The untimely demise of what could have been a path-breaking strategy document is regrettable, and it has taken over seven decades to take a relook and analyse its credibility and historical value.
Seventy-five years ago, a group of prominent business leaders and economic policy experts drew up a plan for economic development in India. Titled The Bombay Plan, it was a document written in two parts in 1944 and 1945 and contained a little over 100 pages. It was penned under the assumption that India would soon become independent and the national government would have to set its economic priorities and economic planning right. The architects of the document were Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, Ghanshyam Das Birla, Purshotamdas Thakurdas, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, Ardeshir Dalal, Lala Shri Ram, John Mathai and Ardeshir Darabshaw Shroff. All of them are well remembered as business leaders and policymakers, but their Bombay Plan is seldom mentioned in post-Independence economic discourse. Now a new book, put together by policy analyst Sanjaya Baru and economist-academic Meghnad Desai, attempts to rescue the document from oblivion.
The current book is a collection of essays, evaluating the document in the context of 21st century India. Authors (apart from Baru and Desai who edited the book as well) include Amal Sanyal, Gita Piramal, Omkar Goswami, Tulsi Jayakumar, R. Gopalakrishnan and Ajay Chhibber, leading voices from Indian industry and academia. One of the first analyses of the Plan, done by P.S. Lokanathan in an essay published in 1945, has been reproduced at the very beginning and you will find the full text of the document in the annexure.
What has made the writers revisit the Plan after all these years? Baru stresses its uniqueness, far-sightedness and focus on the social sector. It has even promoted 'State Capitalism' (the genesis of the mixed economy) although the concept might have been put there to prepare India for free-market capitalism. Even then, "it was a national plan for long-term economic and social development sought by the leadership of indigenous business in their own interest as well as in the national interest." For instance, the first paragraph of the original Plan underlines the necessity of economic unity. But it only happened in 2017 when India introduced a nationwide Goods and Services Tax. It has come up with a cascade of priorities where the State's intervention is required - education, public health, agricultural growth, progressive taxation and the need to tackle black money and wealth hoarded abroad. Ironically, all these top India's priority list right now. Again, the document clearly states that public sector industries should be sold to private investors at some point - disinvestment, in today's parlance.
Each essay looks at the Plan from a different angle. Sanyal depicts how the first three Five-Year Plans owed it a significant amount of intellectual debt. Piramal's article is a tribute to Ardeshir Dalal, the man she believes was not just the principal author of the document, but also someone who got a shot at implementing it under the aegis of the Imperial government.
Given its historical importance and the status of its authors, most writers attempt to explain why the Plan did not take off. Goswami blames the political leadership of that time for the Plan's disappearance. He says that the Plan was drafted as a nationalist rather than a capitalist document, but Jawaharlal Nehru did not wish to own it because of his 'Left Wing' leaning. Jayakumar and Gopalakrishnan argue that the Plan was woefully inadequate in defining how the leadership at the time could have managed to implement the changes suggested. According to Desai, the Plan validates the view that the Indian capitalist class ought to be defined as the National Bourgeoisie who knows how to cope with State activism. Chhibber, on the other hand, details why the Plan has pushed for industrialisation, the support such a move gets from the State and its long-term impact on the economy.
Is the Plan relevant today? Maybe we can live without it. But the message it conveys is that Indian businesses can play a crucial role in taking the country's larger development agenda forward. As Baru says, "The challenge to the Indian economy is not merely one of sustaining economic growth, but of discovering new ways to do so? Would Indian business invest in domestic intellectual capacity building that would enable a new generation of Indians to craft something like a Bombay Plan for the twenty-first century?"