Resources

M. Visvesvaraya "continues to be a source of inspiration", Jairam Ramesh

Prime Minister Nehru with administrator-statesman M. Visvesvaraya at Bangalore in 1959.

Text of the M. Visvesvaraya Memorial Lecture, Federation of Karnataka Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FKCCI), Bengaluru, September 15, 2019, delivered by Jairam Ramesh, MP

I

I am privileged to deliver this annual lecture that honours a legendary personality, a veritable phenomenon for all ages. Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya’s achievements both as an engineer and as an administrator were nothing short of awesome. He made enduring contributions to the development of not only the princely state of Mysore but of many other regions of the sub-continent as well, including Karachi and Hyderabad in what became Pakistan. His reputation continued to grow astronomically even after he laid down office as Diwan of Mysore in December 1918. He wrote two books---Reconstructing India in 1920 and A Planned Economy for India fourteen years later that had a profound impact on the leaders of our freedom movement. In April 1928, a pamphlet was issued by the United Provinces Charkha Sangh in Hindi called  ‘The Poverty of India and its Cure’ and a reference was made in it to Visvesvaraya’s 1920 book. The author of the pamphlet was Jawaharlal Nehru. In September 1938 the Indian National Congress set up a fifteen-member National Planning Committee under the chairmanship of Nehru and with Visvesvaraya as one of the prominent members. The committee included distinguished economists, scientists and businessmen. Its twenty-seven reports were to provide much of the foundation for the work of the Planning Commission that was constituted in March 1950. Indeed, a large part of the First Five Year Plan period with its heavy focus on multi-purpose irrigation and power projects was derived from these reports.

Actually, Subhas Chandra Bose as Congress President had originally wanted Visvesvaraya as the Chairman of the National Planning Committee. The noted astrophysicist Meghnad Saha convinced both of them that it would be better if Nehru were to be the Chairman since it would give the committee’s work the greatest possible weight and influence. Both Bose and Visvesvaraya readily and gladly agreed.  Saha himself was a member of the committee which was dogged by many problems, not the least of which was that Gandhi was not particularly enthused by it. A year after it was constituted, a frustrated Visvesvaraya resigned from the committee’s membership. On December 26, 1939 Nehru wrote to him explaining why the committee was making slow progress and ended by saying:

I would regret greatly if you cease to be a member of the N.P.C. [National Planning Committee], specially when the time is coming soon when your experience and advice will be especially valuable. I trust therefore that you will not insist on resigning at this stage.

Visvesvarya did not press his resignation.

Two years later Visvesvaraya founded the All India Manufacturers Organisation. On April 14, 1947, four months before India became independent, Nehru addressed its seventh annual session in New Delhi. In his very informative book that was published in 1973, Visvesvaraya’s biographer V.S. Narayana Rao has this account of what happened on that occasion:

Sir M.V. as President strongly and unsparingly criticized the industrial policy of the Indian Government. Nehru’s face turned visibly red with anger and the atmosphere in the conference hall became very tense. Pandit Nehru rebutted the charges in equally strong words. This did not prevent Sir M.V. from interrupting the Prime Minister while he was speaking which made the atmosphere more tense. During one of these interruptions Sir M.V. referred to the Prime Minister by name as Motilal Nehru. When the Prime Minister pointed out the mistake, Sir M.V. replied: I belong to the generation of your father, and I know him so well that his name comes more easily to me. You were then a very young man, a boy. The Prime Minister being unable to refute the claim laughed heartily over this remark, the entire audience joining, The tenseness melted away in laughter. 

It is a wonderful story that has become part of the very rich Visvesvaraya mythology but there was no report of it having happened in any of the newspapers the next day. Would any of them have missed it? Most unlikely but what we do know is that at the meeting Visvesvaraya had raised questions on nationalization and Nehru had reacted to it by saying:

The President Sir M.  Visvesvaraya, has said that the public is anxious to know what the Government’s policy is in regard to nationalization. No doubt an overwhelming majority of the people passionately desire nationalization—may be without knowing it or analyzing it. Why do they want it?  So when one talks of “public” one should beware of what public one refers to…. The general viewpoint expressed at the conference is that the Government must help industries in every way by way of tariffs and finance and other means. At the same time, the Government must keep away and not interfere but just provide the sinews of industry. It is not a logical position to take up…...

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru presenting an album of commemorative stamps to M. Visvesvariya, to mark the Engineer-Statesman's 100th birthday in Bangalore on September 15, 1960.

But this sharp exchange chronicled by Narayana Rao did nothing to diminish Nehru’s respect for Visvesvaraya. In fact, five years later, the Prime Minister wanted him to once and for all settle the vexed issue of a bridge over the Ganga to connect the northern and southern parts of Bihar which had been talked about since 1907. On January 7, 1952, N. Gopalaswamy Ayyangar the Minister of Transport and Railways wrote to Visvesvaraya conveying the Prime Minister’s desire. Sixteen days later Visvesvaraya responded saying that he had reason to suspect that the Government of India was hostile towards schemes he had been suggesting and that he wanted to be excused from this assignment. Ayyangar must have consulted Nehru and reassured Visvesvaraya on January 28 1952 that his suspicions were groundless. Thereafter, Visvesvaraya went about the work with his customary meticulousness and thanks entirely to his efforts, construction work was started in September 1953 and Nehru was able to inaugurate the important road-cum-rail bridge at Mokameh in May 1959.


There is little doubt that Visvesvaraya was someone extraordinarily special to Nehru. History had linked them in quite another way in 1955. On August 15, 1954, after Nehru and the President Rajendra Prasad had confabulated, the trio of C. Rajagopalachari, S. Radhakrishnan and C.V. Raman became the first recipients of the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. On January 26 1955, the names of Bhagwan Das and Visvesvaraya had been announced for the Bharat Ratna after a similar consultation. Then, on July 15, 1955 speaking at a state banquet in Rashtrapati Bhawan, Rajendra Prasad surprised many by saying:

We have assembled this evening to express our joy at the same return of our Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru from a strenuous tour in different countries of Europe. ….We have followed with avidity and eagerness the news of the splendid welcome which has been extended to the Prime Minister by the Governments and peoples of the various countries he visited. …We are an ancient country but a very young Republic and it is a matter of gratification for us to know how its activities and policy for the establishment of peace are being appreciated and how they have raised our honour and prestige. ….I have been wondering how the people of  this country can express their gratitude to him in a concrete form so that all might see how the entire nation is behind him in this great endeavour….. I have felt that I can do no better than conferring the award of Bharat Ratna which is the highest award of honour that we have. In doing so, for once I may be said to be acting unconstitutionally as I am taking this step without any recommendation or advice from my Prime Minister….

Thus it was that the investiture ceremony when Nehru, Visvesvaraya and Bhagwan Das received the Bharat Ratna from Rajendra Prasad was held in Rashtrapati Bhawan on September 7, 1955. The next year on April 14, 1956 Nehru inaugurated the sixteenth annual conference of the All India Manufacturers Organisation, the second time he did so. Drawing reference to this Nehru observed:

I have come back to this organization after a number of years. I was attracted to it for a variety of reasons, among them being the dominating presence of Shri Visvesvaraya. I should like to pay tribute right at the commencement today to the grand old man of India. I am amazed and inspired by his vitality and by his deep interest even at this fairly advanced age of his, in the industrial and economic development of India. He writes to me from time to time and indicates his impatience at the slowness of progress and sometimes thinks that our Planning Commission would do much better if it followed his advice more closely than it has done. As a matter of fact, our Planning Commission has always paid the highest attention to what Shri Visvesvaraya has written….

Visvesvaraya had, at the instance of Gandhi, first made suggestions in 1937 for controlling floods in Orissa as it was then called. He visited Orissa a year later and submitted a detailed report for a dam in the upper reached of the Mahanadi. This was, however, to be taken up for execution in 1948 with Nehru being present to launch its construction. On January 13, 1957 he inaugurated the giant Hirakud Dam in Cuttack saying:

The state of Orissa is full of famous temples like that of Lord Jagannath in Puri and other temples in Bhubaneshwar and Konarak. In Orissa there has been a great tradition of building temples and worshipping in them. Now that tradition needs to be linked to the modern temples and a new form of worship, Places like Hirakud are the modern centres of pilgrimage for us. Many more will come up in Orissa and we should now concentrate our energies on worshipping productive labour in order to build dams and other such projects. All this is for the people or India. The biggest temple today is India. …The people of India are greater than the gods in the skies and we should serve them…..

Vivesvaraya reached his century mark on September 15, 1960. Just a week earlier, Nehru had lost his son-in-law. He had been invited to preside over the centenary celebrations in Bangalore as it was known then. There was some doubt whether he would attend given the personal tragedy that had taken place. But Nehru did not disappoint and at Lal Bagh that morning paid handsome tributes to the centurion saying:

You. Sir, have been in spite of your years always young in mind, young in outlook, and looking as young people should, to the future. You have not lost yourself in the past even though your feet may be firmly planted in the past inheritance of ours, you have always looked to the future and you have always built for that future and you have reminded us always of this modern world of science and industry and  technology, doing so not merely because science is to be seen everywhere but seeing it in relation and in the context of the  old standards and old values that we claim to possess in this country. And, so many of us, who may be thought much—who are in fact much less in years than you are—feel old when we look at your young self…..We in India have an unfortunate reputation for talking a great deal and not living up to what we say. You Sir, have been a great exception to that rule for you have thought, talked little, and done much. Let us learn from that also.

This was not all. Gandhi’s spiritual heir Vinoba Bhave had just then said that the days of politics and religion are over and the days of science and spirituality were beginning. Nehru drew attention to this and after extolling the virtues of science and the scientific method went on thus:

…The great power of science has to be tempered by something and that something is spirituality, which gives us to some extent a right measure, a right perspective and a right direction to look at. Therefore, the more one thinks of it the more one feels that this rather unusual remark of Vinobaji that the modern world should be governed by science and spirituality appears to be a deep and topical statement, not a vague ideal but an urgent need of the world today. You, Sir, in your life, have exemplified this, You have been devoted to science and its progeny and you have lived a life of integrity, ever adhering to high standards and exhibiting that spirituality that comes to a man of integrity….

At Lal Bagh, Nehru also did something unusual. He presented Vivesvaraya an album of commemorative stamps that had been issued in his honour. It was unusual because it was only the second time a living personality was so honoured—the first having been Maharishi D.K. Karve, the great social reformer in 1958 on his receiving the Bharat Ratna and also turning a hundred.

 

A short while after speaking at Lal Bagh, Nehru addressed a vast public gathering at Central College grounds and began by referring to the man he had just honoured.

I have come here today as you know to do honour to a great son of India, and when we meet great men or great women, something a little of the shadow of greatness falls upon us also. So it has been today, a rather special and inspiring day for me to come here to Bangalore City on this occasion. I hope you, who live here, have also felt this to some extent. I am not supposed to me very young now but looking at Dr. Visvesvaraya I felt very young indeed.

Nehru went on to hail Gandhi as a "typical Indian rooted in the soil of India, rooted in the thought of India but also flexible" and then added:

Take Dr. Visvesvaraya, again, a typical Indian. He is no copy of an Englishman or copy of an American; he is an Indian above all. Yet he has imbibed the modern scientific outlook and made a synthesis of the two…

Visvesvaraya passed away on April 12 1962. Three months later on July 14, 1962 Nehru was back in Bangalore to open the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum. He returned to the theme he had expounded on during the Visvesvaraya centenary celebrations:

..When the centenary took place of Dr. Visvesvaraya, I had referred to the joining together of science and spirituality, spirituality which is something deeper and broader, I take it, than mere religion…Without science you perish, without spirituality you perish also….We see in Dr Visvesvaraya a man of vision, a man of creative activity, a man looking ahead and a man who built around himself, and around others, a tradition of looking to science and technology, which was very, very necessary for India. Others were working to that end, but he was pre-eminent in it…

I want to digress a bit here. Before he came to Bangalore to inaugurate the Visvesvaraya Museum, Nehru wrote two letters to one of his colleagues which are very revealing. The first was dated June 21, 1962 and reads:

My dear Nijalingappa:
I see from the newspapers that you have been elected Leader of the party, and consequently you will become Chief Minister of Mysore. My congratulati0ns and good wishes. I had written to Kanthi [Nijalingappa’s predecessor] about my visiting Bangalore in the middle of July principally for the Visvesvaraya Museum. I had suggested one or two other engagements too, namely inauguration of the Mysore Pradesh Panchayat Raj Parishad and a visit to Tumkur for the opening ceremony of a Polytechnic Further, I had suggested that I might go to Nandi Hills for two or three days afterwards…

And on July 6, 1962 he wrote again to Nijalingappa who by then had become Chief Minister of  Mysore:

My dear Nijalingappa:
I have received a letter from someone in Bangalore informing me that the Bangalore Corporation has set aside Rs 5000 to give me a civic reception. I am rather distressed at this. I do not mind a civic reception being given to me by why spend Rs 5000 over it. I have repeatedly stated that I do not like silver or the like being presented to me. Please inform the Mayor of Bangalore of my views on this subject and request him to avoid any large sum of money being spent on my reception.

Those were clearly different times.

II

For the first decade of his Prime Ministership Nehru remained steadfastly and passionately committed to Visvesvaraya’s vision on large dams. This was the period which saw the launch of, in Nehru’s own evocative words, the temples of modern India--Bhakra Nangal, Hirakud, Nagarjunasagar, Damodar Valley Corporation, Rajasthan Canal, Tungabhadra, Rihand, Koyna, to name just a few. Then on November 17, 1958 he stunned the engineering community by some of his comments at the 29 annual general meeting of the Central Board of Irrigation and Power. He called upon engineers to think about  ‘the social and economic and human consequence’ of their projects. He drew attention to the gradual silting up of reservoirs and the increasing problem of water logging. But what has made this speech a landmark in India’s environmental history is something else he said:

….The progress during the last ten or eleven years has shown our great desire to increase Irrigation and Power in this country. Some our major river valley project have become famous not only in India but outside India also. They have become symbols of big things we want to do.
For some time past, however, I have been beginning to think that we are suffering from what we may call, "disease of gigantism". We want to show that we can build big dams and do big things. This is a dangerous outlook developing in India. I want our engineers to undertake big schemes in the country, but the idea of having big undertakings and doing big tasks for the sake of showing that we can do big things is not a good outlook at all.
I merely wish if I can, to replace the balance in our thinking which has shifted too much towards gigantic schemes. State Governments are constantly pressing our Government, our Planning Commission, for various schemes- all huge schemes — and they have a right to do so. But this is all the relic of gigantism to which we have fallen a prey. We have to realise that we can meet our problems much more rapidly and efficiently by taking up a large number of small schemes, especially when the time involved in a small scheme is much less and the results obtained are rapid. Further, in those small schemes you can get a good deal of what is called public co-operation and, therefore, there is much social value in associating people with such small schemes...

The engineers appears to have been stung for shortly thereafter there appeared a response in the Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development which argued that it was wrong to single out irrigation engineers as victims of the "disease of gigantism" when "all sections of the national elite… were equally affected by the virus". The journal claimed that this “craze for bigness” was not confined to India but afflicted the U.S. and the USSR as well1. One immediate impact of Nehru’s rethink was that for most of the 1960s and 1970s tubewell irrigation drove agricultural growth. Indeed some scholars have termed the Green Revolution a "tubewell capitalism".

On irrigation projects, Nehru was not entirely off the mark. Without meaning any disrespect to Visvesvaraya whatsoever, a project he had first suggested in 1952 and that was to be completed in 1975 has now become the subject of ecological controversy. This is the Farakka Barrage on the Ganga in West Bengal which the present Bihar Chief Minister has, for some time now, wanted decommissioned on the grounds that it has contributed heavily to periodic floods in Bihar and for the alarming silt increase in the river’s upstream thereby severely hampering its natural flow. There is also a growing view that the Farakka barrage is responsible for reducing flow, causing salinity ingression, and drying up of the Sundarbans delta in West Bengal.

Visvesvaraya and Nehru figure quite strikingly in a recent book called Unruly Waters authored by the noted Harvard historian Sunil Amrith. The book is a fascinating account of how mountain rivers and monsoons have shaped South Asian history. Amrith writes of Visvesvaraya as one ‘India’s heroes of India’s attempts to transform its waters’. Amrith’s main contention is that ‘water management never has been and can never be a purely technical or a scientific question’. That was indeed the realisation that had Nehru came to by 1958. Visvesvaraya lived and worked during a time when non-engineering issues like those related to ecological impacts of dams and other mega water management projects were not of paramount concern. But today they are. I really cannot say how Sir MV would have reacted to them but I am sure he would have relished a free and frank debate. After all, during his prime he had dared to differ publicly not just with Nehru but also with Gandhi particularly on the Mahatma’s views on khadi, modern science and technology and industrialization. Vivesvaraya, in fact, for all his profound respect for Gandhi refused his invitation to serve on the board of advisers of the All India Village Industries Association.

Visvesvaraya may well have applauded the grandiose plan for interlinking of rivers that is an engineer’s delight and that enjoys tremendous political support as well, particularly in the present dispensation in New Delhi. Actually such an interlinking is not a new idea. It was first proposed by Sir Arthur Cotton the man who transformed the Godavari delta and is still a revered figure there with even a museum devoted to him in Rajahmundry. Cotton envisaged such a link between the Himalayan and Peninsular rivers way back in the 1850s. In fact, he went to the extent of proposing a link between the Brahmaputra and the Yangzi in China. Cotton’s grandiose plan was forgotten but was to be revived by two engineers who were admirers of both Visvesvaraya and Nehru. Immediately following Independence, A.N. Khosla spoke about it. He was later to become a member of the Rajya Sabha and the Planning Commission. But the man who gave it a grander and more detailed shape in 1975 was K.L. Rao. Rao had earlier been inducted by Nehru as Minister of State for Irrigation and Power in 1963, a position he held independently for most of the time for the next decade.

On the face of it, interlinking of rivers appears an attractive idea. But we would do well to pause and reflect objectively on its ecological impacts. Rivers are natural and living eco-systems that have evolved over centuries.  And we now evidence that there has been appreciable decline in monsoon rainfall even in so-called “water surplus” river basins. Mihir Shah, one of India’s leading authorities on water issues put it well recently:

..The continuous flow of fresh river water into the sea . is what helps maintain a low salinity layer of water with low density in the upper layers of the Bay of Bengal. This is a reason for the maintenance of high sea-surface temperatures which create low-pressure areas and intensify monsoon activity. Rainfall over much of the sub-continent is controlled by this layer of low-salinity water. A disruption in this layer because of massive damming of rivers and the resultant reduction in freshwater flows into the sea could have serious long-term consequences for climate and rainfall in the subcontinent…

This is only one part of the cost. To this has to be added the inevitable submergence of lakhs of acres of land leading to massive displacement as well as loss of valuable biodiversity. The Ken-Betwa link, the first in the interlinking endeavour would lead to a destruction of prime areas of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh and that was one reason why I had red-flagged it a decade ago as Environment and Forests Minister. But now it seems all ready for a take-off.

III

Nehru and Visvesvaraya may well have agreed to disagree on gigantism. They also differed on socialism and the need for an extensive public sector. Visvesvaraya, an early admirer of Japan, had by the early 1930s come to believe that American-style capitalism was more suited for India, something Nehru and many others were not attracted by. It is, therefore, somewhat ironical that Visvesvaraya’s Bangalore attracted so much public sector investment in the Nehruvian era and thereafter as well. But there was good reason for that given the existence of the Indian Institute of Science the Court of which Visvesvaraya had been President till 1947 and other educational institutions and the presence of companies like Hindustan Aircraft started by Walchand Hirachand in 1941 with the active support and encouragement of Visvesvaraya. These public sector investments were crucial to the emergence of this city as the country’s pre-eminent hub for science and technology, fuelled over the last three decades by private entrepreneurship and enterprise. Indeed, it would not be too far-fetched to argue that the location of companies like HMT, ITI and BEL in Bangalore in the 1950s was to a large extent because of an ecosystem created by Visvesvaraya and also, not to forget, his successors as Diwan, most notably Sir Mirza Ismail a man almost forgotten today but a giant of those times with a national reputation. In fact, a significant number of engineers and managers for the first generation of public sector units other states like FCI in Sindri, and Hindustan Steel and HEC in Ranchi were products of this ecosystem. Companies like BHEL came to this city by first taking over enterprises started during princely rule.

But on the need to cultivate and propagate a scientific temper in society, to inculcate respect for and ensure adherence to the scientific method in youth Nehru and Visvesvaraya were one. For Visvesvaraya it was a passion, for Nehru an obsession. Both were rooted in our magnificent heritage but embraced modernity without any hypocrisy. Their views on the essentiality of heavy industry, machine-making, research and technology and technical manpower were identical. In many ways, it could well be argued that Nehru provided the far-sighted political leadership that put into practice the vision that Visvesvaraya had articulated in his books of 1920 and 1934. Visvesvaraya was eighty-seven when India became independent but had he been thirty years younger I have no doubt in my mind that Nehru would have found an exalted position for him in New Delhi, perhaps like that occupied by a former Diwan of Baroda V.T. Krishnamachari who was Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission during 1954-60 and thereafter became a Member of the Rajya Sabha. Whether Visvesvaraya, would have accepted is, of course, a different matter.

IV

Thirty years ago, the noted scholar Vinod Vyasulu wrote a short paper called ‘Nehru and the Visvesvaraya Legacy’.2 This morning, I have revisited that strand of influence on Nehru as a way of reminding ourselves of how influential Sir MV had been and how he continues to be a source of inspiration not only to engineers but to anyone in public life. He was a perfect model of intellectual integrity and financial probity, both values that are endangered today.  Today we recall this remarkable man as an annual ritual. How much our country would gain if we were to follow his example the other 364 days as well. As for Nehru, the architect of the modern Indian nation-state anchored in an open, liberal, representative democracy, secularism, a celebration of diversities amidst unity, scientific temper and planned economic development is under daily attack by forces out to denigrate and obliterate him. As an unabashed but not uncritical admirer of his, I must say that the very idea of India will die if we abandon the ideas of Nehru. Recognising his contributions and standing up for the causes he championed would be the best tribute we would be paying to Visvesvaraya himself.

Thank you.

Endnote:

1. I owe this information to Dr. Kapil Subramanian. The Journal was started in Kolkata in 1950 evidently inspired by no less a person than Meghnad Saha himself, one of the early advocates of the Damodat Valley Corporation. Return To text.

2. Economic and Political Weekly, July 29, 1989. Return to Text.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email The Hindu Centre