Freedom and After
Down Memory Lane
Address at the Special Convocation of the University of Bombay held to confer on J.R.D. Tata the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws (LL.D.), April 10, 1981.
should like first, and as briefly as I can, to look back upon the path which the country has travelled over the past fifty years recalling, on the way, dominant moments and events I have known in the most exciting and turbulent period of India's contemporary history, stopping for only a few moments and at only a few places along the way.
When I began my career in Tatas fifty-five years ago, woefully short on education, but long on impulsiveness and emotion, I reacted violently both to our political subjection to a foreign power and to the poverty of most of our people, in stark contrast to the affluence of those of Europe where I had spent so much of my youth.
My hostility to our British rulers manifested itself at times in a childish manner such as when I got my young bride in 1930 to join me in 'gheraoing' Sir Stanley Jackson, the then Governor of Bengal, on the open road between Darjeeling and Siliguri in protest against his keeping a hundred cars full of people waiting to let his car pass on his return to Darjeeling from some function in Kalimpong. This was at a time when one of the most popular sports amongst young men in Bengal was to take pot shots at Viceroys – admittedly a silly one – the enjoyment of which was, in any case, cut short when my wife, whom I had carefully positioned in front of the car, deserted her post to add her tuppenny's worth to the views I was forcibly conveying to the Governor. As was to be expected, his car did not linger once she cleared the road for it!
The economic plight of our people and what was to be done to relieve it, soon became an obsession with me and has lasted to this day. In my then innocence and impatience, I had dreams of what people in business and industry like myself could do once political freedom was won, to help build a new India in which our people could live a decent life, secure from want and fear.
When, in 1938, my colleagues, all much senior to me, in a moment of mental aberration elected me Chairman of Tatas, I resolved to dedicate myself and the firm to the task of carrying on Jamsetji Tata's vision of a politically free and economically strong India and to play a worthy role in its development.
But first we had to become free. What could my role in that task be? I had the good fortune, at the time, of personally knowing, and being known to, such great leaders as Motilal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, and I longed, in some way, to join them in their struggle for freedom. Fortunately, I soon realised that I was not cut out either for politics or for a life in jail, even in such distinguished company. Considering the way the political scene had deteriorated over the years to its present nadir, I have no regret for having stayed out of it!
In my youthful eyes, Jawaharlal was the knight in shining armour who would bring us freedom and lead us to a bright new world. Although we were good friends, it was a matter of great regret to me that I never managed to pierce his aloofness. Perhaps he sensed that, despite my love and admiration for him, we were not on the same wavelength in economic matters and he evaded my attempts at discussing the subject with him by the simple expedient of looking out of the window in what I came to recognise as his habitual form of courteous dismissal! I found myself more easily in tune with Vallabhbhai Patel, that great and wonderful man, whose forbidding features concealed a kindly heart and a ready wit.
The advent of the Second World War and the quick defeat of France brought about a complete change in India's political prospects and in my attitude towards the British. It was clear to me from the start that a victory of Nazi Germany would not only extinguish freedom and democracy in Europe, and perhaps in most of the western world, but also delay for many years, if not decades, India's liberation from foreign rule. In this change of attitude I felt no disloyalty towards the national freedom movement. I believed, on the contrary, that India's war effort, which I strongly supported, would accelerate the defeat of the Axis powers and therefore the advent of our own Independence.
My confidence in ultimate victory was strengthened when a steam power plant, ordered by one of the Tata companies from Sweden before the War, was delivered in 1941 at a time when the Germans, having attacked Russia, were at the gates of Moscow. To my astonishment and relief, the plant travelled from Archangel in the north to Baku in the south, through the whole of Western Russia, actually passing through the railyards of besieged Moscow literally within a few miles of the German army. The power plant duly arrived in India, well ahead of a replacement plant we had ordered from America. The important point of this episode was, of course, the proof it gave that the Russians could hardly be as helpless under the Nazi onslaught as they were reported to be, if they could afford to keep their rail system open to commercial traffic in the very theater of War.
As the War pursued its tragic course and approached its now inevitable denouement, my thoughts turned increasingly to the post-War economic scene. With rare exceptions, Indian politicians of those days, just as those of today, showed little understanding of, or interest in, economics, except for Gandhiji and Jawaharlal Nehru. The latter was mentally committed to a Soviet pattern of development, which I instinctively rejected, while Gandhiji's grassroot industrial philosophy, appealing as it otherwise was, seemed to me incapable of building the industrial infrastructure essential to the growth and prosperity of even a predominantly rural economy.
Be that as it may, it was clear to me that after the initial years of freedom, when political problems were likely to dominate the scene, the country's prime and most urgent need would be that of economic development in general and rapid industrialisation in particular. It was therefore time, I thought, for Indian businessmen to apply their minds, well in advance, to India's post-Independence needs and to the major role I hoped they would be called upon or allowed to play in the great national tasks ahead.
That is how, in 1944, I invited four leading business friends to join three of my colleagues in Tatas and myself in devising a post-War plan of economic development for India. Our report, which was written by Dr. John Matthai and published in 1944, caused a considerable stir as well as some doubts about the sanity of its authors, for, based on what we considered the minimum requirements in food, clothing, housing and other necessities, the Bombay Plan, as it became known, set itself the target of doubling in fifteen years the per capita income of the country by trebling its Gross National Product at an estimated expenditure of Rs. 10,000 crores, at pre-War prices, which represented four times India's then GNP. In fact, by the time the Government of India's First Five Year Plan was launched in 1951-52, the fall in the value of the rupee had already escalated the figure to 43,000 crores, and it would be no less than 220,000 crores in the rupees of today!
Alas, thirty-seven years after we wrote our Plan and thirty years after planned development started in India, our people's per capita income has only risen by 50% as against the 100% sought to be achieved in fifteen years under the Bombay Plan.
The reasons for so dismal a record of economic performance were of course many, but the main ones were not far to seek. One of them was the magnitude and complexity of the problems and tasks that faced a new and inexperienced Government, grappling with such major problems as those of the aftermath of the War, the tragedy of Partition, the integration into India of the Princely States, the framing and adoption of a monumental Constitution, not to speak of droughts, floods and other calamities. These initial tasks and difficulties were tackled with great competence, authority and dedication by our first Government, but history cannot absolve them and their successors of the responsibility for the failure to achieve in subsequent decades a significant improvement in the living standards of our people, surely the principal object of any development plan.
They first failed to perceive the paramount need to curb the rate of our population growth, about which I was perhaps the first to sound the alarm in a public speech I made in 1951 – as far back as thirty years ago.
Not only was what I said ignored, but I was smartly rapped over the knuckles in the highest quarters, on the ground that the larger the population, the greater the strength of our nation!
Even when realisation of the magnitude of the threat dawned in Delhi, family planning measures and the resources allocated to them were pitifully inadequate and still are. As a result, the monstrous growth of our population in the past thirty years has deprived our people of much of the benefits of such economic growth as we have achieved.
Excessive population growth, however, was not the only cause of our inadequate progress. Next, I submit, admittedly with hindsight came the grievous mistake, continued for many years, of neglecting rural India where lay the greatest poverty and the greatest opportunities for rapid increase in employment and living standards. Instead, excessive priority was given to heavy industry.
Because of a misguided belief, since thoroughly disproved elsewhere, that a welfare state could only be built on state capitalism, the main tasks of industrial development were assigned to a public sector, which had virtually to be created from scratch, and manned mainly by civil administrators lacking industrial experience.
Public sector enterprises were subjected, as they still are today, to such tight ministerial and bureaucratic control and frequent changes of top personnel as to stifle all initiative and kill efficiency. Burdened with such handicaps, the public sector failed to meet the targets assigned to it in regard to the country's basic infrastructural requirements of power, transport and coal, leading to widespread power cuts, loss of production and criminally wasteful absurdities such as the transport of millions of tonnes of coal by truck, from which we suffer today.
It is only fair to recognise here that despite strong ideological pressures, our successive Governments adhered to the concept of a mixed economy and allowed private enterprise to exist and play some part in the country's economic development. Unfortunately, and for the same ideological reasons mentioned earlier, the growth of the private sector, the resources and managerial experience of which could have made a massive contribution to the country's economic growth, was seriously restricted, its operations hamstrung, and its effectiveness crippled by a formidable and all-embracing system of licences and controls wrapped in miles of red tape.
Need we be surprised, therefore, that countries devastated by war such as Germany and Japan, and many newly developing countries following sensible and result-oriented economic policies, consistently achieved much higher rates of GNP growth, some for many years as high as 10% per annum, compared with the 3.5%, equivalent to only 1.4% per capita, which we achieved in the past thirty years and which has resulted in leaving nearly half of our people below the poverty line?
Thus, to my sorrow, as we come to the end of our journey through the past fifty years, the India of my dreams and that of thousands, remains but a dream. While the time has gone when I could personally look forward to witnessing, and perhaps participating in, great new tasks and adventures, millions of our young men and women are today at the same stage of their lives and careers as I was fifty years ago, and many of them must be dreaming or worrying about the future as I did at their age. What is the life which they and their children can look forward to in the next fifty years?
Sir Shri Ram, Sir Purshotamdas Thakurdas, Mr. G.D. Birla, Mr. Kasturbhai Lalbhai and from Tatas,Sir Ardeshir Dalai, Mr. A.D. Shroff and Dr. John Matthai.
See 'Population' in 'A Strategy for Survival', page 155
See 'India 2030 A.D.' in The Emerging Society', page 167.