- kewal sethi
how to make india great again - a book review
Updated: Nov 23, 2022
how to make india great again
a book review
this is a book written by meeta rajivlochan and rajivlochan. i am not sure if this is a summary of the book, or a review or a commentary. it is sprinkled with my own ideas. whatever this article is, it is based on the interesting book which has been written by meeta rajivlochan and her husband rajivlochan with lot of painstaking research. it merits a reading.
(how to make india great again
meeta rajivlochan and rajivlochan
manohar publishers, new delhi
the book is sub titled "learning from our history")
a commendable job is done by describing some of the doings of the businessmen in india in the sixteenth century when the european countries came here for setting up trade companies in india.
the main point highlighted is the difference in attitude of the businessmen in india and the foreign traders. the indians believed more in words of the partners. they seldom put their agreements in writing. when there was a dispute, oral evidence was led since the documents were scarce.
they were successful businessmen but since there was no written instructions for the posterity, the entire thing depended on the ability of the successor to manage things on the basis of what he learnt on the job. in the absence of documentation, long term policy goals were not formulated and passed on to next generation. thus, jagat seth (original name manick chand). (literally banker of the world). based in bengal, had good relationship with the local subedar mushid quli khan. as the central authority weakened, he was called nawab of bengal, the richest province of the empire. together they stopped the leakage of the revenue. the zamindars were required to pay the revenue on time. some lands were resumed from the zamindars and allocated to peasants who were also helped with loans. jagat seth had the funds transferred from bengal to delhi (share of the emperor) by bills of exchange. physical movement of cash was avoided.
jagat seth also gave loans to zamindars and charged interest on them. he was also in charge of minting money for the government. the trouble for jagat seth started when the east india company got orders to mint their own money. in 1717 they got the orders when an english doctor managed to cure the emperor of a disease. jagat seth, however, saw to it that the orders did not interfere with his business. only a small amount of minting by the company took place. jagat seth was dealing with british east india company also but on his own terms.
manik chand was succeeded by his nephew fateh chand who continued the same policy. meanwhile mushid quli khan was succeeded by ali vardi khan who continued the same policy of collaboration with jagat seth. both fateh chand and ali vardi khan died within months of each other. their successors were mehtab rai and siraj ud daula, respectively. mehtab rai decided to actively collude with english while siraj ud daula, incensed with reduction in revenue due to manipulation by the company, entered the english fort which prompted english to conspire against him which led to battle of plassey. the rest is history.
what is to be underlined in the narrative above is absence of long-term policy on the part of both the traders and the government.
some features stand out. the government would not help the traders to grow. it did not provide security which is a prime requirement for successful trade. moghul empire was very strong but it did not have a regular police to maintain law and order. occasional raids against mischief mongers were their policy but no consistent effort to provide security.
the traders had a roaring trading with other countries but the empire did not have even a semblance of naval forces. sea piracy was the order of the day during the mughal times. even before the europeans came, there were instances of piracy by arabs and others but the europeans made a habit and profession of it. it was the easiest way to riches. aurangzeb was fed up with this aspect but, instead of creating a naval force to deal with it, the subedar of multan was asked to contact sultan of muscat, who had a naval force, to protect indian ships. when the portuguese became active, and set up trading centre in surat, they had their own naval force. they were allowed to issue safe transit passes, for a consideration, for protection of ships, much against the opinion of the local traders. the bribes seemed to have played their part in securing these orders. this, once again underlines the absence of state protection for the business. the indian businessmen provided security for themselves on land but even there, they did not collaborate with each other to have a proper protection system. in fact, having a security system in the absence of government support is very difficult.
the portuguese in surat and thereabout and the european citizens generally were very conscious about security. they built forts for their protection. they had the naval forces to support their ships and, at the same time, harass other traders. even the moghul emperors were forced to pay the portuguese for protection since they had no naval force at their command. the mughals, only interested in revenue, never considered the importance of these forts. they assumed that these were only for protection against robbers and thieves and not against government.
another feature. there was no central agency to mint the coins. the task was allocated to private persons, they had a sample of what is to be marked on the coins (which was uniform for all) but the person minting the coins could put his special mark also to distinguish his coins. anyone could give bullion to the minter and, for a fees, get his coins. the british east india company also secured such a licence to mint their own currency. the court officers were against it but, it is suspected, bribes secured the order as also curing the emperor of a disease by an english doctor did the trick.
the moghul emperors were only interested in revenue and lived for that. long term administration was not for them. the senior officers and even the queens indulged in business to make quick money. the laws were just the whims of the rulers. they were seldom codified. as with the trade agreements, the exact procedure to be adopted in trials, both civil and criminal, were seldom written down, and, if written, seldom followed scrupulously. in contrast, english set up their own courts. with written agreements, they provided for adjudication in these courts. the indian traders, long accustomed to honest dealings and the pressure of peers to resolve disputes, did not take these agreements seriously. but when proceeded against in these european courts, they did not even have the option to appeal to the government of the day which was indifferent to their lot.
the basic point is that the governments never thought in terms of protecting and promoting traders and business men not realising that increased trade would mean more revenue. they were satisfied with whatever was coming in and, given the plentiful nature of the agricultural and other products, it was more than enough for their luxurious way of life. they were mostly busy in palace intrigues which appears to be an attractive way to have excitement in life.
what about the artisans. the skills were passed on from generation to generation, and were seldom codified, and still more seldom shared with others outside the caste or the tribe, and even with other artisans of own tribe or caste. the ruling view was that it is an easy life and they were content with it. increased productivity might reduce the earnings was the view which inhibited innovation. it was felt that any increase in production would only lower the prices as the production was already adequate for the market. and hence innovations were discouraged. the book describes a case from parmakudi in tamilnadu where a weaver ramneswaram invented a loom in which three weavers could work simultaneously. the neighbours thought that it would produce too much cloth and market being limited would reduce the share of everyone. one night they raided his house and destroyed the loom. on the other hand, some innovators kept their method secret out of fear that someone will copy and reduce their share of the market.
india made the best steel in the world for which the demand existed from iran to england. it was known as wootz steel, excellent for making swords. it was strong yet flexible. today the formula has been lost because it was never committed to written word.
another aspect was that of knowledge being kept away from the general public. from aryabhatt to bhaskaracahrya, there were numerous mathematicians who flourished in ancient india. the knowledge was used to build temples and vedis of complex shapes and designs. the knowledge of geometry is revealed in many shapes the altars took. an altar in the shape of falcon was discovered in purola in uttarakhand in which five types of bricks of precise dimensions in five different layers are used. it would have required close coordination between brickmakers, masons, the carpenters, and others. such examples are numerous but only a limited number had access to the knowledge.
the knowledge was in sutras like shulbh sutra of apastamba and katayayana. baudhyana had sutras regarding doubling the area of the square, of the square of hypotenuse being sum of the squares of sides of the right-angled triangle (presently identified with phythagorus theorem). but the sutras are so brief that it is difficult to figure out for a common person to understand what is being said. furthermore, how the result is arrived at is not described. the knowledge remained exclusive and was, in due course, lost or became obscure.
that said the financial aspect was quite strong in its own way. india was one of the few societies which allowed the existence of interest on loans. it was called dharma vriddhi. kautaliya in his arth shastra has given the exact amount of interest to be charged. for a common debt, the rate is prescribed at one and a quarter percent per month. for commercial loans in is one percent per month. interest on stocks is to be limited to half the profit on the stocks and so on. the arithmetic of ancient india came in handy for such calculations. the problem probably was that indians thought more about practical problems than about abstract ideas. they did not go beyond the application for the root formulae. learning for its own sake was not the ruling passion of the day. though this did not apply to astronomy. the planets have been studied in depth and vast knowledge about them is found even in popular literature like puranas.
in agriculture, the land tiller ratio was comfortable. sometimes the land was left fallow because remaining land was enough to have a comfortable life. famines were, however, an occasional problem but otherwise it was happy go lucky life.
one of the problems was about record keeping. the collectors of revenue were not paid by the state. they retained part of revenue collected from the farmers and the traders as their wages. there were other taxes like custom duty on import, transit duties on internal trade, proceeds of government goods like salt and opium. as there was no central control, records were often obfuscated. where jagirs had been given, the same procedure was followed by the jagirdar (may be a prince or high placed official) merely passing duty of collection of dues to subordinates. so long as money kept coming in, no one was concerned with steps for maintaining or how much the subordinates retained or increasing the revenue except when money was needed for the frequently occurring battles.
in short, the indians were a satisfied lot. there was prosperity around and there was little incentive for the ruler to be cruel, intrusive, and oppressive. the people from other lands were welcome as they only added to prosperity by utilising the available land and adding to various professional jobs. only the proselytization created problem but there was little time for it as the urge to acquire more territory and to murder the enemies was more important and little attention was paid to the countryside which continued to go on as before. the result was that right up to the advent of the greedy europeans, india had a sizeable portion of world's gdp. the europeans destroyed the autonomy of the rural areas also and deprived them of various facilities to grow. thus, the share of india to worlds gdp came down from upwards of 17 percent (some say 25 %) to 7 percent.
having described the circumstances which led to downfall of indian government and traders and the farmers, we pass on to the modern times. some tendencies have remained unchanged. the main thing which continues is that information is not kept systematically. that weakness has persisted. the distribution of knowledge and information is still restricted. the public sector is as opaque as the private sector. documentation was sparse in the past and it continues to be so. swami vivekananda once said, "i have fallen in love with one thing in america". asked who she was, he replied, it was "organization". india never cared for centralised organization. it had myriads of groupings, independent of each other. even indian national congress was never a policy driven organization. it depended only on charismatic presence of someone. since the influence could be felt in small areas so every state had its own hero, till gandhi appeared on the scene with his pan indian image.
consistent with the idea of poor organizational skill is the absence of systematic information about the existing ones. though there are myriads of laws calling for information from the industries, the access to the collected and collaborative information is difficult. the internet has not made much of a difference because the basic urge to share information is missing. with the poor organizational skill is associated the inertia to change. it has been remarked that india only wakes up when there is a crisis. the crisis of lack of adequate food grains led to the so-called green revolution; the crisis of foreign exchange led to jettisoning aside the idea of socialism, persisting since independence. living from crisis to crisis in the most inefficient way of going about life but that is how india continues.
the inertia to change is accompanied by some prejudices born out of the past. the farm sector was in bad shape and the tillers of the soil were exploited and forced to live from hand to mouth. things have changed, whether due to legislation or new technology, but the prejudice is still preventing the government from changing the attitude towards agriculture. it is considered almost a sin to ask them to contribute to the exchequer through direct taxes.
same goes for the atrocious ways of policing the state. the prosecution (and some would call it persecution) of political workers by the controlled magistracy led to swinging the pendulum to the other side with judiciary becoming totally uncontrolled and totally impervious to society. archaic judicial system inherited from the british continues to befog all the litigants who are at the mercy of the intermediaries. the public secrets act still befuddles the people even after a freedom of information act has been passed.
the record keeping in sine qua non of progress. take the health sector. there are headlines when people start to die of cholera or dysentery in bastar but ask about the graph of whether the fatalities are rising or falling over the years and you will have no data. how are the public health centres in various development blocks working, how many patients, how many casualties even at district level, it is a blank page. there is fluorosis in mandla and nearby districts. has it gone down or still the same is never investigated except when there is crisis.
in the past, the dealings were limited and the mutual trust existed. if money was transferred through jagat seth, it was sure to be delivered. documentation was just symbolic. with the modern banks dealing with lakhs of customers, the documentation is no longer an option. this is also true of many other sectors.
one of the prejudices is about the privacy. the seth, dressed in old clothes, would also be dealing in lakhs. it should not show since it would attract the jealousy of others, and more than that, the avarice of the ruler. so, everything would be done in a hush hush manner. government, or what passed for it, must not know. same attitude is still prevalent. when it comes to aadhaar card or know your customer by the banks, there is suspicion that such data will be misused. the hidden income remains hidden. the corner paan shop is known to be earning in thousands but camouflages as a just surviving identity. the digitisation of information is still not above suspicion. lethargy prevents updating of information. the emphasis is presenting the bright side rather than the factual, readable, understandable data.
in this category of lack of information fall the countless employees in the informal sector. they have no written agreement. no security of job, no provident fund to fall back on during the hard times and any effort to record their presence is frowned upon as affront on privacy.
lots of people complain about excessive forms to be filled up, excessive paper work when dealing with government, quite often suspicious of what will be done with information provided through various forms. they need not worry because the information is rarely systematised or even being seen of value.
in a routine manner, enquiry committees and commissions are set up to enquire into mishaps but rarely the conclusions studied to apply for remedies in similar situations. the emphasis is on fault finding rather the suggestions to avoid future occurrences of the unfortunate events.
another problem is letting schemes run for decades without evaluating whether they served the purpose for which they were started. there is much talk about systematising the system through performance budget, zero based budget, outcome budget but it does not make any difference because heart is not in them. the urge always is to appear doing something new. it dominates and, very often, the new one replaces the old without any purpose being achieved.
let us see the situation from another angle. things which are basic to life have to be provided or should be provided by the state. they are security - internal and external, maintenance of law and order, delivery of justice, and regulation of currency. rest of the facilities are also necessary but can be and should be provided by the people themselves. let us take the example of education. it is on record, that in 1820s when british went in for survey of education in odiya, malayalam, tamil and kannada speaking areas, they found 1,62,626 students in 11,575 schools and 1094 colleges, a big number for those days. these institutions were funded by the parents of the students. half of the students were from so called deprived sector. support by the government was not sought and was not available. compare with later developments where what educational authorities have done was to destroy the autonomy of the educational institutions, to impose uniformity, with loads of periodic reports. in the process the knowledge exchange process has been damaged. the connection with the needs of the market is disoriented. the private funding has evaporated and replaced by commercial education institutes with the only motive being expansion and profit.
the question arises what needs to be done. the simple answer, difficult to implement, is to make india a learning society. it must systemize the information, take conscious feedbacks, use these feedbacks for decision making. it is not merely of education that is meant, the philosophy must permeate the entire eco system. evidence should prevail over the intuition. the urge to build a culture of excellence, in all that a person does, should be ingrained from the beginning.
another ingredient of progress is curiosity, the urge to know more about an event, a process, a technique. this requires self-reflexivity, resilience to adapt to changing circumstances and constantly to re-invent ourselves.
some of the solutions which flow from the above, and from the book, can be summarized as follows --
a. the property records must be kept updated and be transparent. transfer of property should be without hassles. satellite mapping, along with ground proofing will help.
b. research orientation both in educational institutions and industry as well as agriculture and allied subjects is a must.
c. market intelligence should be collected and be available freely through trade fairs and other means.
d. programme evaluation and the need to jettison programmes no longer needed or useful.
e. the excessive reservations about privacy should not hinder information collection and distribution.
f. so called scientific temper should be expanded to include the spirit of enquiry in all matter, temporal or spiritual, ethical conduct and adherence to norms.
g. education should be reoriented to place more emphasis on ability to learn than learning itself.
h. education need not be free, or heavily subsidized. instead, liberal loans and scholarships should be provided so that students have a stake in education rather than a passing interest.
i. it follows that educational institutions be autonomous and encouraged to be in contact with industry.
j. in industry, the different approach to formal and informal sectors should be replaced by a systematic approach to industry with social security to all employees.
k. a functional legal system where the emphasis in on delivering justice and not merely complying with requirement to restrain oneself to regulations and procedures.
but the basic point is we must believe that we can excel. no sloganeering but एक भारत श्रेष्ठ भारत will do.