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Gandhi, Nehru, and the Machine

At the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi, a reconstruction of Mahatma Gandhi’s house at Sabarmati Ashram, Gujarat, shows visitors to the free museum how the Father of the Indian Nation chose to live. The room is empty but for a mattress, a writing table, and a spinning wheel. The emptiness of the room emphasizes the asceticism of Gandhi’s life. Although he had come from a middle class family and had a legal education from England, he chose to live like a peasant so the rural masses could associate with him.

Five miles away from the Gandhi museum is Teen Murti Bhawan, the house where Jawaharlal Nehru lived when he served as the first Prime Minister of independent India. It is also a museum, having been preserved in the condition that it was when Nehru lived there fifty years go. Although the house is not opulent by Indian or European standards (it was originally built in the colonial era as the commander-in-chief of the colonial military’s official residence), the contrast with Gandhi’s house is striking. Nehru was not an ascetic. His family started out better-off than Gandhi’s, and he did not give up as many of the trappings of the privileged life as Gandhi did. While Gandhi lived in poverty, Nehru lived in comfort, surrounded by his fine furniture and extensive collection of books.

Just as the ways they lived their lives were different, so were their approaches to industry and economics. Gandhi’s hope for independent India was that the country would develop its villages and emphasize small-scale, local economies. Nehru, on the other hand, believed in large-scale, modern industry, mechanization, big dams, steel mills, and the like. Gandhi wanted hand-spinning; Nehru wanted cotton mills. The two men’s visions for independent India were nearly compete opposites of each other.

Underlying their radically different visions, though, were markedly similar ideals. Gandhi disbelieved in modern industrial capitalism not because he thought that machines were inherently evil, but because he believed that machines’ potential to concentrate wealth and power in the owners’ hands outweighed any potential benefits that machinery might offer. Industrial capitalism enriched the bourgeois minority but left the proletariat poor. Gandhi felt that the inequality produced by modern industry was immoral and socially unacceptable.

Nehru was also alarmed by the inequalities inherent in modern industrial capitalism. Rather than rejecting modern machinery, as Gandhi did, Nehru took a different approach. He believed that industry could be tamed and turned to the benefit of all if it existed in the context of a socialistic command economy. Rather than permitting free-market capitalism, Nehru believed in nationalizing the most important industries and instituting economic planning to define the course of the entire economy. According to Nehru, state industries, economic planning, and the command economy would allow India to enjoy the material benefits of industrialization without suffering its social consequences. As chairman of the National Planning Commission, Nehru inaugurated India’s first three Five-Year Plans before his death in 1964.

The legacy of Nehru’s industrial-economic philosophy was mixed. Although the command economy prevented some of the worst abuses of power that other countries experienced under industrial capitalism, India’s predominantly rural population remained poor and subject to the interests of the urban elites. India’s command economy grew slowly during the four decades it existed. In 1991, the Indian government liberalized the economy. Since then, the Indian economy has grown more quickly, but this growth has been followed by an intensification of the inequality that both Gandhi and Nehru had feared.

Although the Indian command economy no longer exists, state industry is still common in India in the twenty-first century. Across India, factories, stores, power stations, agricultural research centers, and other institutions bearing the motto “A Government of India Enterprise” are glimmers of Nehru’s socialistic economic philosophy that persist in contemporary, free-market India.

Industrialization, Nehru-style

The most outspoken advocate of industrialization in the early years of Indian independence was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an ardent believer in modern science and socialism. Nehru believed that industrialization held the key to India’s success as an independent nation. In particular, the Prime Minister focused on two types of projects, both of which required large-scale mobilizations of capital and labor and the importation of foreign technical expertise: steel mills and dams. To guide India through its rapid industrialization, Nehru inaugurated the first of India’s Soviet-style Five Year Plans in 1952.1

In promoting industrialization, Nehru departed from the course taken by his predecessor, Mohandas Gandhi. In Gandhi’s vision for independent India, the village would serve as the basis for Indian life. Indian society would have none of the dehumanizing bigness of industrialization. Nehru disagreed with the central tenets of Gandhian economics. In one respect, though, Gandhian and Nehruvian economics in principle. This was in regards to economic self-sufficiency. Beginning in the 1920s, the dominant strain of Indian nationalism called for an end to not only political but also economic imperialism. In the colonial relationship between India and the West, Indian raw materials were exported from the country, processed in mills in factories in England, and sold back to India as finished goods. Gandhi believed that Indians should re-develop their own indigenous industries. The symbolic Indian product that Gandhi promoted was cotton, which he spun and wove into his own simple clothing. His disciples both in the Indian National Congress followed his example.2

Nehru also believed that India should be economically self-sufficient, although his approach to self-sufficiency led through large-scale industrialization rather than village industries. Industrialization required the importation of technical expertise from the industrialized nations. India received technology transfer from both western- and eastern-bloc countries. In an earlier blog post, I described how technology transfer worked in the HF-24 Marut jet fighter program, which was developed by a joint Indian and West German team led by the German engineer Kurt Tank. East/West technology transfer happened for project such as the HF-24 as well as the large dams and steel mills that Nehru promoted.3

Nehru participated in the ceremonies marking construction milestones for several of the dam projects initiated during his term as Prime Minister. After the 1948 groundbreaking for the Hirakud Dam in Orissa, Nehru wrote: “As I threw in some concrete, which was to form the base of the great Hirakud Dam, a sense of adventure seized me and I forgot for a while the many troubles that beset us. I felt that these troubles will pass, but that the great dam and all that follow from it will endure for ages to come.”4 The Prime Minister often compared the dams with temples or mosques. At Bhakra Dam in the Himalayan foothills, Nehru even compared the project with the greatest Indian monument of all: “The Taj Mahal is for the dead; Bhakra is for the living.”5

The Nagarjuna Sagar Dam in Andhra Pradesh provides an example of the creative use of Indian resources for industrialization. Begun in 1955 and completed in 1967, the dam was a combined hydroelectric and irrigation project meant to irrigate the arid Deccan with the waters of the Krishna River. To save foreign exchange capital, the dam was built largely by hand with a minimum of machinery. The May 1963 issue of National Geographic carried a fold-out spread of a panoramic photo of the dam’s construction. In the image, hundreds of workers carry stones and mortar up ramps zigzagging up the face of the dam. The photo caption declared that 125,000 workers were employed in the construction of the dam; a more recent article in The Hindu Magazine stated that at no time in the construction of the project was the workforce ever small than 50,000.6 Compare this to the Grand Coulee Dam, another combined irrigation and hydro-electric make-work project of a different era; the labor force never exceeded 11,000.

The Nagarjuna Sagar project came vividly to mind once during my sojourn in the Garo Hills. I observed (and briefly participated in) a labor-intensive house construction project. While nowhere near the scale of Nagarjuna Sagar, the project nevertheless represented the principles of using the readily-available resource of labor and sparing on machinery. Principal was building a house down the road from my school, and Headmaster dispatched several dozen boys one day to supplement the hired labor force in the task of pouring the concrete for the roof. I wandered over later in the afternoon to observe. A bamboo ramp (like at Nagarjuna Sagar, but much smaller) led up to the roof. Boys passed saucers-full of concrete from the cement mixer (the only machine on the site), man-to-man up to the roof. There, professional laborers dumped the concrete at the appropriate location and smoothed it out, while boys on the other side of the ramp passed the empty saucers back down to the cement mixer. Then the saucers began their circuit once again, and continued circling man-to-man until the entire roof was covered with freshly-laid concrete.

  1. For a discussion of Nehru’s belief in state planning, see Gyan Prakash, “Technologies of Government,” in Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 159-200. For an overview of Nehruvian industrialization, see Ramachandra Guha, “The Conquest of Nature,” in India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (New York: Ecco, 2007), 209-232. []
  2. Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (New York: Harper & Row, 1950), 229-231. []
  3. In the case of the Bokaro steel plant in Bihar (now Jharkhand), both the US and the USSR offered assistance at different times. After the US backed out of the project, the Soviet Union stepped in to complete it. See Padma Desai, The Bokaro Steel Plant: A Study of Soviet Economic Assistance (New York: American Elsevier Publishing Company, 1972). For an overview of the Indian steel industry as it stood in the mid-1960s, see William A. Johnson, The Steel Industry of India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966). []
  4. S. Gopal and Uma Iyengar, eds., The Essential Writings of Jawaharlal Nehru (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), 2:66. []
  5. Quoted in “India Builds a High Dam in the Himalayas,” Life, November 3, 1958, 45. []
  6. John Scofield, “India in Crisis,” National Geographic, May 1963, 602; M. Malleswara Rao, “Taming the Krishna,” The Hindu Magazine, http://www.hindu.com/mag/2005/12/18/stories/2005121800150200.htm (accessed April 6, 2012). []

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