Recalling the impregnable land of great abundance and affluence?
By Dr JK Bajaj?
This January 26, the Independent Republic of India enters its 63 year. This is long enough time for a nation to come into her own, even for a nation that has suffered nearly eight centuries of subjugation, first under the Western and Central Asian Muslims and then under the European Christians. Republic Day is of course the time when the Indian State puts on display its great pomp and show on the streets of Delhi and in several state capitals; but, it is also the time to reflect on how far we have accomplished the task of rebuilding a great nation that was left broken by centuries of alien rule.
Six decades of Independent functioning have indeed given us confidence in our capacity and viability as a nation. Our diplomats, with their superior English language skills, have always felt that they are better than most in the world. In the last couple of decades, some sections of our entrepreneurial classes have also come to believe that they can match wits with the best in the world in trading and in certain kinds of services, though not in the primary economic activities of agriculture and manufacturing. We do not yet have the same kind of confidence in our capability to build a decent level of infrastructure within the country, though much progress is seen in this sector with the almost universal spread of mobile telephony, many cities acquiring gleaming new airports, Delhi acquiring its state of the art metro, and hectic road-building and real-estate development activities almost everywhere.
But we have had little success in ameliorating our social problems of widespread hunger and malnutrition, the lack of access to any kind of medical facilities for a vast majority of our people, and the poor state of our school education. Some corrective efforts in all three of these sectors are being attempted through new legal measures like the food security and the right to education acts, and through large-scale missions like the sarva-shiksha abhiyan, the national rural employment programme and the national health mission, etc. But, though large money has been spent in several of these missions, these are hardly designed to fundamentally alter the situation concerning food, health and education. That would require a massive increase of productive activity in the rural and semi-urban areas, which can happen only through much higher levels of growth in agriculture and in small-scale manufacturing. Just as we have had not much success in setting right the social sectors of our economy, we have not been successful in better securing our borders and projecting our military power such as to deter potential threats. Our military capabilities have of course grown considerably, and we have developed technological capabilities in some of the sectors critical to national defence. But, our defences are riddled with glaring technological lacunae. Our aeronautical engineering capabilities are hardly adequate for building any kind of indigenous military aircrafts. We are not in a position to build our own navy ships. We cannot build our own tanks and artillery without considerable foreign cooperation and inputs. We do not have the capability to design and manufacture technologically adequate small weaponry. And, most significantly, our nuclear capabilities are not yet sufficiently proven and established to deter likely misadventure by a desperate foe.
Not only we have serious lacunae in indigenous military technologies, we also seem to lack behind the world in the number of military men and officers. Number of men at arms per thousand of population in India is perhaps the least in the world. And, this relatively small army has even smaller number of officers. All arms of the Indian defence forces are experiencing serious shortage of officers because the military profession does not seem to appeal to the educated youth any more.
Such is the lack of our military muscle that till recently we desisted from building roads and infrastructure in some of our border areas for fear that an invading army may make use of these. There seem to be efforts afoot to make up for the lack of military strength by entering into strategic alliances and partnerships with other powers. But that path is always full of pitfalls.
This defensive approach sits uncomfortably on the shoulders of an ancient and forward looking nation like India. The Valmiki Ramayana, one of the foundational texts of the Indian nation, suggests that the military might of Ayodhya was such that no one could dare to engage in war within two yojanas of the borders of the city, while the dimensions of the city were no more than three yojanas. The city of Ayodhya in fact gets its name from the impossibility of making war anywhere within its far vicinity. Its impregnable defences extended up to two-thirds of its internal dimensions. But not only the city of Ayodhya, but the whole of Indian civilisational region was defended with equal tenacity. When faced with the threat of subversion of Indian civilisational principles, of dharma, Sri Ram chose to make war not within the boundaries of India, but several yojanas beyond, across the seas.
The might of Ayodhya, however, depended not only on its military strength and doctrine, but also on its internal economic and political arrangements. It is interesting to speculate on the kind of economy and polity that the classical Indian texts recommend, and to dream about an India developing in accordance with those recommendations.
Different people can probably read the texts differently, but the economic prosperity and military might of India that the classical Indian texts talk about is obviously anchored in agriculture. For classical India, varta, which is equivalent to what we call economy today, comprises krishi, goraksha, vanijyam (agriculture, animal-husbandry and trade). According to the Mahabharata, these three are the very life of the people. Of these, the first two are inter-related; agriculture and animal husbandry always go hand in hand. And trade, though it involved exchange of a variety of products nationally and internationally, yet was predominantly trade in the produce of agriculture and animal husbandry, and textiles.
Agriculture forms the backbone of Indian economy of the classical texts. It is not because, as it is often assumed, agriculture was the only productive activity mankind knew at that time. Given the predominant intellectual and military position that India of classical times enjoyed in the world, the Indians of that period could as well have chosen to build their greatness on worldwide warfare, which Greece and Rome did try, or on trading in the products of their extraordinary knowledge. But the classical India finds such dominance and trade abominable, adharmika. Classical Indian society was anchored in agriculture, not because it had no alternative, but because classical India considered agriculture and animal husbandry, the activity of carefully tending the land and the animals, as the basis of proper living, of dharma. And, perhaps also because geographically, India seems to be created as the land of agriculture. More than half of Indian land is cultivable, almost every part of India is nourished by some great perennial river or the other, and almost everywhere the Sun shines throughout the year.
It is possible to grow three crops in a year in every part of India. There are few other regions of the world that are so well endowed. And, geography does not change. Therefore, India, if it is to rise again as a great nation, shall have to anchor its economic development in agriculture. This would require a change in the national mood and perspective. Agriculture in Independent India has been looked upon as an activity of the past to be encouraged only to the extent that is essential to ensure that India does not become too dependent upon the world for food; now after the acceptance of globalisation as a virtue, that restraint about dependence on the world has also gone, and consequently India has suffered a considerable decline in the cultivated area over the last decade. If agriculture is to become the foundation of our prosperity then this view of agriculture shall have to be fundamentally revised, and our national priorities reordered so as to give agriculture the primary place in our economic thinking.
The developed India that is worth dreaming about is the India of great agricultural abundance. In India of these dreams, every available piece of land shall be brought under the plough, every drop of water shall be conserved and used, animals shall be valued and reared in large numbers, and all available resources and skills shall be deployed towards agricultural improvement. With agricultural abundance shall come an abundance of diverse activities associated with the processing, transport and trading of agricultural produce. Small towns shall flourish with flour grinding, rice making and dal making units, oil-expellers, cotton ginners and cleaners everywhere; there shall be an abundance of engineering activity to produce all the machines and implements required for such intense agriculture and for processing of the produce; there shall be enormous growth in trading to handle the abundant agricultural produce; and there shall be growth in trade and services of all kinds to cater to the rising demands of the prosperous cultivators.
Such agricultural abundance and the associated flourishing towns can even today be seen in several parts of the country with relatively better agriculture. They look like oases of prosperity in an otherwise bleak landscape; such oases often develop in pockets where irrigation, especially canal irrigation, has arrived. If only we could multiply such pockets of agricultural prosperity manifold and make the whole of rural and semi-urban India similarly prosperous, India shall rise out of the vicious cycle of poverty of large numbers into which it has been caught for the last several centuries.
The increased prosperity of the rural areas shall solve all the intractable problems of unemployment and malnutrition that plague such a large number of Indians today.
And with agricultural prosperity, industrial prosperity shall arrive on its own. Incidentally, the people connected with the land are also the people who take naturally to the task of defending the nation. With an increase in the number of prosperous peasants and cultivators, there shall be many more young people taking to the military profession.
It is not only our economy, but also our polity that needs to be reordered to conform to our classical ways. But that needs a separate discussion. However, we do need to get out of the situation where electoral politics has become the main subject of discussion in every town, village and hamlet of India. Two centuries ago, in 1820, an English officer, Major General Sir Alexander Walker, observing the agriculture of Malabar noted that, “In Malabar the knowledge of husbandry seems as ancient as their History. It is the favourite employment of the inhabitants. It is endeared to them by their mode of life, and the property which they possess in the soil. It is a theme for their writers; it is a subject on which they delight to converse, and with which all ranks profess to be acquainted.” In the villages and semi-urban India today, this productive obsession with agriculture has been replaced with an almost sterile obsession with electoral politics. People of India, as Buchanan noticed, have always had an opinion on all matters of public significance and they have always expressed their opinions openly in their assemblies and public places. The people of India are compulsively democratic; unfortunately, we have reduced the vast democratic space that they occupied to only electoral politics, to the ritual of voting once in a while.
Restoring the vastness of democratic space available to the people of India is perhaps as important a challenge facing India today as restoring the Indian obsession with agriculture. On this Republic Day, let us dream of an India where people, both in the villages and the cities, shall be once again obsessed with agriculture, and when Indian land shall once again be shasyashyamala, imbued with the dark hue of abundant crops, and Ayodhya, imbued with the power to keep the foes far beyond its vicinity.
(The writer is Director, Centre for Policy Studies)?