Visvesvaraya oversaw projects like KRS Dam, the Mysore Iron and Steel Works, among others. But his aversion to politics proved his greatest asset and his eventual undoing, writes Arun Mohan Sukumar.

Skilled engineer and planner why M Visvesvarayas ideas bit the dust post-Independence
news Book Excerpt Thursday, December 12, 2019 - 15:00

Long before Jawaharlal Nehru conjured up visions of ‘temples’ for modern India, Visvesvaraya had already built one. As the chief engineer of Mysore, he conceived and supervised the construction of the Krishna Raja Sagara Dam on the Cauvery, India’s largest river valley project at the time. The project was by no means a cakewalk: the dam’s construction required the approval of the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishna Raja Wadiyar, his diwan, Ananda Rao, and officials of the British empire, including Lord Hardinge, the viceroy, and his resident in Mysore, Sir Hugh Daly. Above all, it had to secure the cooperation of the Madras Presidency, which had only a few years before objected to similar plans for a reservoir by Capt. Nicholas Dawes, Visvesvaraya’s predecessor. The whole enterprise was politically fraught and financially overwhelming: at one point Visvesvaraya threatened to quit if the Maharaja did not approve the dam, as well as other pending projects. The king relented. What made this skilled engineer a powerful technocrat, and why did his ideas bite the dust in independent India?

Visvesvaraya’s aversion to politics proved his greatest asset, but it was also responsible for his eventual undoing. He was fortunate to have lived and worked in one of the richest and best-administered kingdoms in colonial India, which gave him considerable resources and the political patronage needed to pursue grand projects—the KRS Dam, the Mysore Iron and Steel Works, Mysore University, the Bank of Mysore, etc. As the diwan of Mysore between 1912 and 1918, Visvesvaraya maintained excellent relations with officials of the Raj, and indeed, was loyal to the empire throughout its existence. He stood in solidarity, as many freedom fighters did, with the Allied cause during the First World War. But if Mohandas Gandhi supported the war to strengthen India’s claim for selfrule, Visvesvaraya did it out of a sense of genuine sympathy and devotion to the British crown. The war had ratcheted up the cost of importing machinery to Mysore, and disrupted industrial supply chains: Visvesvaraya was rooting for a British victory because he saw India’s economic future tied to it. He hoped Mysore’s own contributions—the kingdom sent an Imperial Service Regiment to the battlefield—would also persuade the colonial administration to see the Maharaja’s developmental schemes in a kinder light.

‘Swaraj’, to Visvesvaraya, was a more robust form of provincial autonomy that would help him marshal financial resources better for Mysore’s industrial growth. But this strategy of rapprochement with British officialdom was not always successful. When Visvesvaraya tried later to bring Chrysler Corporation to the kingdom to set up an automobile factory, the Government of India objected and killed the project, fearful of competition from American business.

Beyond immediate considerations, what prompted Visvesvaraya, a public administrator attuned better than most to the plight of ordinary Indians, to take a rosy view of colonial rule? To begin with, he believed the rapid industrialization—and through it, the social upliftment—of India would only be possible if the developed world shared its technologies with it. Visvesvaraya foresaw a future in which Europeans and Indians intermingled socially and commercially, and knowledge was freely shared between the West and East. He harboured none of the romantic notions that Nehru and Gandhi associated with rural life—‘depth of squalor and degradation’, he called it—and believed India’s future lay in its cities. Visvesvaraya looked to the iconic cities of the West, and spoke of their towering skyscrapers with the same admiration he reserved for the great temples atop hillocks around Mysore and Hampi. While others saw colonial rule as a shackle on India’s freedom, he saw it as a leg up: India’s gateway to Western-style modernity.

The first foreign country Visvesvaraya visited was Meiji Japan, and he came to nurse a lifelong admiration for its model of development. What impressed him was not just the growth of Japan’s economy within a short span of time, but also the homogenous effects of industrialization. The Japanese seemed to be advancing together as a nation, and the benefits of technological innovation and improved education were accessible to all. The Meiji example confirmed Visvesvaraya’s belief that training, coupled with technical knowledge and access to machinery, would be sufficient to modernize India. A quintessentially technocratic view, this also aligned with Visvesvaraya’s indifference towards politics—he had an almost pathological hatred of socialism and communism, thinking these ideologies to be nothing but attempts at misleading a disaffected population (to be sure, he was no votary of free markets either.

Visvesvaraya pitched for greater state investment in large-scale industries and public goods like health and education, and support for local entrepreneurs capable of delivering ‘last-mile’, consumer goods better than the government. This view increasingly reflects the bipartisan economic consensus of post-1991 India).

His belief in the ‘equalizing’ effect of technology and technical education led Visvesvaraya to some progressive positions. He backed the education of girls and women, but only because he felt their economic contribution could not be unlocked if they were illiterate. That the efficient division of labour was his primary concern is evidenced by Visvesvaraya’s batting for separate curricula—‘training in the modern methods of housekeeping’—for girls’ education. He viewed marriages between ‘allied castes’ as an economic solution to dowry demands. A ‘wider choice of suitable partners’ could address the scarcity of supply among eligible brides of the same caste. Naturally, he also criticized extravagant spending at weddings, deeming them wasteful expenditure. Visvesvaraya dismissed caste based taboos around overseas travel: for the nation to progress, its citizens had to be trained abroad in the most advanced universities and factories. This was a man who sincerely believed the individual to be the fundamental unit of economic activity, and a cog in the machine-driven economy. Therefore, it should surprise no one that he was a relentless advocate for longer working hours. Slackness was a problem with Indians, he said, and the solution was less holidays.

Visvesvaraya’s equation of man with machine—as a system that could be improved with use and scientific knowledge—made him blind to social cleavages. It led him to break ranks with Madan Mohan Malaviya on the issue of denominational universities. While Visvesvaraya saw religion as a ‘moral and disciplining force’ much like Malaviya, and commended institutions such as the Benaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University for their public service, he was sceptical of their ability to modernize society. ‘The attempt to develop religious sentiment through the University, I fear, would end in failure,’ he said. The emphasis of Eastern religions on karma and kismet, he worried, would lead to a nation of fatalists, disinclined to base their future on economic considerations.

But such a view also prompted Visvesvaraya to oppose affirmative action at a time many of his compatriots needed special measures for their economic and social upliftment. ‘[The] government should recognize only one caste in dispensing official favours, namely, a caste comprising all the efficient and honest men in the service as opposed to those lacking in these qualities,’ he once told a gathering of engineers. Visvesvaraya’s resignation from the post of diwan was itself prompted by the Maharaja’s proposal to introduce what he perceived as anti-Brahmin measures in the public sector. In the backdrop of agitations led by the Justice Party and others in Madras, the Maharaja had constituted a committee chaired by Leslie Miller, the chief justice of Mysore. The Miller Committee was asked to ‘investigate and report on the question as to what steps should be taken to encourage the members of the important communities other than the Brahmin Community to seek employment under the Government in larger numbers’. To Visvesvaraya, the whole exercise seemed like an attempt to hold back ‘a section of the population, which by its special enterprise, was going forward’, and hence resigned in protest.

Visvesvaraya misread the democratic aspirations of fellow citizens as agitations or mere disturbances against the established order. Whether this reflected his paternalistic attitude or a deeprooted mistrust of the political class, one cannot tell. When the Vokkaliga Sangha, a sectarian body, once petitioned him to increase representation in the Mysore Legislative Council, and permit debate on the annual budget, Visvesvaraya hesitated. He could not tolerate a parliamentary gathering where a not inconsiderable number of elected representatives would be poorly educated or altogether illiterate. The prospect of working with officials in Mysore who did not ‘earn’ their job through education or expertise was the last straw.

In choosing to resign from public office—he sat on a few committees of enquiry subsequently, but those were mostly in an advisory capacity—Visvesvaraya’s technocratic skills and economic vision thus became prisoners of his own beliefs. Independent India could have greatly benefited from his experience as a public administrator, just as it set out to pursue grand, nation-building projects. Before this data-savvy technocrat, the great P.C. Mahalanobis was but a number-cruncher. Visvesvaraya was the original planner: the Mysore Economic Conference that he organized and made an annual fixture charted out public investment for the province in such meticulous detail that it would have made a World Bank official go red in the ears. He perfected the leap from academic R&D to industrial production at-scale in a way that Shanti Bhatnagar could have only dreamt of. When the war limited the export of sandalwood from Mysore, Visvesvaraya turned to the Indian Institute of Science to extract its oil and set up a soap factory that created hundreds of jobs, an array of spin-off products, and a unique, high-value brand. Today, Mysore Sandalwood Soaps rake in more than 500 crores annually.

Repelled by the dominant political sensibilities that girded the freedom movement, Visvesvaraya refused to bring his experience to bear on the developmental trajectory of independent India. He ceded the chairmanship of the National Planning Committee to Nehru, and sensing the direction of the NPC, stopped attending meetings after its second session. Could Visvesvaraya have provided the necessary correctives to Gandhian views on technology (both men shared a cordial and respectful relationship)? Although the erstwhile diwan was no mass leader like the Mahatma, he could have, health permitting, been a technocrat-at-large for the new Prime Minister, supervising national projects. But Nehru allowed democratic politics to colour his view of technology and the model of technological advancement for India, and Visvesvaraya would have none of it.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology of India’ by Arun Mohan Sukumar, published by Penguin Random House India

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