There is an apocryphal story told about Sir M. Visvesvaraya, a modernist visionary whose 150th birth anniversary this month has gone relatively unnoticed. It is said that when he saw the white cascades of water at the Jog Falls in Karnataka, he exclaimed: “What a waste!” His engineer’s mind saw hydroelectric potential when others saw the raw beauty of the waterfalls.
India is facing the old dichotomy of nature versus development again, be it the bauxite mines in the verdant jungles of Orissa or the mangroves that are sought to be filled up for a second airport to service Mumbai.
Some critics have dismissed Visvesvaraya as a technocrat who would have had little understanding of the political compromises that a democratic state needs to make as it charts a development course. But modern India would do itself profound harm if it ignores the overarching vision of the great man, who worked as an engineer for the colonial regime, then became diwan (or prime minister) of Mysore and was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, in 1955.
Visvesvaraya believed with great clarity that India had to industrialize in order to win the battle against poverty, something he learnt from the early nationalists of Pune, where he studied engineering in the 1880s. He built dams and irrigation systems as a government engineer.
In Mysore, he sought to introduce modern cultivation methods. He built schools and colleges to spread modern knowledge and create a modern workforce. He helped develop industries such as steel, metals, soaps and tanning. He started a commercial bank—what has now become the State Bank of Mysore—to provide modern finance to modern industry. He tried to get modern technology from Europe and Japan, a country he admired.
Much of this was done with the financial and political backing of the Mysore royals. Visvesvaraya believed in planning, not the sort of comprehensive planning that India embraced after independence; he tilted more towards the industrial policy that many Asian countries used to grow domestic industry.
Visvesvaraya’s ideals and Indian realities today: is there a meeting ground? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org