August 2007 | Christabelle Noronha

An affair to remember

KP Mahalingam, former director of technical services, Tata Steel, shares precious memories and anecdotes from his 37 years of association with the company

KP Mahalingam

Kunnisseri Parmeswar Mahalingam, now a sprightly 84, served Tata Steel with distinction for 37 years in an era when Tata Steel was Tisco, and steel making involved working in the searing heat of open hearth furnaces. Radical changes have transformed the company since the time when Mahalingam’s career took wing — from graduate trainee to technical adviser to the MD, and finally, to director of technical services in 1974. That essential chapter in Tata Steel’s history now lives on in Mahalingam’s carefully preserved portfolio of letters and photographs and his cherished memories.

Among the many gems in his collection are vintage photographs of the late president of India, Sanjeeva Reddy at Tata Steel, and letters from JRD Tata, Ratan Tata and B Muthuraman, among others. “My only regret is having been born 50 years too early,” Mahalingam wrote in a 2006 letter to Chairman Ratan Tata, who was once under his tutelage at Tata Steel, with reference to the amazing changes taking place in the company and the Tata Group as a whole. “There is indeed so much happening that I too wish at times that I was several years younger,” the Chairman wrote back.

Mahalingam’s nurturing and talent spotting skills were also, at least in part, responsible for the current Tata Steel managing director B Muthuraman making a career with the Group: He was a member of the selection committee that in 1966 spotted the potential in a greenhorn graduate trainee who was destined to lead the company.

It is our privilege that Mahalingam has so graciously shared these pages from his precious scrapbook of memories, and made even more memorable the 100th anniversary of the company he loves so dearly by sharing anecdotes of a bygone era.

KP Mahalingam with JRD

Those were the days…
Etched in my memory is the sight of a reddish-yellow glow over the northern skyline, visible even 10-odd miles away, as the train chugged its way into Tatanagar station, gradually building up into a mammoth sky-high fiery behemoth, with huge plumes of smoke spewing into the sky — it was awesome and inspiring.

At the time, Tata Steel was the single largest integrated steel plant in the then British Empire and a source of pride to every young Indian engineer. Some years ago, the old Bessemer converters which created this distinctive aura around the steel plant, were replaced with LD converters and their highly sophisticated pollution control measures, and I believe that the resultant glow diminished somewhat. Since my days as an A1 Class Apprentice, numerous changes have taken place in the ferrous metallurgical processes and consequently, in the Tata Steel plant and township. The enormous changes (of course, for the better) which my wife Saroj and I saw in December 2004 (during our visit to Jamshedpur on Mr Muthuraman’s thoughtful invitation), were mind-boggling. Be it the landscape, environment, townships, social activities, or process technologies, knowledge management, and a myriad other areas which make a large corporation “tick”, the transformation was amazing.

The beginnings of my affair with Tata Steel
In 1942, the only avenue for a young aspiring engineer was either the Indian Railway Service of Engineers, or Tata Steel. I chose the latter. The only route for higher supervisory and management positions was the graduate trainee (GT) route, then known as the “A Class Apprenticeship”.

Selection was confined to graduates in mechanical or electrical engineering, or metallurgy. First class graduates from Indian colleges were given a “munificent” stipend of Rs 75 per month for the first two years, followed by absorption in the permanent cadre on a five-year contract, which started them on a princely Rs 200 per month.

KP Mahalingam recieving the 25 years' service silver medal in 1969 from SK Nanavati

To a callow, greenhorn engineering graduate of 19 years 4 months, the first sight of the steel plant at Jamshedpur was truly spellbinding. The spell was somewhat fractured by the sight of ex-A1 Class apprentices shoveling raw material into the yawning mouths of open-hearth furnaces, and their seniors lugging 20 kg oxygen cylinders on sturdy shoulders while traversing steep steel stairs! The struggle to open the furnace tapholes and smartly step aside to avoid getting burnt called for some skill. Most of the eight-hour shift was spent in ambient temperatures of over a 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But the challenge — and the lack of other well-paying jobs in the nation — kept most of us from scurrying back home.

I was perhaps the youngest GT at Tata Steel; today, I am perhaps one of the oldest living ex-GTs! It will be of interest to know that the late SK Nanavati was the first managing director to be drawn from the Graduate Trainee Scheme (or “A2 Class Apprentice”, as it was known those days), with B Muthuraman, the current managing director, being a close second.

Smokescreen over Jamshedpur
We were smack in the middle of World War II, and there was no immunity from its influence. At the time, all of Tata Steel’s output was used for British tanks, shells and other weaponry to fight WW II. The British had this notion that Jamshedpur was a highly vulnerable target for Japanese air attacks, and that if the entire works, city and townships were to be blanketed under a cloud of dense black smoke, the Japanese would not be able to locate us!

In their infinite wisdom, they conceived the unique plan of having several crude brick-and-mortar tar boilers, located some 40 ft apart, all over the works. When lighted at intervals, these would belch a thick pall of dense black soot and smoke, the purpose of which being to “hide Jamshedpur”.

Owing to a shortage of men, we apprentices were tasked with the direct supervision of a group of such boilers in 8 hour shifts, to ensure that their operatives did not sleep on duty. For this special duty, we received an allowance of Rs 15 per month. Jamshedpur did receive a couple of “yellow” signals from Calcutta, warning of Japanese planes heading our way, but these turned out to be false alarms. So we never knew whether our smokescreens served to hide us or, as is much more likely, act as smoke signals telling the enemy exactly where we were!

What makes Tata Steel great
These are some of the special attributes that go towards instilling in all of us the pride of being a part of “the best company to work for”:

  • Its empathy for workers and their families, in every facet of their lives. Its sense of fair play and justice when dealing with employees, customers, suppliers, state agencies and similar bodies.
  • Management’s recognition of hard work and merit of employees and others who work for the company. Importance accorded to ethical and unblemished performance in all activities.
  • The never-ending quest for expansion and development of its technological capacities in recent years, including expansion and acquisition of plants in the same or allied fields of activity.
  • Refusal to rest on its laurels, or be content with its current status at any point of time.
  • Compensation to employees reasonably benchmarked to industry norms, despite not being at the very top of the scale.
A time to celebrate
B Muthuraman: A brief history of my time
Suresh Krishna: Independent insights
Dr JJ Irani: A different life
JVs and subsidiaries
Trustee to the community
A tale of four generations
Dr Amit Chatterjee: A beautiful mind
Tata Steel — then and now