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
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.
Those were the days…
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
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.
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
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