By K. SAMPATHGIRI RAO
“Always performing works here, one should wish to live a hundred years. If you live thus as a man, works will not cling to you–there is no other way.”
–Isha Upanishad, verse 2
Thus lived and worked Visvesvaraya, fulfilling the injunction of the Upanishadic seer to the very letter, and dropping like a ripe fruit from the branch of Life on 14th April 1962. He had completed his one hundred years in September 1961. An expert engineer with a flair for bold and original ideas, a great dreamer and withal a thoroughly practical man with an eye to every minute detail, a tireless worker who had trained, himself with rare self-discipline to work with clock-like regularity, a patriot of the highest order who longed that his country should take an honoured place alongside of advanced Western nations, and that quickly, he had to his credit concrete achievements, in a measure unequalled by any in modern India.
many great men he was far ahead of his generation, and was ill-served by many in his own; and yet he never lost his enthusiasms, nor ever
felt frustrated. To the end of his days he communicated, to those who came into
touch with him, some of his own enthusiasm and high purposefulness, to work
unceasingly for the rapid all-round development of
was born in Muddenahalli, a village at the foot of
the Nandi Hills, the famous hill-station 40 miles to
the north of
dint of intelligence, industry and earnestness, he secured rapid promotions and
was earning Rs. 500, less than two years after entering service. He worked on
various assignments as Irrigation Engineer, designing water works and drainage
schemes for various towns in the then Bombay Presidency. He devised what is
known as the Block System of irrigation, to give water by rotation to minimize
wastage of water and yield better results to cultivators–a system commended by
the Irrigation Commission set up by the Government of India in 1901-3. ‘The
object is to distribute the benefits of irrigation works over a larger number
of villages and to concentrate the irrigation in each village within blocks of
specified units and in selected soils and situations.’ This system was successfully
worked in the
He devised a system of automatic gates at
was on leave preparatory to retirement and had planned to stay in Europe and
had, no doubt, by now formally retired from Government service, but it can be
truly said that his most active and fruitful career was just beginning, as
proved by subsequent events. His life in the service of the Bombay Government,
of which he spent nearly 14 years in
second foreign tour, referred to above, was interrupted by an urgent call from
Another interesting instance of how he jealously safeguarded the self-respect and status of Indians may be given here. It was when he was Dewan of Mysore. During the Dasara celebrations, one day was set apart for a European Durbar in the Palace. The European guests were provided with chairs, while the Indian officers and other guests had to squat on the floor on the other side of the hall. Visvesvaraya resented this arrangement, and a custom, which had prevailed for many years, was changed at his instance, and chairs were thereafter provided to all invitees, European or Indian.
is needless to add that Visvesvaraya completed the job assigned to him by the
Hyderabad Government to everybody’s satisfaction, and took further steps which
contributed to transform
this time (April 1909) a call came to him from V. P. Madhava
Rao, Dewan of Mysore, to join as Chief Engineer of
Almost the first step he took was to insist on encouraging merit in making new appointments: without being influenced by extraneous considerations. Committees were appointed, at his instance, to make a plan for technical education, and, again, at his instance, the Economic Conference was established in June 1911. It functioned actively for many years, and worked in three sections: Agriculture, Industries and Commerce, and Education. Public-spirited non-officials were associated in the work of numerous committees. Visvesvaraya had a passion for statistics and insisted on targets being clearly set in respect of various development activities and speedy efforts being made to reach them. He thus made the officers and people plan-minded. This was, indeed, the beginning of planned efforts, ever made in India on any considerable scale, and well may Visvesvaraya be hailed as the Father of Planned Economy.
He was instrumental in taking over for the Mysore Government the administration of the railway lines from the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway, opening new lines between Mysore and Arsikere, Shimoga and Talguppa, and constructing the light railway between Bangalore and Bangarapet, looping the Kolar District. He planned the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam near Mysore–the largest reservoir ever built in India up to that time. These measures and his solicitude for the welfare of the people soon won for him the unbounded confidence of the Maharaja and the love and respect of all citizens. Today we are talking in terms of hundreds of crores, but those were days when even a 2½ crore hydel project like the Krishnaraja Sagar (which was the original estimate) gave rise to misgivings; and it was only by his persistent efforts that the scheme was put through.
Before completing the work on the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam he had many hurdles to get over. The Madras Government raised difficulties as they felt that the interests of cultivators in the Cauvery basin in the Madras Presidency would be adversely affected. Visvesvaraya had to take up the matter with the Viceroy for arbitration and produce the relevant facts and figures. The award was in his favour. He was a past master in carrying on such negotiations. He was patient, ever courteous; he was sure of his facts and figures and the justice of his cause; and so he generally won through.
His Highness the Maharaja called upon him to take up the Dewanship, in succession to T. Ananda Rao in November 1912–a greatly coveted honour, as Mysore had already won a reputation far and wide for its rich resources and its wise and benevolent ruler. But with characteristic self-abnegation he suggested to His Highness that “it would be sufficient” if he were appointed a Member of the Council in charge of the Development Departments. He was not eager for power or status. But as His Highness was insistent, he took over the Dewanship. He referred to this in a speech, delivered soon after, in the following terms:
“It will, I hope, not be regarded as an affectation of modesty on my part if I say that all I have wanted is opportunity for work, and that thoughts of personal advancement have not influenced my action in recent years.”
The period of his Dewanship, which extended over six years, may be truly called the golden age of the (then) Mysore State, a period of unprecedented all-round development. Visvesvaraya insisted on high standards of smartness and regularity on the part of officers in the discharge of their duties, and sternly discountenanced slackness or shoddiness wherever he noticed it. Officers had to be at their places when the offices opened, and, by making surprise visits himself, he ensured that the age-old habits of irregularity yielded to new ways of efficiency. Heads of Departments had also to make themselves available at fixed hours to visitors. He saw to it, in addition, that officers were smartly dressed, in Western style preferably, except for the Mysore turban; and there are stories still current, of the ludicrous instances of old-world officials, innocent of modern fashions, painfully adapting themselves to these sartorial stipulations. Visvesvaraya always set the example himself by his own immaculate dress, in which he was always to be seen by visitors, whether in his office or at home.
His inspections and tours were thoroughly businesslike, devoid of any pomp and circumstance. He was a good listener, and was invariably courteous to all ranks of people, official or non-official.
Visvesvaraya was a hard taskmaster but claimed to be a democrat, in that he was always anxious to secure public co-operation in respect of the development programmes that he initiated. The State pulsated with a new life, and the stirrings of it were noticeable in the remotest corners of the State.
Replying to addresses presented by various organizations in Bangalore soon after he assumed Dewanship, he said:
“In all the addresses you have been pleased to read to me, you state what in your opinion His Highness’s Government should do, or what I should do. But there is not a word said of what you yourselves are going to do, not even one word of co-operation on your part….I attach great importance to the co-operation of the leaders of the public each in his Legitimate sphere of activity.”
That villages should develop the spirit of self-help was a favourite theme with him. During his regime he was able to get villagers to give their personal labour, shram-dan, in the repair of minor tanks, construction of village roads, putting up school buildings, etc.
He promoted conferences and committee meetings at all levels–State, District and Taluk; and whenever he had occasion to speak he was never tired of placing before his listeners relevant statistics, providing comparisons between India and advanced countries like England, U. S. A., Canada, etc. One noticeable characteristic of his speeches, however, was that they were entirely devoid of reference to the past glories of India or to her great heritage–of “historics”, as it has been mischievously termed!–the usual stock-in-trade of patriotic speakers. He was concerned with the present and the future, and he was impatient with the apathy and lethargy of our people, and would like to hustle them along so that they might live fuller lives as intelligent citizens of the modern world.
A brief resume of what he achieved during the period of his Dewanship may be set down here:
In respect of education, which claimed top priority in his plans, he introduced legislation for compulsory education by stages, took steps for expansion of girls’ education, provided liberal grants for the institution of scholarships for backward-class students; opened an agricultural school providing practical courses; opened a mechanical engineering and a commercial school: established the Chamarajendra Technical Institute at Mysore, District Industrial Schools, and the College of Engineering at Bangalore; and provided foreign scholarships for students to study abroad. It was due to his persistent efforts that the Mysore university, the first ever in an Indian State, was founded in 1916.
In respect of industries, he was instrumental in initiating the following: Sericulture Development; Sandalwood Oil Manufacture; the Soap Factory; the Metal Factory; the Chrome Tanning Factory; The Central Industrial Workshop, and District Workshops; Subsidies for Small and Cottage Industries; Hotels and Guest Houses including those on the Nandi Hills; Printing Presses; Loans for starting private Workshops; The Mysore Iron and Wood Distillation Works; Railways Extension; and the growth of Hydro-electric Power.
He started investigations for the establishment of a port at Bhatkal. He initiated measures to de-officialize local board administration, and attended to town planning and to the provision of better water supply and underground drainage for several towns. He introduced village improvement schemes, and the Malnad Improvement scheme, in particular. The following are other institutions he helped to establish: The Bank of Mysore; The Mysbre Chamber of Commerce; The Karnataka Sahitya Parishat; The Civil and Social Progress Association; Public Libraries in Bangalore and Mysore; The Century Club and a Ladies’ Club at Bangalore; and The Cosmopolitan Club of Mysore.
He revived the Competitive Examination for the Mysore Civil Service, which had been in abeyance for some years, and confined it to Mysoreans and those domiciled in Mysore for five years. He was also instrumental in getting a new treaty signed, defining the relations between Mysore and the British Government, superseding the old Instrument of Transfer, which raised the status of Mysore. He also introduced reforms in the working of the Representative Assembly, providing for a second session to consider the budget; gave its members the privilege of putting interpellations, and electing four (instead of two) members to the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council was enlarged, so that it had a non-official majority. He initiated measures to separate the Judicial and Executive powers –a matter that had been pressed for decades by Indian leaders; activized the work of the Economic Conference, and introduced activized the work of the Economic Conference, and introduced ‘efficiency audit’ with a view to preservation of discipline and efficiency in Government Departments.
Even a bare recital of these measures gives one an idea of the stupendous magnitude of his achievements and their many-sided character–a truly astonishing record for any administrator of a State here or elsewhere. And it is also to be remembered that the First World War was on, for over four years out of the six, during which he was Dewan. He was obliged to carry on under the cramping conditions–particularly in respect of industrial development–of the exigencies of the war, for the prosecution of which, Mysore, like other Indian States, made considerable contribution in men, money and materials.
Efficiency, precision and public spirit were his watchwords and he attempted to infuse these virtues into the officials and non-officials with whom he came into contact. A letter issuing from his office, for instance, was often retyped over and over again, so that there was not the slightest flaw in it. He spared neither himself nor others and, in spite of a frail and even puny body, gave evidence of extraordinary alertness and physical energy. His regular diet habits and his daily walks kept him thoroughly fit and active. He was punctual to the minute in keeping his engagements. He set a high standard of moral rectitude which had a chastening effect on the administration, so that one rarely heard of corruption. He abhorred nepotism and jobbery of any kind in making appointments or bestowing other Government favours, and was so scrupulous that for private work he would not touch Government stationery or use Government conveyance, making a distinction between public duties and private work with a meticulousness that was almost fanatical. All this might sound fantastic to the pampered officials of the modern day, provided by a generous Government with vans and jeeps, and unaccustomed to the drawing of su.ch nice distinctions.
Visvesvaraya laid down his office by the end of 1918. His Highness the Maharaja appointed a committee headed by Sir Leslie Miller, the Chief Judge, to consider the question of adopting in Mysore measures similar to those advocated by non-brahmin leaders in Maddras. “My idea was”, writes Visvesvaraya in his Memoirs, “that by spreading education rapidly and adopting precision methods in production and industry, the State and its entire population would progress faster. There was never any complaint that I favoured any particular community in making appointments….I felt opposed to the establishment of the Miller Committee…..After prolonged discussion and exchange of views for a considerable time, I obtained His Highness’s consent to retire from service. Some time was required to arrange and place all the new schemes in operation and other contemplated developments in a safe condition before I actually laid down office. So it was agreed some eight months beforehand that I should retire at a convenient date at the end of the year. This arrangement was kept a closely guarded secret.”
Thus ended the career of Visvesvaraya’s services to the country as a Government official in his 58th year. For over forty years thereafter he continued to serve the country as a public-spirited citizen of India in various capacities, but chiefly as an adviser on matters of industry and engineering.
Though he severed his official connection with Mysore, he continued to take active interest in its development. His relations with the Maharaja continued to be most cordial, and he was invited to be the chairman of the Board of Management of the Bhadravati Iron and Steel Works, and he served in that capacity from 1923 to 1929. He did not draw the honorarium due to him during this period amounting to about 2 lakhs. He made over this amount for the founding of the Jayachamarajendra Occupational Institute, politely turning down even the suggestion that his own name should be given to it. The Institute has come to fill a great need in the scheme of technical education and has become a model for polytechnics subsequently started in all parts of the country. He also served as chairman of the Cauvery Canal Committee to align and construct the high level canal system from Krishnaraja Sagar; and as chairman of the committee for the new water supply scheme to Bangalore. He attempted to start an Automobile industry in the State, but without success. He was more successful, however, in getting the Hindustan Aircraft factory started at Bangalore in 1940. In 1949–when he was nearing ninety–he actively pushed forward a scheme for Rural Industrialization, with arrangements to finance it through a Financial Corporation. This good work, however, has not been followed up, the National Extension Services and Block Development schemes having meanwhile come on the scene. It must be said in this connection that Visvesvaraya’s scheme, carefully thought out and complete in every detail, deserves to be given a trial not only in Mysore State but all over the country. It may be calculated to solve the problem of unemployment to a considerable extent, more effectively perhaps than the present sporadic and unco-ordinated efforts made in the field of rural industrialization under the aegis of the Community Development projects, the Khadi Gramodyog Board and other similar bodies set up by the Government.
Outside Mysore he participated in, or presided over, the following committees after his retirement as Dewan of Mysore: Bombay Technical and Industrial Committee (1921-’22): New Capital (New Delhi) Enquiry Committee, (1922); Indian Economic Enquiry Committee (1925); Backbay Inquiry Committee (1926); Bangalore Political Disturbances Enquiry Committee (1929), in the report of which he made an unanswerable plea for the setting up of Responsible Government in Mysore; the Sukkur Barrage Works Committee (1929 ); Bombay University Committee for promoting Chemical Industries (1930); Irrigation Inquiry Committee, Bombay ( 1938); and Flood Control Measures in Orissa (at the request of Gandhiji) (1939).
He was also elected as chairman of the committee of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in 1938 and thereafter successively for seven years till he voluntarily relinquished that office. Ever since its inception in 1941 he was the President of the All-India Manufacturers’ Organization till 1954.
He also presided over the All-Parties Conference in 1922 convened in Bombay, to suggest a way out of the situation created by the non-co-operation movement led by Gandhiji, and to explore the possibilities of convening a Round Table Conference. He was the President of the South Indian States’ Peoples’ Conference at Trivandrum in 1929 and gave an important lead in the matter of assigning a proper status to the citizens and the rulers of the Indian States in the contemplated Federal Constitution of India. Though he could not agree to the methods of direct action and mass political agitation launched by Gandhiji, he was by no means a reactionary and was well in advance of the then ‘moderate’ opinion in the country.
In 1919 he went on a study tour round the world in company with several industrialists and merchants. He stayed in London for a year to supervise the publication of Reconstrncting India, which came out in 1920. While in London he was offered a seat on the Council of the Secretary of State for India by Mr. Montagu, but he politely declined the offer.
He again toured in foreign countries in 1935 to study the automobile industry and in 1946 (when he was 85) as a leader of the delegation of the All-India Manufacturers’ Organization, visiting numerous factories. A report, of nearly 300 pages, of this tour, was published, containing numerous suggestions of practical value for the rapid development of Indian industries.
By this time Visvesvaraya had popularized the slogan ‘Industrialize or Perish’.
Besides numerous pamphlets and brochures or reports of which he was the author, Visvesvaraya wrote and published three substantial books: Reconstructing India (already mentioned), Planned Economy for India (1934) and Memoris of My Working Life (1951). The first two books are packed with facts and figures and set down his views on the reconstruction of India as an economically prosperous and industrially developed nation. The third book is a plain and unvarnished account of his public career as a Government official in Bombay and, later in Mysore, and of his varied activities subsequently. The book is characteristic of him. It opens with his 24th year, with not a word in it about his private life and its joys and sorrows by way of introduction or even incidentally. Nor does it contain any sidelights on the men and events that influenced him in the course of his public life. It is, true, there is mention of great personalities like, Ranade, Gokhale, Tilak, Sri Krishnaraja Wadiyar and others; but we are not, permitted even a glimpse into his relationships with these great men. The narrative is severely objective and factual. He has obviously said much less than he felt about any person or any event. This reticence, and the style of strictly objective expression, seemed to have become his second nature, the result of prolonged self-discipline. In the course of his long public life he did come into contact with all kinds of people–people who must have greatly hurt him or sorely tried his patience. But his Memoirs contain not a word of comment or condemnation of any person. No doubt, occasionally, it contains quotations from appreciative and flattering references to himself from numerous high officials, but these seem to be set down not out of vanity but to serve as an example to his fellow countrymen so that they might profit by his experience. In 1960–in his 100th year–he published A Brief Memoir of My Complete Working Life. It is not priced and seems to have been intended for private circulation. It sets down categorically the events of his long career, the dates on which he delivered University Convocation Addresses in four Indian Universities, the dates of his six foreign travels and their purpose, the dates on which titles and honours, degrees (honoris causa) from eight Indian Universities, were conferred on him; and the list of his publications. It is a kind of logbook rendering an account of his life and prepared in his characteristically methodical way.
As evidence of his mental alertness at that advanced age, a short paragraph containing a pointed observation may be quoted from, the book. After tracing the history of the Bank of Mysore and how it helped the businessmen of Mysore, he writes:
“The Bank has similarly been of great help to the Krishnarajendra Mills in Mysore and the important coffee industry of the Malnad. It is a matter for extreme regret that there should now be a proposal to destroy its identity and make it a subsidiary of the State Bank of India. It is likely to prove a great disservice to Mysoreans.”
Visvesvaraya had the habit of maintaining scrapbooks in which newspaper cuttings, and extracts from books or magazines he read, were systematically compiled. Some of the scrapbooks contained compilations relating to public questions and some to general and literary matters. The latter he published in 1957 in book form giving it the title Sayings–Wise and Witty. The extracts bear evidence of the range of his literary taste and his sense of humour–a trait not usually attributed to him.
Visvesvaraya’s Herculean efforts to modernize Mysore during the nine years he was associated with its administration as Chief Engineer and Dewan have been already referred to. It is true that he succeeded in a large measure in creating a new life, or its outward signs, during his regime. But it must not be forgotten that he had his severe critics who condemned his ‘wasteful expenditure’ and ambitious plans. He was even charged with doing things for show though in sober truth he husbanded the resources of the State most carefully and was ever watchful to effect the utmost economy in the expenditure on Public Works. Showiness was utterly foreign to his nature. No Dewan was so unassuming and mild as he was. Again, there were the irreverent scoffers even among the officials of the State who looked upon his schemes as a huge joke, and his plans as so many fads. There were, again, others among them who knew the things that would please him and tried to make an impression on him by external habiliments or the reeling off of statistics cooked up for the occasion in reply to his invariable queries. Visvesvaraya, in spite of his supreme intelligence, was not always a shrewd judge of men and was easily taken in; and when he discovered that he had been imposed upon, very likely he must have felt sorrow rather than anger. People who moved closely with him have testified that they have never seen him lose his temper–an extraordinary thing to say about any human being! What would cause indignation in others simply found expression, in his case, in some drily humorous remark, which often quenched his hearers.
His impersonal, passionless and intensely intellectual attitude was both his strength and his weakness. One felt awed in his presence, but not drawn to get into closer communion with him, unless, of course, one belonged to his intimate circle. Yet he was extremely considerate, and gave frequent evidence of a tender heart that felt for others. Of his many deeds of charity, of monthly pensions to dependents, poor relations and needy students, the world could know little; he gave and helped so quietly. His reticence and intellectual vigour and moral elevation left him on a lonely eminence. He could not evoke widespread and deep emotional response from the masses: he was not made to be a mass leader. But the people admired and adored him; and his portraits could be seen on the walls of village homes in the Mysore State long before the portraits of other national leaders which became popular in later years.
Gandhi and Visvesvaraya had many things in common: purposefulness in life; unfailing courtesy; personal austerity; a passionate regard for tidiness and punctuality; a capacity for untiring work. But the differences in their outlook on life, and approach to national problems, presented a striking contrast. Gandhi personified in an unmistakable way the people of India and particularly the poor; Visvesvaraya appeared to be outlandish. Gandhi was not enamoured of machinery and the complex industrial organization of the West and bent all his energies to the revival of the Charkha and cottage industries; Visvesvaraya, though he was aware of the importance of village industries, was an ardent admirer of the technological advances made in Western countries and was never tired of holding up their example for our emulation. Gandhiji’ spoke of Ramarajya, of the Gita and of God; Visvesvaraya did not refer to the past but was fully engrossed with the present and the future, and his approach was thoroughly secular. Gandhi always harped on Satya and Ahimsa; Visvesvaraya was always speaking of precision and efficiency.
Each was unique in his own way: both of them achieved mighty things in their lifetime. Both of them were impatient to lift the masses of India out of the poverty and degradation into which they had sunk, and make them strong and self-reliant. The seeming antithesis between them (and, indeed, Gandhiji seemed to be the antithesis of almost every other Indian leader, in a way, being in a class by himself) was due to the difference of emphasis on factors that each sincerely believed would help build up the manhood of India and a fuller life for the Indian people. Both of them dedicated all their life to the great task of national regeneration, each in his own sphere, and according to his own aptitude and light.
India had need of both of them during her period of emergence as a free nation, and will profit by their inspiring message and shining example for a long long time to come.