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Quote, unquote

So why didn't Mr Tata say it?

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Ratan Tata appears to be unusually prone to the misfortune of being “misquoted” or “quoted out of context”, from being pressured to bribe a minister to British managers and Mukesh Ambani’s display of opulence. As it happens, most people will agree wholeheartedly with what he has just been misquoted as saying.

Consider his non-statement on the work ethic of the British manager. The average British manager’s aversion to working overtime and his predilection to starting the weekend on Friday after lunch have been well documented, a tradition that has been preserved and refined in Calcutta, Britain’s first colonial capital. As far back as the 1950s, it is now acknowledged, the British fondness for the weekend break helped the Soviet spies Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess defect despite a tip-off from the Americans. In the 1960s, Goscinny and Uderzo parodied this work ethic in Asterix in Britain with Julius Caeser conquering Britain by attacking only at tea-time and on weekends. Nobody would have faced these issues more than Mr Tata since he took over and, in short order, turned around two ailing firms — Corus (in 2007) and Jaguar Land Rover (2008). Obviously, this could not have been achieved by managers working nine to five, four-and-a-half days a week. The non-comments must have stung since they came a day after Mr Tata announced 1,500 job cuts in Corus.

There may be no scientific correlation between work ethic and economic ascendancy, but it is no coincidence that the Chinese, for whom an eight-hour workday is considered “laziness”, boast the world’s second-largest economy, overtaking Japan, a country no less reputed for its workaholic management. Also, Britain’s position as the world’s sixth largest economy relies significantly on the back of foreign direct investment (FDI) — it was once the world’s fourth-largest recipient of FDI, much of it from workaholic Indians and Chinese companies.

Mr Tata’s second non-statement on Mukesh Ambani’s opulent lifestyle will also get a lot of heads nodding in agreement. Mr Ambani makes a lot of money from his business and he is entitled to spend it as he sees fit. Even so, there is something curiously insensitive to splurging on an over-the-top, 27-storey home that has no redeeming architectural qualities, in a country in which many Indians are homeless — even in Mumbai. To be sure, Mr Ambani is unlikely to have solved India’s poverty problem if he hadn’t built the tower on land once used to run an orphanage. Still, as Mr Tata suggested, he could well have spent it to mitigate the hardship of the poor. Two billion dollars, the reported construction cost for Antilla, could build several decent apartments for slum-dwellers being relocated from Dharavi, for instance. Mr Tata is much less wealthy and lives a life that is luxurious by most Indian standards. But he practises a dignified restraint and is backed by a level of welfare spending that his fellow industrialists would do well to follow. Mr Tata, in sum, should own up to what he did not say.

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First Published: Tue, May 24 2011. 00:18 IST