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What manner of men

Venu Govindu and Deepak Malghan

J. C. Kumarappa, an associate of Mahatma Gandhi, believed that India's future lay only in economic development that is pro-nature and pro-people.


In the summer of 1949 the Planning Commission was meeting at the Rashtrapati Bhavan to chalk out a strategy for the economic development of newly independent India. One of the participants in the meeting arrived in a horse drawn tonga and was ordered off the road at the outer entrance of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. He protested and was told that the roads were being cleared for Pandit Nehru and was allowed to pass only after he explained that he had to reach the meeting before Panditji did.

This ordeal was repeated at the next two gates. Worse, in spite of an official protest it was repeated the second day when he threatened to come in a bullock cart on the following day. During a discussion on roads in the meeting he raised the issue and said that a bullock cart driver in a democracy was as much a citizen as the Prime Minister and that it was an insult to deny him the use of a public road. Nehru agreed that every citizen was equal but said that the restriction was meant to protect the cart drivers from accidents in an area with many motorised vehicles. Our delegate replied that when there are two persons in a public place and the presence of one is likely to be a menace to the other, commonsense would lead to restraining the source of danger rather than the possible victim. He further suggested that under such circumstances he would instead put up notices saying "motor cars and lorries not allowed" evoking peals of laughter.

Be it giving minority car owners more privileges than the majority non-car users or other issues, societies have to constantly make conscious choices. They have to often choose between decisions that benefit the few or the larger public good. In India where vast majorities are poor, there is an even greater responsibility in this regard. Our history therefore is full of debates and struggles for serving the larger public good against the smaller private good. While we are familiar with the contributions of leaders like Gandhi and Nehru to these debates, there were several contemporaries of Gandhi who felt it was not just enough to politically stand up for the larger public good. They argued that only by adopting particular paths to economic development could the larger public interest be served. That straight-shooting delegate to the planning commission meeting, J.C.Kumarappa was one such visionary who believed that India's future was secure only in economic development that is pro-nature and pro-people especially the poor. As we celebrate his birth anniversary today, it would be useful to remember his life and work and see why it continues to be relevant in this day and age.

Born Joseph Chelladurai Cornelius on January 4 in 1892, he became an important associate of Mahatma Gandhi. Trained first as an accountant, he later studied Economics in the U.S. and analysed the plunder of India's wealth by the British. Wiser after his studies he returned to India, chose to call himself Kumarappa and to work closely with Gandhi. Gandhi saw Kumarappa as someone who intuitively understood his ideas and being capable of converting it into practical policy. Kumarappa went on to play an important role in Gandhi's attempts to transform Indian society and economy according to non-violent principles.

To be continued

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