How many trucks would you need?” On October 17, 2008, this apparently innocuous question had an unusual ring to it. The question came from Ravi Kant, the man who at that time was steering the country’s largest automobile company, Tata Motors, as its managing director. The man to whom that question was addressed was Ramesh Vishwakarma, the 53-year-old head of manufacturing in the company’s Nano factory at Singur in West Bengal. The two, along with other senior colleagues of Tata Motors, were holding a closed-door meeting at the company’s Pant Nagar (Uttarakhand) plant.
Notwithstanding his vast experience in the automobile industry, Vishwakarma did not have an immediate answer. He looked around, scratched his head, did some quick mental calculations and then in a hushed tone asked MB Kulkarni, sitting next to him: “How many trucks would you need?” Kulkarni at that time was in charge of the civil construction of the Singur factory. "Fifteen hundred,” he whispered back. By that time, Vishwakarma had already reckoned that his department too would need as many trucks and told Ravi Kant: “A little over 3,000 trucks, sir!”
That short exchange marked the beginning of Tata Motor's most unusual journey – an unprecedented operation perhaps anywhere in the world and certainly not on that scale. This is the shifting of a fully-built passenger car plant from Singur to Sanand in Gujarat — a distance of about 2,000 km. That journey — undertaken by over 3,340 trucks using 495 containers over the next seven months — made possible the realisation of a difficult dream. This was the dream to produce Nano, a small car with a price tag of Rs 1 lakh.
The dream had turned difficult as just ten days before that meeting at Pant Nagar, Tata Motors had announced that it would shift the Nano car project from Singur to Sanand. Farmers’ agitation, led by Mamata Banerjee, in West Bengal had made the operation of the factory impossible.
The stakes were high. Tata Motors Chairman Ratan Tata had promised the country — and indeed the world — that he would launch a small car for Rs 1 lakh. That promise had to be kept. A model of the Nano car had been unveiled early that year and the company had announced commercial sales would start by October 2008. Work at Singur had begun on schedule by January 2007. At its peak, the Nano project at Singur employed about 4,000 employees, and by July 2008, the plant had begun trial production of a few cars. However, continued agitation against the 1,000 acres or so given to Tata Motors and its vendors put a halt to the operations from September.
Indeed, running the plant at Singur from July 2008 had become difficult, confesses Vishwakarma. The agitation outside the factory led to the blockade of the national highway, which meant the Tata Motors’ employees, many of whom used to come in buses from Kolkata, faced problems in gaining access to the plant. Instead of one hour, it would now take three to four hours to reach the factory. There would also be threats of physical violence. On August 28, the situation took a turn for the worse. The agitators refused to let the employees leave the factory in the evening. It was only after the police arrived that the Tata Motors employees could leave in a convoy of buses. Agitators made it a point to convey to the Tata Motors executives that they were not welcome there to produce the car.
That evening, a harassed Girish Wagh, who was in charge of the small car project, could not resist calling Ravi Kant, “Sir, I have come here to build a car factory, not to handle such agitation.” Ravi Kant heard him out, but said in his trademark calm tone that handling the agitation too was a learning process. Almost three years later, Wagh says he was under tremendous stress that evening and he later understood the import of what Ravi Kant had told him. That call, however, did have an impact. Earlier, on August 15, Wagh had met the top management of the company in Mumbai and narrated the problems the employees faced because of the farmers’ agitation. The message to him then was clear: At no point would the company risk the safety of its employees. On August 28, Wagh’s call to Ravi Kant was a clear signal that the employees were no longer safe in Singur. On September 2, Tata Motors announced suspension of construction at Singur.
The next one month, Vishwakarma recalls, was the most difficult time for him at Singur. The employees, including 600 ITI-trained local boys, had to be kept motivated. So, they were sent to Rama Krishna Mission for training sessions which the company began conducting there. There was no work inside the plant, though many of them, including Wagh and Vishwakarma, were hopeful that operations at Singur would resume. Much to their disappointment, the talks failed and the Tata Motors management announced on October 3 the company’s decision to move the Nano project out of West Bengal. Nobody then had any idea of the new location of the plant. However, the wait was very short. Within four days, on October 7, the company tied up a new deal with the Gujarat government to relocate the Nano plant at Sanand, 22 kilometres west of Ahmedabad.
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“What that decision meant was instead of one project at Singur, we now had three projects on hand,” Wagh says. The objective was to minimise the delay in the launch of the car. Thus, the first project was to shift the car assembly operations to the company’s Pant Nagar facility and engine and transmission line to Pune so that the car could hit the market by March 2009, instead of the earlier date of October 2008. The second project, Wagh says, was to dismantle the Singur plant and transport it to Sanand, for which Vishwakarma was made responsible. The third project was to re-commission the transported plant at Sanand.
For Vishwakarma, this was an unusual project. He got down to preparing a detailed five-pronged plan with the primary focus on dismantling the plant, transporting it to Sanand and re-commissioning it with no damage. He prepared about half-a-dozen voluminous documents that outlined the steps the company should follow. “Those documents were as thick as books and no other company had done such detailed work on safe and damage-free dismantling, transporting and recommissioning of a plant of that size. We have now patented the entire process,” Vishwakarma says with a triumphant smile.
These documents outlined simple procedures on damage control, rust prevention, dismantling, packaging, loading, transportation, storage, traceability and finally knowledge transfer. Employees were trained in all the different stages of the operations outlined by Vishwakarma. The dismantling work was entrusted to the original manufacturers of the plants and equipment. Thus, workers from Komatsu came for dismantling the machines, Wooshin of Korea sent its workers for the weld shop, Durr for the main paint shop and Hyundai Heavy Industries sent its engineers for dismantling the assembly shop.
“The most important thing for me was to achieve damage-free shifting of the plant equipment from Singur to Sanand. We were given 14 months time to shift and start trial production. We completed the job in 13 months with the start of trial production of cars in Sanand in November 2009. What’s more, not one screw was missing and the only damage we suffered was a minor one to a motor during the entire operation,” Vishwakarma says. After dismantling the plant and machinery came the task of transporting them to Sanand. This was an intricate operation. Vishwakarma’s team zeroed in on two routes — Kolkata-Agra-Jaipur-Ahmedabad with a distance of 2,163 kilometres and Kolkata-Raipur-Nagpur-Ahmedabad which was 1,843 kilometres. An obvious choice would have been the second route with a shorter distance.
However, a highway survey was conducted through trial runs on both the stretches and what they concluded was startling: the longer route had only 390 km of single-carriage road, while the shorter route had 1,633 km of single-carriage road. The road survey also revealed that the shorter route was more prone to accidents (because of many narrow and weak bridges) and had more security problems on road, while the longer route had better infrastructure and support system through the entire stretch. The cost and time (ten days for each truck) taken to travel through the longer route would be more but Vishwakarma and his team opted for it since the primary objective was to transport the equipment safely.
In addition, guards were hired to provide security to the trucks moving the machinery. Each truck driver was given a mobile phone so that he could remain in touch with the company. Journey halts were specified and a procedure to track their daily movements was put in place. Vishwakarma would even follow the departing trucks in his vehicle up to a point.
The transportation of the machinery and equipment through a safer, even though longer, route was critical for another reason. Any damage to the equipment or its loss would have upset the schedule for the launch of the car. “That is something we did not want to risk,” Wagh says.
Which is also why work at Singur and Sanand began almost simultaneously. While dismantling of the plant and equipment began in November 2008, land-levelling commenced at Sanand. Vishwakarma chose a unique method of civil construction for the Sanand factory. The first thing he built was a 15-acre wide concrete pad without a wall around it. So, when the machines arrived from Singur, they could be placed in that open concrete pad. The walls of the factory were built later in line with the practices prescribed under concurrent engineering, Vishwakarma says. That ensured that the shifting of the Rs 1,800-crore Singur plant was completed by the end of May 2009. Only structures worth Rs 440 crore were left behind and the rest came to Sanand. Installation of the plant at Sanand began without any delay and was completed by October.
Vendors associated with the Nano project also played along and shifted their operations without losing time. Indeed, many of Tata Motors’ competitors including AMW of Bhuj (which manufactures 49-tonne trucks) became its collaborators by allowing its press facility for producing panels for the Nano car project.
By November 2009, trial production began in Sanand, followed by commercial production from February 2010. On June 2, 2010, the plant was inaugurated by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Ratan Tata had kept his promise, while Wagh and Vishwakarma achieved a rare engineering feat of having dismantled a fully built car plant and then re-commissioning it.