An ode to the Planning Commission

Planning was a vision, a part of the nationalist movement and its history goes back to a many stranded dream of linking knowledge and power to serve society

August 26, 2014 12:28 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:25 pm IST

The old aphorism “old soldiers never die, they just fade away” might also be a story of the fate of most institutions. However, it was not true of the Planning Commission, which was terminated brusquely. This Independence day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hardly gave it a few lines. One of the most hallowed institutions of the Nehruvian era was dismissed from history as an anachronism. There was no goodbye, no obituary, no sense of nostalgia. A great institution died as less than a footnote. As a wag noticed, “People get rid of their old cars with a greater sense of loss.” Such a dismissal makes a spectator reflective.

Planning was a vision, a part of the nationalist movement and its history goes back to a many stranded dream of linking knowledge and power to serve society. Three names in particular get invoked when we think of planning as an idea. The first is the physicist Meghnad Saha, the second, the engineer M. Visvesvaraya and the third, the eccentric Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes. Each idea, each career demands a storyteller as each one of these founders was a remarkable intellectual.

Russian model Meghnad Saha was an ionospheric physicist, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and who had been nominated for the Nobel. Saha carried the dreams of physics into society and always dreamt of a society based on the scientific method. For Saha, the scientist, the Gandhian way was anathema and he condemned it as a “society based on the loin cloth and the bullock cart.” Saha was also contemptuous of Congressmen who he felt had no conception of industrialisation. Saha’s model was Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution where Lenin and his scientists had created a new relation between science and power through the Russian Academy of Sciences. His exemplar was G.M. Krzhizhanovsky, a scientist who conceptualised civilisation in terms of levels of energy. It was thanks to Krzhizhanovsky that Lenin could coin the slogan “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” It was a great dream of energy, scientific and romantic. Today, the Russian Revolution sounds distant and discredited. But in the 1930s, Russia was literally utopia; the Stalinist destruction of Russia had yet to be fully enacted.

“By the 1990s, planning was no longer a major social gestalt. It was now a technocratic, bureaucratic body, centred around fragmentary debates. The legend had shrunk but its power to determine life chances remained.”

Science and the future In 1938, Meghnad Saha went out in search of his Lenin. His brother’s friend, Subhash Bose had just been elected President of the Indian National Congress. Saha felt it was an optimal time to end the Gandhian epidemic and asked Bose what he intended to do. Bose asked him what he wanted and Saha proposed the establishment of the National Planning Committee. The Congress meeting was held in Delhi in 1938. Saha attended it a day late and in the meanwhile, Visvesvaraya had been elected head of the Planning Committee. Meghnad Saha approached the great engineer and requested him to step down. He argued that planning needed a reciprocity between science and politics. Visvesvaraya generously agreed and Jawaharlal Nehru was made head of the National Planning Committee. Nehru’s legendary speech, that the future belonged to science and that “dams and laboratories are the temples of modern India,” was only a watered-down variant of the Leninist dreams of energy.

Saha’s utopia of planning met its variant in Visvesvaraya. Visvesvaraya was a legend, a part of the folklore of Karnataka, a great engineer known for his immaculate dress sense and honesty. For Visvesvaraya, character-building, dam-building and nation-building were equivalent activities. The emphasis was on planning and discipline, an emphasis which extended to his private life. Visvesvaraya was immaculate in differentiating between the public and the private. Legend has it that he always carried two fountain pens, one for official use and the other for personal use. When one reads his memoirs, one feels it reads like a policy document. The eccentric and the innovative combined brilliantly in this life. Visvesvaraya’s ideas of planning also included the first ideas of car manufacture. He was closer to business and this stream of ideas culminates in the Bombay Plan, a business model of planning.

Role of the region The third idea of planning stemmed not from the centrality of the nation but from an emphasis on the critical role of the region. Patrick Geddes combined ecology and locality, to emphasise that the region was the ideal unit of planning. Geddes’ idea of geotechnics eventually culminated in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a great dream of regional planning which revived a stagnant America. Geddes also developed the idea of educational and urban planning in India. He wrote town plans and was involved in the planning of Tagore’s Shantiniketan. In fact, there is a fascinating fragment in one of the Tagore-Geddes letters where Geddes emphasises the need for planning and Tagore responds by admitting that he builds a school in the same way he writes a novel, a germ of an idea that spontaneously grows into an essay or school. The debates of science in the nationalist movement are fascinating. The least we owe the history of the idea of planning is a book which captures these ideas. Planning today summons controversy. It earlier summoned the storyteller to tell tales of the dreams of science in India. To condemn it to silence would be to insult history.

The Nehruvian years of planning had a halo of the power and resonance of knowledge. The second Five-Year Plan became legendary in its emphasis on heavy industrialisation. But, by then, the ironies begin. Meghnad Saha, defying the powerful B.C. Roy, stands as an independent to go to Parliament to challenge Nehru’s “betrayal” of the idea of planning. He was the only scientist to have ever been elected directly to Parliament. Saha died of a heart attack, in 1956, a few hundred yards from the institution he created.

The later history of planning has many other legendary movements. One thinks of the great consultants to the Planning Commission like Nicholas Georgesceau-Roegen, E.F. Schumacher and the Polish economist Kalecki. One also thinks of J.C. Kumarappa, the Gandhian. The story has it that Kumarappa wanted to attend a Planning Commission meeting in a horse-driven Tanga and was detained by security, which did not quite believe that Planning Commission members travelled in Tangas . It needed a phone call from Jawaharlal Nehru to clear the impasse.

I remember my first encounter with a Planning Commission member. It was at the Delhi School of Economics in the 1970s. As a student, one would watch Prof. Sukhamoy Chakravarty waddle into the department, trailed by a load of books, absorbed in the latest issue of EPW . He would walk on, oblivious of everyone while immersed in the magazine. He seemed to be the ideal intellectual, a voracious reader, soaked in knowledge, serving society. The Emergency years were to end the halo of planning. In fact, in many ways, the Emergency was a crisis of planning where family planning and urban planning acquired an almost pathological edge.

Challenges The Emergency created a whole gamut of question marks around economics and planning, questioning the democratic pretensions of both. A whole spate of social movements challenged the logic of planning, chronicling the devastation called development. Simultaneously, the other social sciences began questioning the scientific pretensions of economics and also the scientism of science. Ecology added to planning a reflectiveness it had not dreamed of. By the 1990s, planning was no longer a major social gestalt. It was now a technocratic, bureaucratic body, centred around fragmentary debates. The legend had shrunk but its power to determine life chances remained.

By the time the results of Mr. Modi’s victory were declared, the future of the Planning Commission was in doubt. There was a sense that planning was impervious to the needs of the new federalism. In his Independence Day speech, Mr. Modi dismissed and dispensed with the institution without a footnote of thanks. There was a sadness to his rank indifference. But politics cannot dismiss history. Planning was once a great idea, a wonderful fable of the dreams, even the arrogance of knowledge. It was a great experiment which became erratic, but its history, its genius, its innovations need to be told and told fully. This much even the critics of planning owe this great institution.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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