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The LSE and India


Who was this man from the LSE whose work had an unambiguously positive impact on independent India?

VISUALLY speaking, the London School of Economics and Political Science is in marked contrast to the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Those other places have their dreaming spires, their ivy-clad cloisters, their gentle, meandering rivers. In both Oxford and Cambridge, gown dominates the town. The LSE, on the other hand, has an inconspicuous physical presence, being housed in some ugly modern buildings in the centre of a huge city. One could spend weeks in London and yet hardly know it existed. Yet the LSE has had a colossal influence on the intellectual history of the modern world. Indeed, if we emphasise the qualifier "modern", perhaps its influence has even exceeded that of Oxford and Cambridge.

Consider thus the making of the modern welfare state, in which the LSE played a crucial role. The School was founded at the beginning of the 20th Century by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. As an offshoot of the Labour Party, it had a reformist orientation from the start, emphasising the obligations of the State towards the disadvantaged. In the period between the two World Wars this message was carried by, among others, Harold Laski, who was both a Professor of Politics at the LSE and Chairman of the Labour Party. After Labour came to power in 1945 it adopted the "Beveridge Report", drafted by a former Director of the LSE. This advocated widespread State intervention in industry as well as in education and health, recommendations implemented at once by the new Labour Government.

The LSE's connection with State socialism is well known. Less well known, at least in India, is that for many years the School was also home to three of the greatest opponents of socialism. One was a home-grown Englishman, the conservative political theorist Michael Oakeshott. The other two were exiles from Eastern Europe, the economist Frederick Hayek and the philosopher Karl Popper. Both men had experienced at first-hand the horrors of totalitarian rule, which made them lifelong opponents of the nanny state. It was at the LSE that Hayek wrote his classic The Road to Serfdom, and it was also at the LSE that Popper wrote his two-volume magnum opus, The Open Society and its Enemies. Both works argued that the search for liberty and freedom would require us to rely less on government and more on private enterprise.

Another East European émigré at the LSE was the brilliant Polish polymath Bronislaw Malinowski, the founder of modern anthropology. Before Malinowski, anthropologists relied either on secondary sources or on paid informants for their data. It was the Pole who made the method of "participant observation" fundamental to anthropological research. His students were made to go out and live with the native, and learn to think and act with him too.

The men who founded the Indian state were impressed more by British socialists than by European libertarians. Thus, as Ivor Jennings once remarked, "the ghosts of Sidney and Beatrice Webb stalk through the pages of the text" of the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution. As it happens, the Chief of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, had once been a student of the London School of Economics. The LSE did indeed have a deep impact on the policies and politics of independent India. I forget who it is was who said, speaking of the 1950s, that "in every meeting of the Indian Cabinet there is a chair reserved for the ghost of Professor Harold Laski".

Without question, India's two most influential Prime Ministers have been Jawarharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. One graduated from Cambridge; the other studied in, but failed to graduate from, Oxford. However, the policies of Nehru and Mrs. Gandhi were profoundly shaped by ideas first articulated by the kind of progressive British intellectual once identified with the LSE. Notably, both father and daughter relied heavily on advisers who had studied at the School; V.K. Krishna Menon in the one case, P.N. Haskar and B.K. Nehru in the other.

Did the political economy of the Webb-Laski kind have, on the whole, a beneficial impact on India? Or should we have, from the first, followed the alternate Hayek-Popper model of economic development? These are open questions, to be answered by time or by those more qualified than myself. But I do wish now to bring to the reader's attention a man from the LSE whose work had an unambiguously positive impact on independent India. This is a Sardar Tarlok Singh, who studied economics at the LSE before joining the Indian Civil Service in the 1930s. He then developed a keen interest in rural development, and in 1945 published Poverty and Social Change, a book advocating an "economic reorganisation of rural society" on cooperative lines.

After Partition, Tarlok Singh was appointed Director-General of Rehabilitation in the Punjab. If the transfer of populations had been "the greatest mass migration" in history, now commenced "the biggest land resettlement operation in the world". As against approximately 2.7 million hectares abandoned by Hindus and Sikhs in West Punjab, there were only 1.9 million hectares left behind by Muslims in East Punjab. The short-fall was made more acute by the fact that the areas in the west of the province had richer soils, and were more abundantly irrigated.

Tarlok Singh now used his academic training to good effect, making two innovations that proved critical in the successful settlement of the refugees. These were the ideas of the "Standard Acre" and the "Graded Cut". A "standard acre" was defined as that amount of land which could yield 10 to 11 maunds of rice. In the dry, unirrigated districts of the east, four physical acres comprised one "standard" acre; whereas in the lush Canal Colonies of the west, a real acre of land more-or-less equalled its standard counterpart.

The concept of the standard acre was necessary to overcome the massive variations in soil, climate and water across the province. The idea of the "graded cut", meanwhile, helped overcome the massive discrepancy between the land left behind by the refugees and the land now available to them — a gap that was close to a million acres. For the first 10 acres of any claim, a cut of 25 per cent was implemented — thus one got only 7.5 acres instead of 10. For higher claims the cuts were steeper: 30 per cent between 10 to 30 acres, and on upwards, till those having in excess of 500 acres were taxed at the rate of 95 per cent. The biggest loser was a lady named Vidyawati, who had inherited her husband's estate of 11,500 acres, spread across 35 villages of the Gujranwala and Sialkot districts. In compensation for this, she was allotted a mere 835 acres in a single village of Karnal.

By November 1949, Tarlok Singh and his men had made 2,50,000 allotments of land. These refugees were then distributed equitably across the districts of East Punjab. Wherever possible, neighbours and families had been resettled together, although the recreation of entire village communities proved unfeasible.

With characteristic ingenuity and enterprise, the refugees set to work, digging new wells, building new houses, planting their crops. By 1950, a depopulated countryside was alive once more.

Tarlok Singh, who is now over 90 lives a quiet life in New Delhi, still reading, still thinking. His work and example deserve to be better known. For he is both a distringuished alumnus of the London School of Economics and a real hero of modern India.

Ramachandra Guha is a historian and

writer based in Bangalore.


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