India has an opportunity to fully redeem the pledge

Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi  

A little more than 70 years ago, on January 22, 1947, speaking before the Constituent Assembly in the closing debate on “The Resolution of Aims and Objects”, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “The first task of this Assembly is to free India through a new Constitution, to feed the starving people, and to clothe the naked masses, and to give every Indian the fullest opportunity to develop himself according to his capacity.”

For Nehru, the whole purpose of government in independent India was to liberate the minds and bodies of ordinary Indians by purposeful acts of economic and social transformation. This particular statement of his seems remarkable in hindsight, anticipating as it seems to have done the later arguments of Amartya Sen, for whom development is understood as meaning the expansion of the real freedoms of people to lead lives that they have reason to value. It should be about increasing their capabilities to lead such lives, rather than about expanding the supply of commodities — or giving them the opportunity, in other words, “to develop themselves according to their capacities”.

Of course, Dr. Sen does not deny the importance of economic growth, but he argues it should be in the service of “development” in the more fundamental sense that he explains in a way that corresponds very well, as I have argued, with the vision that Nehru expressed in 1947. In practice, however, the Nehruvian state became committed above all to the goal of realising economic growth. It could not really have been otherwise, in a newly independent nation that had to overcome its historic “backwardness”, and to become modern. The very legitimacy of the new state was bound up with economic development, which required rapid industrialisation. And industrial growth was pursued, with considerable success — the later criticisms of liberal economists notwithstanding — by means, in line with the orthodox thinking of the time, of state-directed planning, and in a framework of import-substituting industrialisation.

Thanks in particular to the Second Five Year Plan, India succeeded in transforming its industrial base in a remarkably short period of time. Unlike other countries, in Latin America especially, that also pursued policies of import-substituting industrialisation, India succeeded in developing the capacity to make the machines on which other industries depend.

The Indian state made quite a good job, therefore, of tackling the supply side of economic growth in the first 15 or so years following Independence. But there must also be demand for the outputs of the production of goods and services, and it was in regard to the demand side of economic development that the Nehruvian state fell down. In large part, this was a reflection of the failure of the state to tackle the problem of raising the productivity of agriculture, on which the vast mass of the population depended. The need for agrarian reform, for the redistribution of land and the reorganisation of agricultural production was recognised well before Independence was achieved, in a series of papers and reports produced by Congress committees, but the political means for realising it were absent, given the entrenchment of larger landholders and rich peasants within the ruling party.

The agricultural economy lagged behind, meaning that the mass of the people, living and working in the countryside, remained poor, so limiting demand for non-agricultural goods and services. Meanwhile, with long-term effects that have profoundly affected the realisation of the vision of development that Nehru expounded in 1947, Indian industry was set on a capital-intensive path. Labour moved out of agriculture only slowly, and then mostly into small-scale enterprises in the unorganised sector, in which the conditions of employment were (and still are) often harsh, involving long hours and exposure to all manner of hazards for health and well-being. Far from realising “the fullest opportunities” for Indians to develop themselves according to their capacities, the pattern of economic growth on which the country became embarked actually limited those possibilities.

Egregious failure

Perhaps the most egregious failure of the Nehruvian state, however, was that such little progress was made towards achieving the objective stated in the Directive Principles of Part IV of the Constitution, of realising universal basic education by 1960. In practice, the Nehruvian state, and its successors, rather than investing in the education and the health of Indian citizens, and pursuing policies that would make for productive employment for most of them — all necessary conditions for development according to Nehru’s vision of it — have offered welfare programmes that have been pretty much tantamount to charity.

In the light of subsequent thinking, it is remarkable that such a classic study of India’s early five year plans, as A.H. Hanson’s The Process of Planning, published in 1966, should have made no reference to the problems of poverty in India. The presumption was, in these early plans, that increased national wealth would “trickle down”. But then the Preface to the Fourth Plan, signed by Indira Gandhi, spoke of a “fight against poverty” and also argued that “the overriding inspiration must be a burning sense of social justice”. Such sentiments have reappeared, though not always expressed with quite such force as in that of “a burning sense of social justice”, in subsequent Plan documents, until in the most recent of them — the Eleventh and Twelfth Five-Year Plans — the language has shifted to that of “more inclusive growth”. There is a sense in which this more anodyne phrasing than that of social justice is at least honest, because the focus of government action has always been on the absolute priority of growth — and never more so than in recent years when there has been such a fixation on outpacing China. That India has at last done so, if it is not the achievement only of the technical changes that have been made to the way in which the measurements are made, is due in significant part, given the importance of high-value services in recent growth, to the happy coincidence of the ready availability of new (IT) technologies and of India’s having the skilled manpower necessary to take advantage of them (lightly paraphrasing from work by the economists Ashok Kotwal, Bharat Ramaswami and Wilima Wadhwa). These assets would not have been realised without liberalising economic reforms.

The new framing of India’s economic policies, however, following the reforms of 1991, has done nothing to change the pattern of India’s economic development in a more employment generative direction. The most successful sectors of the economy have done little to generate productive employment for the large numbers of young people entering the labour force, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has clearly recognised. The promise of creating better employment opportunities for the youthful population — supposed to give India a “demographic dividend” — played an important part in bringing him to power. And shortly after he took up office in 2014, Mr. Modi initiated his “Make in India” campaign. As he has said, “We launched the ‘Make in India’ campaign to create employment and self-employment opportunities for our youth … we want the share of manufacturing in our GDP to go up to 25 per cent in the near future.” Which would, it is projected, create 100 million new jobs. The question of whether or not these objectives can be attained is probably now the crucial issue confronting Indian economic development.

Mr. Modi has made much of the so-called “Gujarat model” of development, referring to the success of economic growth in his home State during the period in which he was Chief Minister there. But this does not augur well for the country, given that Gujarat’s growth has not been employment intensive. At the same time, the State has lagged behind other States that have a less impressive record in regard to growth, when it comes to education and health. In line with the Gujarat experience, the Modi government at the Centre since 2014 has further limited India’s public expenditure on these vital areas of human development, in spite of the increased resources made available to it, through taxation, as a result of high levels of growth.

Prime Minister Modi exercises an authority that no other leader, Indira Gandhi included, has held since Jawaharlal Nehru in the early 1950s. The model of economic development that his government pursues, as well as its manner of operation and style of governance, could hardly be more different than those of Nehru. Yet both these leaders, whose periods of rule stand respectively at the beginning and the most recent years of Indian Independence, have failed to achieve the vision of development that the first of them set out in 1947. Indians are, unquestionably, much better fed and are better clothed than they were 70 years ago, but relatively few of them, still, have the fullest opportunity to develop themselves according to their capacities.

John Harriss is Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University,

Vancouver, Canada

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 4:50:45 AM |

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