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Can Tata Sons regain its footing?

IN THE PANICKY initial days of India’s covid-19 lockdown, the country could count on one venerable institution. Tata, a 152-year-old conglomerate, bought millions of dollars’ worth of medical supplies for clinics and hospitals. Its shut businesses did not lay off a single worker. A new subsidiary was conjured up to develop a one-hour coronavirus test using gene-editing technology, which was approved last month. Each of these was a feat in its own right. Collectively, they look remarkable.

That is what Indians have come to expect from Tata since its founding in 1868. The group’s holding company, Tata Sons, and the seven charities which today own 66% of its shares, have been a pillar of India’s philanthropy, donating $156m last financial year, as well as its industry. The group thrived by helping India through its challenges, accruing businesses as it went.

Legend has it that Jamsetji Tata, the group’s progenitor, who died in 1904, built the magnificent Taj Mahal hotel after being denied a room at one of Bombay’s existing establishments because he was an Indian, not a European. Today Indian Hotels, which owns the Taj Mahal, is South Asia’s biggest chain. Less apocryphally, Tata Power and Tata Steel were founded to cope with India’s chronic electricity shortages and the paucity of heavy industry. It is a similar story for...

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