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Nehru: Planning for Poverty

Teen Murti Bhavan, Nehru's residence as Prime Minister

As Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru spent the last 13 years of his life as the Chairman of the Planning Commission,  an area he was passionate about. He had great dreams for India: increase the living standards of people, provide them with new opportunities, drive rapid industrialization, expand  employment opportunities, reduce income and wealth inequalities, distribute economic power, and achieve self-sufficiency in food grains. These were noble goals with which no one could disagree and if these goals were achieved in the planned time frame, India would have been a different place. What happened was something else and the reasons for the failure of the planning makes for depressing reading.

The Commission

Since the Prime Minister himself was the head of the Commission it served as an alternate power center. People who could not get a cabinet position, people who lost elections, or those who were in transition found their way into the Commission. Some of them never quit. Also for the Prime Minister, this provided yet another opportunity to reward people since not much expertise was required to be a member. Their actions were not scrutinized nor their qualifications questioned. The organization eventually turned out to be a monster, with a budget of a 1 crore in 1964 with almost all the cabinet functions duplicated.

Among the sweeping goals that had been set, no one knew which ones had priority. Even those which they set out to do were done without checking (1) if the project was needed and (2) if a proper technical study was done before green lighting. If such commonsense checks were done, the country would have saved money. For example, after 11 crore was spent on a petrochemical plant, it was discovered that  basic raw materials were not available.  Another plant was started to make optical glass and later it was found that the country wanted ophthalmic glass; an additional crore was spent to install new machinery.

Even on projects which passed the checks, no attention was spent on running the plan efficiently. Since it was public wealth, money was spent as if there was no tomorrow. The Rourkela Steel Mill took three years more to complete and the initial cost estimate doubled. The story was the same with fertilizer plants and hence fertilizers had to be imported. This in turn affected food grain production and so food grains too had to be imported. Systemic failures were occurring all over the country, but no one wanted to analyze the failures. Instead they ignored them and buried their heads wishing that the problems would — poof — disappear.

Of Agriculture and Fertilizers

The concept of planning was imported from Soviet Union, but during the import process, the details were left out. In countries where proper planning is done, every basic unit that is involved — factory, workshop — keeps track of the progress and coordinates with other cells to remove bottlenecks. The Soviets also kept track of time and their work charts measured progress. In the pyramidal system of Indian planning, progress was measured by the amount of money spent. Sometimes political influence derailed the planning and even the Parliament did not know about such things. One of the optical plants was switched from Naini to West Bengal simply based on a telephone call from the Chief Minister of Bengal regarding a bye-election.

For an organization which was set up to plan things properly, it functioned in exactly the opposite way. Nehru, for instance, did not pay much attention to agriculture and somehow the available food grain was distributed around. When it came to the Second Plan, it was decided that food production had to be boosted and a target had to be set. Nehru said that since the the Chinese had proposed to increase production at 7.9 per cent per annum, India would be able to increase it by 40 per cent. No studies were done by the Food and Agriculture ministry. No notes were distributed in the commission. The decision came from the top of the pyramid and the minions knew what they had to do.

Due to mismanagement even 19 years after the end of World War, India was rationing food.  While Nehru promised self-sufficiency year after year, the per capita consumption of food grains fell short of the prescribed level and it was the poor who suffered more. Meanwhile, the population was increasing and Nehru did not see much cause for alarm. The Americans were willing to help, but they required India to buy agricultural commodities and pay the freight in USD. The sad part was only the public sector could manufacture fertilizers and they could not deliver. Rather than open the sector to private enterprises, the government decided to import it from abroad.

What was shocking was the ignorance of these esteemed members of Indian history or polity. People in Jhusi had been cultivating rice since the 6th millennium BCE without imported fertilizers and suddenly why was there a need for something without which we had done so well. But that did not matter to Nehru and his planners who were obsessed with foreign technology. The people who were part of the swadeshi movement, once they got power, started importing goods like raw cotton, yarn, and pulp. Steel replaced wood and bamboo, naphtha replaced coal for fertilizer manufacture and petrol replaced coal for power generation. Gandhi wanted an India which would rely on its strengths than on foreign goods, but with each passing year India became indebted to other countries.  Finally Nehru realized his mistake and opened up fertilizers to the private sector.

In Debt

It was not all downhill; there was growth in  national income, in agricultural production, and industrial production. While Nehru gave speeches arguing that the less privileged should get the benefits, nothing of that sort happened. Instead the focus was more on stuff which they could never get their hands on. The planning did nothing to realize Nehru’s dream of income disparity. As Ram Manohar Lohia said, while crores of people lived on 3 annas a day, Nehru’s dog lived on 3 rupees a day.

Another plan the administration came up to remove income disparity was direct taxation through wealth tax, gift tax and expenditure tax, but there was no efficient way of collecting taxes. Tax evasion was quite high; even ministers like Jagjivan Ram did not file income tax for years. Nehru had promised to hang black marketers and anti-socials, but that too did not happen. He complained about ministers and officials living in big houses while he himself lived in a mansion.

As the plans failed to deliver as expected and the foreign dependencies started increasing, Nehru was clear about one thing:  India would not ask for foreign aid because the loan sharks would definitely set their terms which would not be in India’s interest. But as the size of the five years plans increased, the foreign reserves started dwindling and austerity measures had to be implemented. Anything that involved foreign exchange had to be stopped, both in the public and private sector. Delegations which went abroad were controlled and student travel abroad was restricted.

Even such rules could not be effectively implemented. The Second Plan was cut down and the Reserve Bank Act had to be amended to raise the notional value of its gold reserve by 300 percent. Finally, Nehru changed his attitude towards foreign aid and decided to borrow extensively. With each plan, the foreign aid component increased and by the time he died the country was 2000 crore in debt.

Nehru, as always, put the blame on others. It did not matter if he chose the wrong people, followed wrong policies and had the wrong priorities. According to him the planning was fine, it was the implementation that was lacking. He complained as if the man who ran the government was someone else.

Reference

  1. Adapted from Rao, Amiya Rao, B. G. Six Thousand Days : Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister. Sterling Publishers, 1974.
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Disciplined English Tyranny

1816 CE, Barbados

In 1816, Bussa, an African born, slave who was between thirty and forty years old worked as a chief ranger at the Bayleys sugar plantation in St. Philip in Barbados. He was probably a member of the Bussa nation which had spread over West Africa as traders and conquerors in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. All that glorious past did not matter much for he was now a slave, brought from Africa in one of those ships, surviving a deadly trans-Atlantic voyage. His ownership had recently changed hands to a man known as a disciplinarian and life was not looking good.

What distinguished Bussa from the thousands of slaves in Barbados was this: Bussa was planning an uprising for almost a year along with few others. His partners too were elite slaves — slaves who had specialized skills — and one of them was a woman.  Due to their status, they could travel freely without attracting attention. With the aim of overthrowing the white planter class,first they started a propaganda claiming that slavery had been abolished in England and the planters were refusing to implement it. The next step in their plan was to set fire to the canes during Easter celebrations, when the planters would be busy. Once the rebellion was successful, a free man of color would be appointed as the governor.

On April 14, 1816, around 8:30 pm, the plantations went up in flames as planned. The canes burned and cane ash fell all around; the smell of burned sugar spread all around. This was a critical time for the slaves. Some of them did not know if they should join the rebellion because most rebellions, except the one on Haiti, had been unsuccessful. If the rebellion failed and they were caught, the repercussion would be deadly for them and their family.

Within few hours of the fires, the militia and the British forces swung into action. Plantation owners, worried about the safety of their families, met and planned the next steps. They did not have to wait long; by midnight the first encounter happened. Slaves carrying machetes, cudgels and axes came face to face against a well armed militia. The fight was uneven; some slaves ran away, while the others were shot dead. There were people like Samuel Jackson’s character in Django Unchained, who showed great courage in jumping in harms way to save their white masters.

Following this, everything went downhill for the slaves. The militia was joined by the black troops of the West India regiment and what happened next was surprise for those who thought that black troops would not fight black slaves. The army had given special privileges to the troops and they did not identify themselves with the slaves and in the battle that followed many slaves were captured and killed. Within four days the rebellion was quelled; Bussa and the other leaders were killed in various battles.

The white plantation owners had many questions: how was the conspiracy hatched? how did Bussa and his friends manage to keep it secret in an island as small as Barbados? Can such incidents happen again? There was one decision though: such incidents should not happen once again and for that draconian disciplinary measures were enforced by the British military. Captive and unlucky slaves were summarily executed. Some were shot, some hanged and inspired by the Spanish Inquisition, some slow roasted over fire. The hanged men were left as is to decompose in the heat. Torture and executions were done publicly to intimidate the survivors and force them into compliance.

1857 CE, India

In places like Barbados and India, numerically few English were able to hold a larger population to slavery or servitude and brutal violence was one of the many tools they used. For a country which claimed to be philosophically strong, ethically superior and  had a library worth the whole native literature of India, they were no different from the ancient Romans or the medieval Borgias when it came to violence. All these people realized that fear was a great weapon if used effectively and that behavior was institutionalized. Such British behavior was not surprising because their empire was built on this well-deliberated and cold-blooded policy.

This disciplined tyranny by the British was seen four decades later in India following the war of 1857. Following the success of Operation Red Lotus, the English found that the initial success by Indians was due to the support of the villagers who became the supply chain for the army. It was then decided that such villages had to be ‘cleared’ which meant that the entire village along with their population had to be burned. Since they were law abiding people, the English first passed laws which called for the hanging of people, even non-combatants, whose guilt was doubtful. Once such enormous powers were granted to military officers and NGOs,  hanging parties went out to villages and hanged everyone including some young boys who had flaunted rebel colors.

Generals Havelock and Neil marched along the Grand Trunk Road burning and destroying whatever they could find. An Indian traveller from that period wrote that Neil let loose his men in Allahabad killing old men, women and children. For the others, a mock trial was conducted and hanged by twos and threes from branches and signposts all over the town. Following that he marched to Varanasi where the same was repeated. One gentleman in a burst of creativity arranged the hanged corpses in the figure of eight. The Governor-general reported back home that, “the aged, women and children were sacrificed.”

Due to this systematic massacre, the English were able to create a dead zone from Kanpur, all the way to Calcutta, thus breaking the supply chain. These were now areas under the English control and thus it became quite hard for Indian troops to march through this area. With this Havelock and Neil broke the back of Indian army and they are glorified for their actions. Even now there are two islands in the Andamans named after Neil and Havelock which speaks volumes about our historical literacy.

References:

  1. Stuart, Andrea. Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire . Knopf, 2013.
  2. Tope, Parag. Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus. Rupa & Co., 2010.
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Nehru: The Vacillating Socialist

When Jawaharlal Nehru became the Prime Minister of India, it was expected that India would have  a socialist government. This was not a false expectation because over the past two decades he had shown his inclination through the speeches he gave, the literature he read and the friends he kept. In 1929, two years after this three day visit to Moscow, Jawaharlal Nehru told Congress workers that India has to be a socialist nation to end poverty and inequality. During that period, socialism was not in the official party line, but he called himself a socialist. Mahatma Gandhi understood his passion and once explained that Nehru wanted socialism by any means, even without non-violence.

But once he took office, this passion for socialism disappeared and reappeared only seven years before his death. As a man who always got things done his way, he could have got the country to adopt this idea as well, but he stayed away from it even when opportunity presented. One such occasion was during the refugee crisis following partition, but even then he did not voice anything about socialism or a classless society.   In 1948 a private member of the Constituent Assembly introduced legislation demanding a socialist economic pattern, nationalization of key industries, and collective farming.  Nehru dismissed this demand as “vague” and wondered how any government could accept such a resolution.

What was going on? Why did the self-professed socialist backpedal when he got an opportunity to implement his ideas? In some cases, it was seen that he even opposed making socialism official. Did he realize that socialism went against millennia old Indian polity and hence stayed away from it or was it pure politics which caused him to press pause and then resume when the situation demanded?

Party Politics

One reason for Nehru going slow on socialism maybe due to the fact that the party machinery was controlled by Sardar Patel, who was known as a capitalists’ man. A socialism versus capitalism fight during that period would not have done any good for the party. Then Patel died in 1950 and Nehru was able to get Patel’s nominees out of the leadership paving way for absolute control. He could have inflicted any “ism” on the country, but even while the first Five-Year-Plan was being developed, there was no reference to socialism in the documents.

A turning point came after the first general elections. The Congress won an overwhelming majority both to the Parliament and in the State legislatures, but the Socialists and the Kisan Mazdoor Party polled in double digits as well. This was a cause of concern to Nehru and he tried to get Socialists to his side by negotiating with Jayaprakash Narayan. Once again the demands of Jayaprakash Narayan — redistribution of land, nationalization of banks and insurance, state ownership of selected industries — sounded like Nehru’s dream, but he walked away from it stating that the time was not right. The Socialists were not surprised because it was on Nehru’s advice that the group was formed within the Congress and once it was formed, Nehru refused to join it. Also, when Gandhi wanted a socialist leader to be the President of Congress in 1947, Nehru joined forces with Patel and opposed it. What was more strange was this: the Constitution and Economic Programme Committee of the party, under Nehru’s chairmanship recommended a socialist economic programme, but as Prime Minister he rejected the report.

He provided various explanations for this behavior; in one speech he said that he was not interested in any “ism” and was focused on achieving a casteless and classless society. In another speech he said he aimed for a society not guided by greed, but one in which there is distribution of economic power. What people wanted, he argued, was food, clothing and shelter and they were not concerned about the social and economic policies.

The Socialist Vision

In 1954 Nehru visited China and North Vietnam and saw how both countries were using a new social system to build their nations. He saw the response of the hungry masses to socialism and thought that it would be a trump card against both Socialists and Communists. On his return, without consulting the Cabinet or Planning Commission or Congress Working Committee, he started touting socialism. In speech after speech, he talked about the utopia that socialism would bring and this policy was adopted in the next annual session of the Congress party without much difficulty. This was a brilliant move for it seeded confusion among the socialists and leftists and brought everyone else into Nehru’s big tent.

Once socialism and the goals of casteless and classless society were proclaimed, candidates for the next election were selected based on caste, class and religion. In places where feudal loyalties played an important part, feudal candidates were selected. In some places black-marketers or drunkards were selected and Nehru justified it saying that the selection was due to the pressure from the ‘rightist’ elements.

After all this, he started behaving erratically; the Second Five Year plan was released later and it had no trace of socialism in it.  After spending energy explaining socialism and socialist pattern was few years earlier, he started backpedaling once again. He refused to define what he wanted and vaguely mentioned equality and removal of disparities. He asked party workers to go around the country explaining the party agenda and when some of them asked details on his vision of socialism, he simply refused. All this did not prevent the party from adopting a resolution which demanded the creation of a socialistic society in the Nagpur session in 1959. At this point no one seemed to care what it meant  and no one wanted to know.

At the end, the socialist agenda of Nehru was vague. It could only be explained using the words “Neti, Neti” for it was not about nationalization or doctrine or confiscation of private property.  For a man who was passionate about the idea, it later became an empty slogan which could be used for political needs. By being vague about it, he could bring it up when needed and discard it once the juice was extracted. Fed up with this drama Subash Bose bluntly asked how a person as individualist as Nehru could be a socialist. Finally thanks to Nehru’s vague socialism, many congressmen who were paupers before 1947 became millionaires.

Reference

  1. Adapted from Rao, Amiya Rao, B. G. Six thousand days : Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister, Sterling Publishers, 1974.
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Aviyal

(As part of Centre Right India’s 3rd anniversary, this entry was featured as part of their week long culinary blogging festival. Someone complained that the picture at CRI looked like fruit salad. So here are better pictures)

In May, 1498, when Vasco da Gama’s fleet arrived in Calicut, it was the epicenter of the global spice trade; it was a place for spice production as well as distribution. These spices that came down from the Western Ghats included ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon, but the most valuable was pepper. Pepper, whose growth and harvest was tied to the monsoons, was to Kerala, what oil is to Saudi Arabia. The spices of Kerala did not owe their worldwide popularity to the Portuguese; an obscure Sanskrit name for pepper was yavanesta, which meant, “The passion of the Greeks” and before them came the Romans. From 1000 – 1500 CE, the Indian Ocean spice network was buzzing with Arabs, Tunisians, Italians, Chinese, Jews, Maghribi and Karimi traders and their agents.

While these spices are now used in various Indian cuisines, what makes the Kerala cuisine unique is the delicious base of coconut either as fresh ground, sliced, grated or as coconut milk. Even though spices are abundant in the region, it is the taste of coconut that will overwhelm you in most Kerala dishes. Besides this, the dishes are cooked in coconut oil which adds a distinct taste (We also apply copious amounts of coconut oil on our hair to reflect the tropical sun).

One of the typical dishes is called Aviyal which essentially is a medley of various vegetables. Colloquially, the word is used in conversation to mean things are messed up. It was quite hard to find the history of this dish and we are simply left with two legends of which one dates to the era of Mahabharata. Apparently, when Bhima was serving as the chef of King Virata, there were some unexpected guests. Improvising quickly, he chopped all the available vegetables, added some coconut and voila, the problem was solved. There is another version which mentions that the dish was invented in the kitchens of the Travancore Royal Family when the chef was faced with a similar situation.

I am not a chef and so this recipe is adapted from household records and few books. One of the nice things is that it allows for improvisation; almost any vegetable is acceptable. Also, it is light on spices and relies on coconut to give the taste.

Ingredients:

  • 5 oz yam
  • 5 oz winter melon
  • 2 raw green plantains
  • 2 drumsticks
  • 1 carrot
  • 4-5 beans
  • 1 potato (small)
  • salt to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • few curry leaves
  • 4-5 green chillies
  • 1/2 cup yogurt
  • 1/2 coconut – grated
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds

Steps:

  • Wash and peel all the vegetables. Chop them lengthwise
  • Put them in a heavy bottom kadai with the yam, plantains and winter melon at the bottom and others at the top. Add turmeric and salt. Also add water and cover to cook.
  • The vegetables should not be overcooked so that they become mushy.
  • Make a paste of grated coconut, cumin and green chillies with just enough water.
  • Add this paste to the cooked vegetables along with the yogurt. Make sure that no vegetable is spared of the paste.
  • Finally add coconut oil and few curry leaves.
  • You are done. This can be eaten as a side dish along with rice.
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Nehru and Uniform Civil Code

Jawaharlal Nehru with school children at Durgapur (via Wikipedia)

Jawaharlal Nehru with school children at Durgapur (via Wikipedia)

Six Thousand Days: Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister by Amiya Rao and B.G.Rao has a section on the first Prime Minister’s politics regarding the introduction of Uniform Civil Code in India. He had sponsored the Hindu Code Bills because the personal laws of Hindus had to be modified to come in line with modern thought and attitudes. It was also intended especially for, “freeing our people, more especially our women-folk from the outworn customs and shackles which have bound them.”

Even though President Bourgiba of Tunisia and President Ayub of Pakistan had changed Muslim personal law in their countries, Nehru was not willing to do so in India. The book accuses him of conceding that only the Ulema and not the Parliament had the power to make rules for Muslims purely for the vote bank. In a speech Nehru mentioned

“We have passed one or two laws recently and we are considering one … in regard to Hindu marriage and divorce … These are personal ingrained in custom, habit and religion … Now we do not dare to touch the Muslims because they are a minority and we do not want the Hindu majority to do it. These are personal laws and so will remain for the Muslims until they want to change them … We do not wish to create the impression that we are forcing any particular thing in regard to Muslims’ personal laws.”

Thus, even though Article 44 stated that the state shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout India, that was one path Nehru was unwilling to travel.

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