‘We need a few more Ahmedabads’: Aurobindo Ghosh (1902)

Gujarat has been advanced as a model of development for India by Bharatiya Janata Party, one of the chief contenders to form the next central government after the current national elections. Interestingly Aurobindo Ghosh (as Sri Aurobindo was known in his earlier years) had worked in Baroda state, which is part of the present day Gujarat, for thirteen years at the turn of the twentieth century. In a speech written for the Maharaja of Baroda, he commended Ahmedabad, (capital of Gujarat) as a model to be emulated. Aurobindo, aged 30 at that time, was a brilliant Cambridge returned scholar and a revolutionary in British colonial India. 

 “This speech was delivered by the Maharaja of Baroda on 15 December 1902, at the opening of the Industrial Exhibition held in Ahmedabad in conjunction with the 1902 session of the Indian National Congress.”  

Our early history is scanty and, in many respects, uncertain, but no uncertainty, no scantiness can do away with the fact that this was once a great commercial people. We see a very wealthy nation with organised guilds of artisans, a flourishing inland commerce, a large export and import trade. We hear of busy and flourishing ports through which the manufactures of India flowed out to Europe, to Arabia and Persia, and from which, in those early times, we sent out our delicate cotton textures, our chintz and muslin, our silk cloth and silk thread, a fine quality of steel; indigo, sugar, spices and drugs; diamonds, ivory and gold. In return we received brass, tin and lead, coral, glass, antimony; woollen cloth and wines from Italy, and also specie and bullion.

All through the Middle Ages, our manufactures and industries were at a very high level. Every traveller attests the existence of large and flourishing towns (a sure index of industrial prosperity), and praises the skill and ingenuity of our workmen.

Where, then, has all this trade gone and what has caused our decline? The most obvious answer is, as I have said, the difference between Europe and India in industrial methods and appliances. But this is not quite sufficient to explain it. A deeper examination of the facts at our disposal shows that the life had almost left Indian industry before Europe had brought her machines to any remarkable development, and long before those wonderful changes which the application of chemistry and electricity have more recently wrought in industry. Nor can we ascribe it to a superiority which England possessed in industrial and technical education, for at that time there was no such training and England has never relied on it for commercial capacity. If we go a little deeper into the matter we find that there is a further reason which does not depend on the natural working of economic laws but which is political in its nature, the result of the acquisition of political power by the East India Company and the absorption of India into the growing British Empire.

In a country like India, where the introduction of improved implements is so limited in its possibilities, and where everything depends upon the timeliness and sufficiency of the annual rains, it is irrigation that must necessarily take the largest place in all plans of agricultural improvement. This importance of irrigation has been recognised by the successive rulers of this country from the times of the ancient Hindu kings.

The work in irrigation will always be one of the most splendid and irreproachable chapters in the history of British Rule.

Before we can hope that the ryot will try to employ measures which demand a high level of intelligence and scientific knowledge, we must awaken his curiosity and enlist his sympathy, which can only be done by a good system of general education.

However imperfect our education may be it is equally lamentable that it has so far affected no more than 5 per cent. of the population of the country. Before any noticeable change can take place, there must be a general feeling among the people that improvement must be made and a desire to take advantage of the efforts of Government to help them.

We have already some glass-blowing factories at Kapadwanj and in the Panjab; paper mills in Bombay, Poona and Bengal; leather tanneries in Madras, Cawnpore and Bombay. It would be interesting to study the quantity and quality of these home products and to compare them with the articles imported from abroad. We may thereby learn the difference and know how to remove their short-comings and extend their sale. Experience is the only path to knowledge, comparison perfects it.

I am not afraid of being thought a heretic with regard to economics, if I say that I think we need Protection to enable our industries to reach their growth.

I would, however, direct your attention more to the establishment of the larger industries involving an extensive use of machinery, for it is upon this that our economic future and any increase of our wealth depends.

I have indicated a few ways in which I think Government can help economic development in the direction of education. To these I would add improvements in the means of communication and the establishment of banks and other co-operative institutions. It can also encourage merchants and manufacturers by advances of capital and by granting other facilities.

My experience teaches me that it is very difficult for Government to provide industries for its people in the absence of a real business spirit amongst the people themselves. It is very difficult for so impersonal an entity as Government to get capable managers or to supervise its enterprises properly…

I found that the managers were not sufficiently interested in the scheme and not impartial in the working of it. I am convinced, however, that the fault lay not with the industries themselves but in the fact that they were State enterprises.

We have more capital than we imagine to develop our resources if we would only use it. But we lack the active foresight always seeking the best investments. We prefer to hoard our savings in our women’s ornaments, or to invest it in Government securities at low rates of interest, when we might be using it in ways which would be profitable to the country at large, as well as to ourselves, such as agricultural improvements, insurance of agricultural stock and the establishment of factories. And that is especially true of some Indian States which invest their surplus capital in Government securities, instead of using it in the development of the resources of their own territories.

Surely it is a good omen for the success of our industrial revival that this Exhibition takes place in Ahmedabad, a town long famous for its enterprise and energy, which already possesses factories and industrial connections of importance with the industrial world. If only we had a few more Ahmedabads, India would not have long to wait for a real revival of her commerce.

                                                                               Pg 694, Vol 01, CWSA

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