As we celebrate seventy years of freedom we remember a great visionary and his great epic. This is about a remarkable book that is now available free online in PDF format and a book that sold a million copies when it was published in 1938. It became part of school and college curriculum in pre-independence years. It is remarkable because Its author Minoo R. Masani had anticipated the problems that awaited the people as they face life as citizens of a free country. The author was one of those visionaries of his time who were engaged in planning for a free nation’s future. The entire text is written in Basic English and set in large type.
In 1942, I was fortunate to belong to the first batch of students to be fed on a diet of this inspiring patriotic epic Masani called Our India. He showed us how it is possible to build a Free India, free from foreign dependence, with resources available in the country, turning the terrain and climate to our advantage. He foresaw the role India would be called upon to play in the ordering and settling of the world’s affairs, a role that western nations have appropriated for themselves.
The book is full of illustrations that look like wood cuts. It is a classic in many ways, printed in large type. At that time, the country’s visionaries began turning their attention to planning for a Free India. M. Visweswaraih published the first draft of a plan in 1939 titled Planned Economy for India. A year earlier in 1938 as the president of the Congress Subhash Chandra Bose set up a national planning committee headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1944 eight industrialists of Bombay including J. R. D. Tata, G. D. Birla, A. D. Shroff, Ardeshir Dalal, and John Mathai prepared “A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India” which was popularly known as the Bombay Plan.
In August 1944, The British government in India set up a Planning and Development Department under the charge of Ardeshir Dalal. In October 1946, the Interim Government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru set up a planning advisory board. A People’s Plan drafted by M N Roy on behalf of the Indian Federation of Labour was published in 1950. A Sarvodaya Plan drafted by Jaya Prakash Narayan, combining Gandhian perspectives and Sarvodaya ideas of Vinoba Bhave, also came out around the same time.
In March 1950 today’s Planning Commission came in pursuance of declared objectives of the Government to promote a rapid rise in the standard of living of the people by efficient exploitation of the resources of the country, increasing production and offering opportunities to all for employment in the service of the community. The Commission was set up by a Resolution of the Government of India.
Masani wrote every word with a view to galvanize a young nation to action. The book fittingly opens with a reference to the axis of India’s strength, its population of 440 million at the time the book was written. Naturally, there was no mention of family planning. On the other hand Masani encourages us to take pride in our numbers. The entire book is driven by optimism and love of the country based on realities.
Masani was a barrister who gave up practice to join the freedom movement. He was twice imprisoned. He was one of the founders of the Congress Socialist Party along with such stalwarts as Jaya Prakash Narayan, Achyut Patwardhan, Ram Manohar Lohia, Asoka Mehta and Yousuf Mehrally. He was a member of the Constituent Assembly and also a member of its Fundamental Rights sub-committee. In later years Masani helped Rajaji start the Swatantra Party which in its early days made impressive electoral gains to become the main opposition party in Parliament.. He raised a controversy, campaigning for ethunasia. He was also bold enough to call for a demobilization of starved and useless cattle, ruffling Hindu sentiment.
Masani says India has everything -- the resources, for a country to develop and substantiates his theory by statistics. Only, we do not know what to do with them and how. Though his material and monetary statistics are of pre-independence vintage they are useful as points of comparison and for assessing performance. That the book was written years before independence explains why Sind and parts of Punjab and undivided Bengal figure frequently in it.
He is pained by the condition of the Indian peasant and lists the problems confronting him and offers simple solutions, as simple as home remedies. Masani tells the peasant how to manage his land to yield more through rotation of crops, how the dung he wastes as kitchen fuel can be used as manure, and thus increase the yield. He warns of the vagaries of monsoon and suggests tapping underground water by digging wells and tanks and how pumps, tractors and threshers can be collectively owned and how small chunks of land can be made viable by integration under a co-operative. He points to the role of government in lending money to the farmer pending harvest. Successive governments have done a lot to alleviate the condition of the farmer. Despite that, there are suicides.
Masani has never relented from his conviction that the Indian can achieve anything that others had. It is this belief in ourselves that helped us conquer space and harness the atom without foreign inputs. Its importance can be understood by the fact that India had to wait in line for launching its satellites from foreign launching pads, delaying the benefits to the country of valuable information gathered in space. Masani has highlighted the faultlines and also ways to negate them. For several reasons, Our India is a modest classic. Appropriately he writes the Finis by quoting Iqbal’s immortal melody Sare Jahan Se Achcha Hindostan hamara.