Seventy-five years ago, on January 17, 1944 and on December 17, 1944, two slim volumes with far reaching consequences for India were published. They were A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan for Economic Development of India Part I and A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan for Economic Development of India, Distribution-Role of the State Part II. The first was authored by Sir Purushottamdas Thakurdas, J.R.D. Tata, G.D. Birla, Sir Ardeshir Dalal, Sir Shri Ram, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, A.D. Shroff and John Mathai and the second was authored by the same group, except for Sir Ardeshir Dalal, since in the interim he had been inducted into the Viceroy’s executive council in charge of planning.
The plan by India’s leading businessmen came to be known as the ‘Bombay Plan’, perhaps because it was discussed, drafted and finalised in Bombay, as a matter of fact in the Bombay House, the headquarters of Tata Group. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Bombay Plan, also called Tata-Birla plan by the media, guided the course of post war and post-colonial economy of India from 1947 to 1991.
There is no better testimonial to the impact of Tata-Birla plan than the words of former prime minister Manmohan Singh who, while addressing the ASSOCHAM in 2004, said, “As a student of economics in the 1950s and later as a practitioner in government, I was greatly impressed by the Bombay Plan of 1944. When we read it today, nearly 60 years later, we see how relevant many of the central propositions of the Bombay Plan remain. In those days, it was an unprecedented document. It is worthy of emphasis that nowhere in the developing world had a group of businessmen come together to draw up such a long-term plan for a country. The Bombay Plan laid great emphasis on public investment in social and economic infrastructure in rural and urban areas. It emphasised the importance of agrarian reform and agricultural research, in setting up educational institutions and a modern financial system. Above all, it defined the framework for India’s transition from agrarian feudalism to industrial capitalism, but capitalism that is humane, that invests in the welfare and skills of the working people. In many ways, it encapsulated what all subsequent Plans have tried to achieve.”
Everyone is currently familiar with the big bang reset in India’s economy from consolidation and protected growth to globalisation of markets and capital that started in 1991. The stirrings for a reset had started a decade earlier. It is, however, striking that unlike the captains of industry who articulated the Bombay Plan, the business leaders of the ’90s and even the first decade of the 21st century failed to articulate their vision for India in the midst of challenges and opportunities of globalisation. Perhaps they were too busy improving efficiencies, expanding capacities and acquiring assets abroad. In fact, the only document which comes close to a vision document for that period did not come from business leaders but by an economist who had served the Indian state in various capacities for decades: Manmohan Singh’s budget speech of 1991. And that was it.
Bridgital Nation by N. Chandrasekharan, who is currently chairman of Tata Sons and Roopa Purushothaman, chief economist at Tata Group, is an attempt to provide a vision to guide India in the coming decades of what they call the fourth industrial revolution, propelled by artificial intelligence and other technological developments. It is slim, about 260 pages plus notes, well annotated and captivatingly written, thereby making it reader-friendly.
They skilfully sketch with colour and brevity the complexities in the real world of healthcare, education and skilling, unemployment and under-employment, formal and informal economies, problems faced by women in the workforce, entrepreneurship etc. The authors draw stories, data and lessons from their own rich experience in services as well as the institutional reach and memory of Tata Group that encompasses nearly a hundred enterprises that cover many sectors of the formal economy.
On top of that they have access to over a century of experience in the vast philanthropy of Tata Trusts and of individual Tata Group companies among literally all sections of society in all corners of India. Among adivasis, rural communities, remote hill regions, in the heartland and periphery of the subcontinent, in areas of education, adult literacy, healthcare, self-help groups and so on. From there they draw rich human interest stories which act as parables for their theses. The authors are able to weave the stories in the grey matter of ideas, data and graphics. That’s a stylistic achievement.
At the outset they explain the new word they have coined, ‘bridgital’: a new approach that views AI and automation as a human aid, not a replacement for human intervention. If we do this, automation in India will look nothing like it does anywhere else.
There is a visible split in the nature of the Indian economy—a high-skill, high-productivity sector that produces goods and services for wealthy, tech-savvy, and urban consumers alongside external markets, and a low-cost, low-productivity sector that is mostly geared towards the poor. India is missing a ‘middle’—the midway jobs, the mid-skilled workers.
India’s approach to automation has to be distinct from China, the US and Japan; it has to focus on technologies that augment and raise people’s skills.
India does not resemble the traditional story analysts tell about economic progress. Economic growth does not reflect job growth. While India is abundant in unskilled and inexpensive labour, GDP growth has instead been powered by industries that prize skill and capital—scarce resources unavailable to a vast swathe of the country.
India’s challenges are urgent. It is easy to be trapped in crisis mode, fighting fires as they spring up. To evolve, though, the country has to anticipate and actively design the future it wants.
The changes that took place in the early ’90s seem to have run their course in three decades since, just as the Bombay Plan (1944) had run its course by the 1980s. In order to face the challenges of today’s geo-politics, geo-economics and the explosion in technology, there is a need for the articulation of another vision document with practical policy guidelines drafted by India’s best economic, scientific, technological brains along with business leaders in manufacturing, trade, agriculture, finance, capital markets and services.
In the absence of such a vision, we have today in the corridors of power an atmosphere of bluster and hubris on the one hand and groping around in the dark on the other. It can at best be described as a tactical approach to the challenges rather than strategic.
Chandrasekharan and Purushothaman have ventured to contribute towards such a new Tata-Birla plan through their book Bridgital Nation. Hopefully, it will attract other business and thought leaders to put aside some time and put in intense efforts to articulate a new vision—a Tata- Birla Plan 2.0.
(Shivanand Kanavi is former VP, TCS and currently adjunct faculty, NIAS, Bangalore)