Jamsetji Tata is better known as a pioneering industrialist, but that does not dim the generosity and patronage he extended to India’s most promising young minds through the JN Tata Endowment
One-hundred-and-twenty-five years ago, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the Founder of the Tata group, made an investment in India’s youth — and a colonised nation’s future — when he set up the JN Tata Endowment for the Higher Education of Indians.
The first of the Tata family’s philanthropic initiatives, the Endowment enabled Indian students, regardless of caste or creed, to pursue higher studies outside the country. To say that the investment has paid off would be an understatement: since it was set up in 1892, the JN Tata Endowment has supported generation after generation of promising minds in the country.
Beneficiaries of the path-breaking loan scholarship have included, over the years, former Indian president KR Narayanan, scientists Raja Ramanna and Jayant Narlikar, and Mehli Mehta, the famous violinist (and the father of Zubin Mehta). This is an investment that has come good in spades for India and Indians.
Jamsetji’s idea of philanthropy was far removed from conventional and contemporary notions of charity. He explained it best in his own words: “There is one kind of charity common enough among us… It is that patchwork philanthropy which clothes the ragged, feeds the poor, and heals the sick. I am far from decrying the noble spirit which seeks to help a poor or suffering fellow being… [However] what advances a nation or a community is not so much to prop up its weakest and most helpless members, but to lift up the best and the most gifted, so as to make them of the greatest service to the country.”
Indeed, nation-building was the common thread that ran through almost all of Jamsetji’s philanthropic and business initiatives: from the JN Tata Endowment to the Indian Institute of Science, from setting up India’s first hydroelectric plant to envisioning the country’s first steel enterprise. With the loan scholarships he sought to build intellectual capital for a country that was beginning to dream of independence.
The Endowment has grown tremendously in prestige and stature down the years. To this day, being known as a JN Tata scholar is a matter of pride for the exclusive community of students who go through a rigorous selection process before earning that much sought-after label. Every year a handful of JN Tata scholars — the brightest in their field of study — proceed to some of the world’s best educational institutions to pursue higher education and research in a growing and diverse range of subjects.
“You don’t realise how prestigious the JN Tata Endowment loan scholarship is till you hear it from students themselves,” says TJ Ravishankar, director of the JN Tata Endowment. “We have had instances of students who have received full funding asking for a nominal amount because what they really want is to be known as a JN Tata scholar. Clearly, the selection process has to be rigorous — and it is.”
JN Tata scholars, for their part, are intensely aware that the scholarship opens up a world of opportunities that goes beyond immediate academic support. Importantly, it gives them access to a distinguished alumni network comprising leaders and influential figures from various walks of life.
“It is a matter of immense pride to belong to a cohort that has gone through a stringent selection process,” says Dr Ramaswami Balasubramaniam, a JN Tata scholar who went to Harvard in 2009 to study leadership, organisational development and public policy. “My work in policy and advocacy requires a lot of discussion and exchange of ideas; being a JN Tata alumnus gives me a ready network of high calibre people I can speak to and interact with.”
In recent times, the Endowment has seen an increase in the number of students wanting to pursue newer fields of study, among them machine learning, artificial intelligence, data science, environment engineering and biomedical devices design. Then there are others who opt for less conventional spheres of study, such as river-basin management, creative writing, even ‘dance as therapy’.
Mr Ravishankar has a lament, though. “A large number of students aren’t taking well-informed decisions. They are getting carried away by a lot of noise in the media and opting for subjects that are really not the best for them. We intend doing something about it. We don’t know what form this will take, but we certainly plan to do something about this.”
Be that as it may, there is no diluting the impact the Endowment has had. After all, there’s a century and a quarter of evidence to showcase its credentials and its worth.
As a reporting and communications specialist at the Pacific office of the United Nations Development Programme in Suva, Fiji, Ria Sen is living her dream of being in the thick of international development work. After securing her English honours, Ms Sen applied for a scholarship to the JN Tata Endowment, one of the very few to offer scholarships to students wanting to study development communication. The scholarship enabled her to pursue a degree in communications and development at the London School of Economics (LSE). That was only the beginning. Since passing out from LSE, Ms Sen has done assignments in Belgium, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and now Fiji, working with intergovernmental and international organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations. “The philosophy of JN Tata and Tata Trusts struck a chord with me,” she says. “The Tata philosophy and way of affecting change was something I wanted to carry over to every domain of my life. The faith, trust and belief in an idea or a dream, especially when it comes from young aspirants, is truly a concrete move towards creating intellectual capital. This motivates us, as young people, to dream, to push boundaries and barriers, to test limits and reach new frontiers.”
When he applied for a JN Tata Endowment scholarship in 2009, Dr Ramaswami Balasubramaniam already had an impressive list of degrees under his belt, including an MBBS and an MPhil in hospital management. He also had an awe-inspiring body of work at the grassroots level, having set up the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement when he was just 19 years old. Dr Balasubramaniam’s work with marginalised tribal communities of Karnataka had established him as a formidable voice in the contemporary discourse on development. With the JN Tata scholarship, he pursued a course in public policy and advocacy from Harvard University so that he could gain the skills required to influence national policy on development. “The Endowment is a nation-building programme; it enables scholars to come back much more empowered and work for the nation,” he says. After returning from Harvard, Dr Balasubramaniam set up Grassroots Research and Advocacy Movement, which works in development policymaking with a grassroots perspective. “Policy cannot be top-down, it has got to be bottom-up to be real and meaningful,” he says. Next on the good doctor’s agenda is a school to teach public policy, which fits in nicely with his intent and his hopes.
F ulfilling the needs and aspirations of marginalised individuals has always been important to Tata Trusts and this is the objective of its ‘Individual Grants Programme’ (IGP), which supports those needing medical treatment and finances for further education.
The Trusts selects beneficiaries through a systematic, fair and humane approach. Medical grants are typically given to individuals with life-threatening diseases. “Help is provided to the lowest segments of the society, and compassion has always been, and remains, integral in the giving of grants,” says Kumar Chaitanya, head, finance and IGP. Assistance is provided directly as well as through a network of hospitals. Apart from cancer, the programme also sees applications for heart ailments, kidney disorders and other diseases.
In education, support is based on needs or merit or a combination of the two. The Trusts administers a number of scholarships, the most prestigious being the loan scholarship of the JN Tata Endowment. There’s also the Lady Meherbai Tata Education Trust scholarship, the Lady Tata Memorial Trust scholarship for research in cancer, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences scholarship, and, more recently, a new initiative that offers scholarships in selected areas that are of importance to India.
The focus now is to provide support in spheres where other sources of funding are either not available or are beyond the reach of most individuals. For instance, IGP supports the education of specially-abled individuals with vocational courses, an academic scholarship programme, aviation scholarships and a new research fellowship.
There are some other areas of focus such as sports grants, where gifted sportspersons get financial support for travel and training costs, and travel grants, which help beneficiaries take care of overseas travel costs for a workshop or training programme.
“IGP has evolved in terms of schemes, criteria and processes,” says TJ Ravishankar, director, JN Tata Endowment, and head, IGP (education). “It has been a continuous learning process and we try to bring this learning into designing better schemes with targeted outcomes.”
IGP is changing as it strives to reach those who find help difficult to come by, thus continuing to stay true to the vision of Jamsetji Tata.