Technology, History, and Place

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.

A labor-intensive construction project.

A labor-intensive construction project.

  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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1 Comment

  1. Nehruvian planning failed to meet its grand hope despite an encouraging start. But important parts of the vision are still relevant in India today: the central role given to economic growth in the battle against mass poverty, a relentless focus on capital accumulation, a higher savings rate to fund asset creation, strategic depth to the industrial structure and fiscal conservatism. All this is a far cry from what recent profligate governments that claim to follow Nehru have done.

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