It took less than 30 seconds for Tata Sons Chairman N Chandrasekaran to approve the first Rs. 150 crore for procurement of ventilators and other medical equipment for India’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
“That pretty much set the tone for what our approach would be towards this challenge,” Banmali Agrawala, president, Infrastructure, Defence and Aerospace at Tata Sons, tells Tata Review.
Within days of that, on March 28, Tata Sons announced a total commitment of Rs. 1,000 crore to this fight. Along with the Rs. 500 crore pledged by the Tata Trusts, it remains the largest sum committed by a corporate and its philanthropic arm since the outbreak of the disease in India.
“The message from the Chairman was pretty clear: We have got to do the best we can. We have got to be impactful and coordinated so that we actually make a difference,” says Mr Agrawala, who is coordinating the Tata group’s effort to combat Covid-19. “That one signal gave us a lot of confidence to do things at scale.”
Tata Sons leveraged the combined expertise of the group to optimise the impact of its financial commitment. A special task force, with representatives from various group companies, was put in place with immediate effect. But they walked into uncharted territory.
“We didn’t get into it with a readymade template. It evolved,” says Mr Agrawala. “The first clear verticals to emerge were the need for financial aid and healthcare equipment.”
Requests from different states and entities poured in — to Tata Sons directly as well as through group companies. The most critical and most requested items were ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits, gloves, and N95 and triple-layer masks.
To address the immediate need, Tata Sons, Tata Steel, Tata Motors, Tata AutoComp Systems and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) leveraged their domestic and international networks for procurements. To address the long-term need, the group set in motion plans to begin manufacturing PPE and ventilators in India.
The third vertical to emerge was the need to boost the healthcare infrastructure with new hospitals, hospital conversions and beds. A need answered by Tata Projects, Tata Consulting Engineers, Tata Steel and Voltas.
“We then realised that taking care of people and providing infrastructure also meant providing food and accommodation to doctors, healthcare workers and other frontliners,” says Mr Agrawala. “What began as a one-off gesture by The Indian Hotels Company Ltd (IHCL) evolved into a fourth vertical to serve thousands of meals a day and more.”
He adds, “As these evolved, we quickly put a framework around them and got a leader for each vertical. We also coordinated our efforts with the Tata Trusts so that the aid was well spread out, and there was no duplication. I don’t know if there has been another instance in the history of our group of so many companies and teams coming together to establish a uniform process. And all of this was done in a matter of days.”
3 months and counting
The special task force has kept the momentum going for three months now to address the constantly evolving needs in at least 24 states across the country. And it has taken an unprecedented amount of collaboration to see it through.
Since April, at 4pm every day, at least 20 leaders from across Tata companies have connected on a ‘Teams’ call to coordinate efforts. It has been followed up with a daily update to the Chairman of Tata Sons as well as the CEOs of companies to ensure visibility across the group on the multiple activities taking place under each vertical.
“The logistics of procurement and distribution of aid is not simple,” says Mr Agrawala. “Even when you are just distributing aid there is a certain structure, documentation and legality to be followed. There is a lot of documentation and taxrelated paperwork that has to happen behind the scenes. We also maintain an elaborate spreadsheet to track the need, the number of cases in each state, what we have received and what we have distributed. It is monitored on a daily basis.”
The next step
But it is not just the size of financial commitment or the scale of aid that has set the Tata group’s crisis response apart. It is the fact that even through the fog of the pandemic, the group never lost sight of its legacy of medical philanthropy — to go beyond aid and foster a culture of medical research to secure the future.
Jamsetji Tata showed the way during the bubonic plague pandemic of the 1890s by supporting Dr Waldemar Haffkine, who developed the plague vaccine. Following in the Founder’s footsteps, the group allocated funding to develop technologies of the future.
Mr Agrawala says, “We have partnered with CSIR’s (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) constituent lab, Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology for commercialisation of a new testing technology. We committed Rs. 10 crore to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to further plasma therapy. A bridgital platform is also in the works to bring patients and doctors on one platform for testing, treatment and follow-ups.”
“It’s not just money. It’s not just our goods and services. It’s not just opening up our facilities,” he adds, reiterating what has made the Tata group’s crisis response stand out. “It’s the attitude, the approach and the intellectual contribution in terms of finding a solution.”
Read through the stories below for more on how the group has been making an impact.