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Technology, History, and Place

Category: Modern India (Page 3 of 4)

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Two kilometers on Rajpath

Almost without exception, first-time visitors to India from the West can’t help but comment on the unfathomable diversity and complexity of the country. When I first set foot in India five years ago, I claimed that I could have written an entire book on the sights along the road from Guwahati to the Garo Hills. Although this was clearly hyperbole, it is true that Indian society is heterogeneous linguistically, culturally, ethnically, and religiously. India is, after all, a country with close to a hundred literary languages.

Units of measurement in India tend to attract less attention than language and ethnicity, but I think that they are an essential part of India’s mixed cultural heritage, and they are indicative of the country’s modernity. India, like almost every other country in the world, officially uses the metric or SI system of measurement. As part of the country’s modernization, the Government of India introduced metric during the early-independence period. Converting to metric entailed abandoning the British Imperial units previously in use, so the process was also a way to move beyond India’s colonial past. As a result of metrication, Indian highways were re-marked and train route charts reprinted in kilometers, weather reports were issued in degrees Celsius, petrol (gasoline) was sold in liters rather than gallons, and grocers were required to sell their produce by kilogram rather than pounds.

The conversion to metric was slow and even now, more than fifty years after it began, is still incomplete. One does not have to look hard to find remnants of British Imperial units still in use. During my work, study, and travels in India, I have bought a ruler marked in inches at a stationery shop; had my fevers measured in degrees Fahrenheit; and seen carpenters measuring out wood in feet and inches. The result of this incomplete conversion is that Indians—like Americans—will schizophrenically mix English and metric units. An example of this is a cookbook that came with a pressure-cooker I bought in the Garo Hills. The pressure-cooker models are rated by liters of capacity (I bought the three-liter version), but any volumes in the recipes themselves are given in teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups.

(The title of this post is the distance between the India Gate and the central secretariat buildings in New Delhi.)

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How many Qutb Minars is this?

The tallest pre-modern structure in India is Qutb Minar, a 238-ft (72 m) tower in southern Delhi. Qutb-ud-Din Aybak, the first sultan of Delhi, started building the tower in 1199. Several succeeding generations of rulers added to and modified the tower; it only reached its full height after Qutb-ud-Din’s death. Even the British tried to add their own cupola on the apex of the tower, but it did not match the aesthetic of the rest of the tower, so it came down in 1848. The British cupola now sits by itself on the landscaped lawns of the Qutb Minar complex. Qutb Minar and the surrounding area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Qutb Minar towers over surrounding ruins in south Delhi.

Qutb Minar towers over surrounding ruins in south Delhi.

Publications about Indian construction projects in the early-independence period often compared the new projects with pre-modern Indian monuments; Qutb Minar was a particularly popular item of comparison. Towers or tower-like structures invited comparisons most readily. The ventilation stack of Tarapur Atomic Power Station, India’s first nuclear powerplant, was 366 feet (112 meters) tall—much taller than the Qutb Minar,” as several publications noted.1 Qutb Minar was also used as a standard measuring stick for height for any structure. According to an article in Assam Information, “the height between the bottom of foundation and the top of the piers” of the Saraighat Bridge, the first permanent crossing of the Brahmaputra River, “it almost as much as the height of the Qutb Minar.”2 The winner in any early-independence period height competition was Bhakra Dam. Indian Recorder and Digest stated that the height of the dam, “which is the highest structure in Asia, is about three times that of the Qutab Minar.”3

This rhetoric established continuity with the pre-colonial past, but also attempted to transcend it. The colonial period had been a difficult time for India’s educated elites. Although they believed in their own country’s historic greatness, they also absorbed the western critiques of India as backward, underdeveloped, and imprisoned by tradition.4 Building dams, bridges, and nuclear powerplants was a way to recreate India’s past greatness, which had been lost during centuries of colonial domination. The new India’s greatness, though, would not be based on Indian tradition, but on western ideas and technology. The structures of independent India were bigger, and by implication better, than anything the Sultans of Delhi or the Mughals had been able to make. In the sources that I have read, nobody seemed to care that a concrete ventilation stack was not aesthetically comparable to an intricately-wrought red sandstone and white marble tower.

  1. “Tarapur: Gateway to the Nuclear Age,” Economic Studies 10 (1968), 421. []
  2. “Saraighat Bridge: A Boon to Assam,” Assam Information, November 1963, 20. []
  3. “Dedication of Bhakra Dam,” Indian Recorder and Digest, November 1963, 6. []
  4. Ashis Nandy explained the internalization of western ideas by Indian elites in a lecture I attended in Delhi on June 11, 2012. []
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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.

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