. You have to think big.”

You took to Instagram recently requesting people not to get into hate-mongering or pulling down communities and nationalities…

Whenever we have had a calamity, and I’m speaking from a global perspective, there is something good that comes into play. People stop bickering with one another and we get united to deal with the calamity. That’s what happened when terrorists struck Bombay in November 2008. Citizens came together, they discarded differences of caste, creed, religion and politics to make common ground.

I was hoping that we would consider this situation acute enough to rise collectively to the occasion and be a united India, looking to overcome our respective problems, rather than being critical and verbally obstructive.

How has the redefining of approach and purpose that the Tata Trusts have undertaken since 2014 — and the resultant emphasis on direct implementation, partnerships, sustainability and scalability — worked out? Have the outcomes obtained been up to your expectations?

There was an issue of visibility and scale and that had to change. Earlier, for example, we may have been helping the nutrition cause indirectly, but there was no gutsy programme which set high goals and said that we would reduce malnutrition or address malnutrition in a particular way. It was after we refocused on nutrition that we brought in the issue of the mother and how she had to be healthy in order to make her child healthy. That’s how nutrition became child health, mother’s health, sanitation, hygiene and health services, more comprehensive than ever before and amenable to a holistic approach. Something similar has unfolded with safe drinking water.

We have moved into spheres of national importance and into the vanguard of issues such as nutrition, cancer care and primary healthcare. This method can be fairly complex and heavy in terms of investment, but the basic idea is to have a programme that will play its role and, possibly in the coming years and with the help of the government and nonprofit organisations, carry on at a higher level.

Ratan Tata with his German shepherd, Tito

The Trusts have focused on healthcare and nutrition for a while now and this is a domain of particular interest to you.

One obvious result of focusing attention on such issues is that you find they are bigger and more complicated than you thought. When we embarked on our nutrition programme, we looked at bringing to the surface problems associated with improving outcomes, at setting and having forecasts, and at creating an awakening within the government.

We are proud to have played a part in improving healthcare in India. You have to think big. If you consider primary healthcare, for instance, you ask yourself if the solution is to go down the trodden path, adding little brick-and-mortar centres that have a few people inside with equipment that is run down. Or should you consider something bigger and better that connects to other facilities.

Education is another sphere where the same thinking can be applied. The Trusts have been involved in education for a long time but we are now taking this to another level by immersing ourselves in it in ways that we did not previously. Two decades back we may have said this is what the government has to do. Now we are often saying this is an area where we have to work hand-in-hand with the government. And the government is keen to do this with us.

You have been a votary of partnerships and the use of technology in advancing India’s social uplift agenda. How, in your opinion, have these panned out for the Trusts?

The sciences have progressed to levels where interdisciplinary cooperation is the norm. Mathematics, computing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, etc are blending to open new doors for the human race. We have to be open to all kinds of possibilities. We should never be stingy or myopic and say that this is for other countries to do and not for us. India has the capability and the intellect to pursue great things, but we sometimes don’t put enough resources into our efforts to find success.

I am being purposely measured in what I am saying because we are at the crossroads of not knowing what to do. We can’t do everything on our own. We have to be judicious. We may have some misses and there will be critics shouting about money ill-spent. But the truth is that, be it with malaria, tuberculosis or diabetes, we have not explored enough or done enough to make a difference. Will we do enough? I would say, yes, we have the potential. Just look at the new biotech companies around, for instance. We should aim to see how we can collectively be more useful contributors to the scientific world.

“A pet comes after you seeking nothing but your affection. And what a wonderful world it would be if all human beings reciprocated that love and affection.”

Which are the other areas of social development where the Trusts can make a greater difference?

I think it’s impossible to answer this holistically. With some issues and in some areas you can make a worthwhile contribution, while in others the conditions may not exist to achieve what you want to. Each sphere needs to be evaluated separately. We should be in places where we can add value, and we should not be where we cannot. There’s no point striving endlessly.

Chances are that we could get into more areas, but the emphasis should be on going where we can make a difference. We should not be jumping from one area to another and thereby be wasteful with what we do. We have to be certain when we enter into a commitment that this cannot be in today, out tomorrow. We have to make a hefty contribution.

Are you saying that the Trusts need to rethink the areas it is operating in?

No; if we were doing that constantly,we would be jumping around. But we may change focus based on what we find on the ground. In the context, I want to address what appears to be a dichotomy. Many years ago, when the Trusts were much smaller and they were serving a different kind of purpose, our involvement was oriented towards personal need. For example, if you needed money for a surgical operation, the Trusts gave you that money.

There has been a fear in some people that going after these bigger causes will cause individuals to be ignored, that the Trusts will be less personal. That is not true. What is true is that if we were at X in terms of spending in a particular theme, we are now at 5X in that same theme. With personal disabilities and the like as well, we are doing two to three times what we were previously.

Everybody appears certain that the Covid-19 catastrophe will change a whole lot about the way the world has been shaped, socially, economically and politically. But nobody is quite so sure how. What kind of future do you see emerging?

The Trusts have refocused their attention and set high goals to help tackle the nutrition crisis, says Mr Tata

I would like to join the people who don’t know. The biggest danger is saying we know for sure how to deal with this situation and then making decisions based on that assumption. What does not work could impoverish us. The new normal is insulating yourself from the danger of being infected by the virus and that will continue for a while. There will be potholes along the way and we could fall into the water, but we will survive.

The human race is very innovative and it will find solutions to this crisis. Some of these solutions may not be effective and these will have to be eliminated, but others will emerge to provide relief. I believe we should be humble and look around us for the signals that we receive and not jump to conclusions.

We have to make sure we are on the right track, though. We must also make sure that we don’t shift gears to such an extent that we move into another dimension altogether, losing hope and a sense of who we are.

What is your fondest hope for the Tata Trusts and for the Tata group, which share such a richly symbiotic relationship?

I think the answer is obvious. The Trusts are the legacy of the contributions made by [Tata group founder] Jamsetji Tata’s two sons, Dorab and Ratan. They were established to alleviate hardship and improve the quality of life of India’s poor. The commercial enterprises that enabled the setting up of the Trusts were, for their part, built to meet the industrial requirements of the country. Both have in their heart the wellbeing of the nation.

The Tata Trusts have a new chief executive in Srinath Narasimhan, and while his immediate priority has been steadying the organisational ship through this pandemic, what is your view of the contribution he can make in the longer term?

I think it would be unfair to Srinath to be saying what contribution he can make. I would imagine he would be in a set-up-in-order mode, if you might, for the next six-eight months or even a year. By then he would be running with a fair idea of what he wants to do and the trustees will provide an overview in terms of what there is to do.

I believe the Trusts have a bank full of ideas and the advent of a new chief executive has its positives. We may identify new areas where the Trusts should focus and new collaborations where the Trusts may have a role which they didn’t see before. Nothing should be seen in terms of past and present; it all merges into a coherent vision for the days ahead.

Pets have been more than companions in your life. What is it about these wonderful ‘friends’ that you find most endearing?

I think you should answer that question, given that you have as much love for pets as anyone I have known. How can you put in words what a pet means to you? There is love, of course, and there is sincerity. A pet comes after you seeking nothing but your affection. And what a wonderful world it would be if all human beings reciprocated that love and affection.

In terms of animals, their genuineness in relationships is simple and ever present. In some countries abroad, they now have pets in prisons because the inmates find that comforting. That is no surprise. The affection inside pets is inherent; nobody teaches them that.

There are many things you can learn from animals, even from a vicious one. We have chosen to define which animal is vicious and sometimes that defines what we do. We are inclined to kill a snake that we encounter on the road because we believe it will kill us otherwise. We need to ask ourselves if that is really true.

How are you coping with the lockdown life? Have you found time for things you may have kept aside?

I thought I would have a lot of time, but I’m afraid the lockdown has created a lethargy in me that I’m almost ashamed to talk about. This started out by there being an availability of time and it became an issue of laziness, of being almost keen to sleep off the hours you have. I would love to have the incentive again to be active and involved. I don’t like this — not knowing whether it’s a Monday or a Tuesday..

“I’m afraid the lockdown has created a lethargy in me that I’m almost ashamed to talk about.”