In the decade leading up to 1947, undivided India was ravaged by famines and food scarcity. Soon as India became independent, it was confronted with a food and milk crisis. The country had to import 55,000 tonnes of milk powder every year in the early 1950s, according to government records.

India was not yet one, its territorial integrity was being challenged, the 1948 war had complicated an already-fraught relationship with Pakistan, new state institutions had to be built, and so on. Through it all, food security could not be compromised. Self-sufficiency was, after all, a key agenda of independent India’s first leaders, and tied deeply to nationalism.

In a radio address to the nation in 1952, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared:

“We want to develop a balanced economy and, as far as possible, promote self-sufficiency…I shall mention a few of the targets we have laid down. The first one is that of food. We must become self-sufficient in food and not be dependent on other countries for our most essential requirements. The [Five Year] Plan will raise food production by nearly 8 million tonnes.”

The aim to make India self-sufficient soon extended to industry. By the mid-50s, rapid and large-scale industrialisation became the mantra; it would spur economic growth, thereby raising income levels and improving people’s quality of life. The policy was rooted in an idea Nehru had discussed in the planning committee of the Indian National Congress in the late 1930s: a planned economy with emphasis on public sector industry and policy interventions. This economic roadmap came to be called the Nehru-Mahalanobis model.

In 1951-52, when the first Five Year Plan was launched, India’s gross domestic product was Rs 2.8 lakh crore and the GDP growth rate was 2.33%. By the end of the Plan, the GDP was Rs 3.5 lakh crore and growth rate 5.6%, according to government data. By the end of the Third Five Year Plan in 1965-66, the GDP was Rs 4.8 lakh crore.

Notably, the GDP grew by 5% or more six times from 1951-’52 to 1964-’65, the data shows. In 1967-’68, it touched 8% for the first time. Although food shortage and scarcity, lengthy waiting periods for consumer goods such as telephone and cooking gas, stuttering industrial expansion continued, and a large population remained poor, India had been set forth on the path to economic growth.

Growing up

Compared to the first four decades of the 20th century, the turnaround in India’s economy in the 1950s was quite dramatic, said Pulapre Balakrishnan, a professor of economics at Ashoka University who has studied the Nehruvian era. There is no basis for any economist to discount the claim that the Indian economy’s foundation was set in that decade, Balakrishnan said. The only shortcoming was that sufficient investment was not made in elementary education, and in endowing people with capabilities. In a paper published in November 2014, Balakrishnan wrote:

“We have strong reason to believe that the mechanism of economic growth in India that has prevailed for close to half a century by now was set off via the coordinated public-policy interventions of the Nehru era. It is yet to be demonstrated that this could have been enabled by some other known strategy. However, the failure to initiate a programme of investing widely in human capital has meant that growth here has been neither as fast nor as widespread as it has been to our east.”  

Nehru’s emphasis on self-sufficiency as an aspect of nationalism was perhaps understandable given that he and his colleagues were children of the anti-imperialist movement. Over the years, many economists and policy wonks have picked holes in the Nehruvian model and rubbished it for its “Fabian socialism”. Others have refuted this unflattering view, though. The economist Deepak Nayyar, for one, has shown that the turning point in India’s growth trajectory did come about in 1951 – then again in 1980 – and that from 1950 to 1980, the growth was respectable, in a radical departure from the past. Neeraj Hatekar, former head of the economics department at the University of Mumbai, and his colleagues have demonstrated how the 1950s marked a structured break from the past.

Relying on the economist S Sivasubramonian’s data, Balakrishnan arrayed the growth rate of three key sectors – agriculture, industry and services – to map the trajectory of the Nehruvian economy. He analysed the data for three periods – 1900-’01 to 1946-’47, 1950-’51 to 1964-’65, and 1947-’48 to 1999-2000 – and showed that “not only does growth in the Nehru era amply exceed what was attained in the final half-century of colonial rule but the quickening of the economy observed over the second half of the 20th century may be seen to have been already achieved in the Nehru era.”

Unequal nation

The failure of the early decades after Independence was the nation’s incapability or unwillingness to transform economic growth into well-being for all Indians, down to the last person in the line. We were thus left with a country where, as the ever-suffering poor mother of the engineering student in the Bollywood film 3 Idiots observed, a pizza is guaranteed to reach your doorstep in 30 minutes, but there is no guarantee an ambulance ever will.

It is a country where tens of children die gasping for breath because the hospital won’t pay for oxygen – and a section of Indians justifies it. A country where hunger-malnutrition has reached epidemic proportions, where violence against women and minorities threatens its social fabric, and where much work remains to be done.

We would do well to remember these lines from Nehru’s famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech of August 15, 1947:

“To the people of India, whose representatives we are, we make an appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.”  

This is the concluding article of a two-part series on the progress India has made since 1947. The first part can be read here.