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Behind the Manhole Cover

Indian-made manhole cover in the Alabama steel belt.

Indian-made manhole cover in the Alabama steel belt.

If you live in an American city or town, the odds are good that one or more 250-lb pieces of India are not far from where you live or work. Unless you work for a public utility, or have a technical inclination (like me), it is not likely that you would have noticed this imported item. But if you walk around your city and look at the manhole covers, it is almost inevitable that you will come across at least one bearing the words “INDIA” or “MADE IN INDIA.” Almost all of the other manhole covers you are likely to see are from the United States. It makes sense to see American manhole covers in the country where they were made. But what are all of those Indian covers doing here?

The answer to this question lies in decisions made by India’s planners after the country attained independence in 1947. India has a long mettalurgical tradition, but it was not until the early twentieth century that steel manufacturing in India began on a large scale at a plant built on western industrial lines. The first modern steel mill in India was Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) in Jamshedpur, a private undertaking established in 1907. Another private steel plant opened before independence, the Indian Iron and Steel Company (ISCO).

After independence, India’s planners deemed steel a strategic asset that should be under state control. The TISCO and ISCO plants remained under private ownership, but subsequent plants built in the early independence period were public enterprises. A primary motivation for expanding the Indian steel industry was import-substitution. Buying imported steel drained India’s foreign exchange reserves. It would be better, the planners reasoned, to import a mill and then produce steel domestically.

With technical and economic assistance from the Soviet Union, West Germany, and the United Kingdom, the Indian government set up large steel mills in the iron and coal belt of eastern India. The Indian government requested aid from the United States to set up a fourth public-sector mill at Bokaro, but the US Congress opposed loans to a public-sector industry that might compete with private industry. Ultimately, the USSR assisted the construction of the Bokaro plant as well.

With the public-sector mills in operation, India’s steel-producing capacity was vastly expanded, but the original problem of dwindling foreign exchange reserves persisted. The solution was exporting Indian iron and steel products. Manhole covers could be cast cheaply in labor-intensive foundries, and then shipped abroad while still realizing a profit. In this way, an industry that had originally been expanded for the purpose of import-substitution became increasingly oriented toward exports. Indian foundries even make customized covers for large American cities, such as this one in Manhattan:

manhole-cover_nyc

The irony here is that the high-quality iron manhole covers are produced mainly for export. The municipal corporations of many Indian cities have found it to be much more cost-effective to use reinforced concrete manhole covers.

Concrete manhole covers in India.

Concrete manhole covers in India.

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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.

The reconstruction of Gandhi's room at the National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi.

The reconstruction of Gandhi’s room at the National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi.

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.

View of Nehrus office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

View of Nehru’s office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

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.

An Ode to Concrete

“This is Bombay, my friend, Bombay. Here the buildings are made of cement, and people’s hearts are made of stone.”

-The Beggar, Shree 420 (1955)

David Edgerton explains in his book The Shock of the Old that concrete, asbestos-cement, and corrugated metal are examples of creole technologies—technologies that originated in one place but took on new uses and meanings elsewhere. These materials in their modern forms were western inventions, but they have been particularly significant in the development of the poor world.1

It would be difficult, or perhaps impossible, to imagine modern India without concrete. The material can be produced cheaply and worked easily by either labor-intensive or capital-intensive methods. As such, it is the foundation—both literally as well as metaphorically—for much of India’s infrastructure.

The following gallery illustrates the complex and varied uses of concrete in contemporary India.

  1. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 42-3. []

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