Nehru’s Word: On five-year plans, caste and cows

"What do we plan for? We have to take as our base not only the economic conditions prevailing in the country, but the social characteristics of our society. The two are linked together"

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

Jawaharlal Nehru, along with Subhash Bose, set up in 1938 the National Planning Committee to begin formulating a vision for development for independent India. Indian industrialists came out with their own plan, popularly called the Bombay Plan, in 1944–45. After Independence, the Planning Commission was established and five-year plans were put in place, beginning 1951. In Nehru’s letter to the chief ministers dated 30 September 1953, we get an insight into his thought on planning for India’s future.


"Planning under a democratic system may be defined as the technical coordination by disinterested experts of consumption, production, investment, trade and income distribution in accordance with social objectives set by bodies representative of the nation.

Such planning is not only to be considered from the point of view of economics and the raising of the standard of living, but must include cultural and spiritual values and the human side of life.

Planning has now become inevitable and even the ardent exponents of private enterprise in the United States of America have been compelled to accept planning, more especially in under-developed countries. But the question still remains: what kind of planning and what are the ultimate objectives to be aimed at?

It is admitted now (that) private enterprises even in the so-called capitalist countries become more and more hedged in by state enterprise, and even that private enterprise is controlled and powerfully affected by state action. The 19th-century idea of private enterprise has faded away completely, and there has been a dramatic shift in Western countries towards governmental control.

If planning is inevitable, what do we plan for? What kind of picture of society do we have in view? There is much argument and a great deal of passion spent in discussing these problems.

Some people, notably in the USA, want to divide the world into Communist and non-Communist world[s]. That is a simplification which has little justification either in politics or economics. There are many gradations between the two. Apart from a few countries, the general approach of socialism is accepted. We have what is called communist socialism or social democracy. But, on the whole, the final picture of both is not very different, though the approach and the methods employed certainly differ.

In India, most progressive groups, and certainly the Congress, have talked of socialism in more or less precise terms for the last 30 years or more. We have thought of it more in terms of social democracy, keeping in view the special characteristics and outlook of India.

The Congress drew into its fold various groups with differing economic ideologies. But the dominant approach and objective was that of social democracy. There is no essential difference in this respect between the Congress and the Socialist Party in India, except that the Socialists tend to be rigid and doctrinaire. They called themselves some kind of Marxists, although they are bitterly opposed to communists.

Does that ideal of social democracy hold still for us or are we drifting away from it? If people generally in India feel one way and our administrative apparatus aims in some different direction, then there is friction between the two and no major cooperative effort is likely to succeed. It is true that a government has to function responsibly and cannot live in an atmosphere of slogans. But it has to keep in intimate touch with the mass of people in a democratic state. It has to keep its ears to the ground and its feet on the ground.


To come back to planning, what do we plan for? We have to take as our base not only the economic conditions prevailing in the country, but the social characteristics of our society. The two are linked together. We have to think of striking a proper balance between material advance and other possible goals. What is our scale or standard of values? It is difficult to say and they are likely to vary among different groups. Certainly, economics comes in. But presumably, there are other factors also.

We talk about priorities. There are the obvious priorities between industry and agriculture, between consumption and investment, between investment in public works and other productive activities, between investment in human beings and investment in material capital, and so on.

We may consider this question in another way. How much importance should we attach and what priority should we give to fundamental science and applied science, both of basic importance to the world today? How much to education, how much to health? What risks should we take, or should we avoid risks and consider security as essential? We talk of production, but the pattern of production will have to fit in with the pattern of consumption of the community.

A multitude of such problems arise which are certainly economic, but which are closely interlinked with social factors. Ultimately, any kind of progress, including economic progress, depends on the desire of the people for that progress and the social structure in which they live. Is that structure—political, social, economic, legal, etc.—favourable to such progress or does it impede it?

The great era of material progress in Europe and America came when the old belief, encouraged by religion, in a predetermined fate, gave place to a belief in man’s power to control his environment and to change it. This was the spread of the modern scientific outlook.

Such a background helps change and progress. If, on the other hand, a people believe in fate, in predetermination, in the effect of the stars on our activities, in astrology and the like, obviously the urge to progress and change is not there. The atmosphere is not favourable to it.

I am not, for the moment, interested in decrying the virtues, such as there might be, of astrology. I am merely saying that this mental approach is not conducive to creating an atmosphere which vitalises human beings and brings about change. Take again our general caste outlook or cow protection. All these may have some virtues, but they are uncertain factors.

Caste petrifies society, prevents the mobility of labour and the change of occupations. Cow protection, oddly enough, leads to the lack of protection of the cow. In India, cattle protection and the improvement of breeds of cattle are of great importance. But progress can only be made if we approach this scientifically and constructively and not in some negative and narrow-minded spirit.”

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of history at JNU and former director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.)

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