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Opinion | An unsentimental man of action

Engineer, scholar and statesman, M Visvesvaraya crossed several significant milestones in his 101 years

Though they respected each other, Visvesvaraya (right) had disagreements with Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: Alamy
Though they respected each other, Visvesvaraya (right) had disagreements with Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: Alamy

Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya was a thin man with a big head. He had a long, sharp nose, surpassed by an even sharper intellect. The offspring of a Telugu Brahmin family, he was born on 15 September 1861 in a Karnataka village called Muddenahalli. His parents were of modest means but learnt quickly that English education was a passport to social mobility. Their second-born did not fail them—a diligent student, Visvesvaraya grew into an unsentimental man of action, leaving for greener academic pastures in Bengaluru soon after the untimely death of his father. He did have to earn his keep: while an uncle gave him breakfast and meals, board and college fees came from a wealthy local family. It was in service of this household that our future Bharat Ratna launched his career, giving private tuition to prosperous children long before he won his knighthood and came to be called India’s Father of Economic Planning.

The almost 101 years “Sir MV" lived were full of work and unceasing activity. He wrote books and gave countless speeches. He worshipped fact alone, caring little for oratorical wit or the charms of rhetoric. The keystone of his existence was routine and grinding discipline—the story went that he wore a three-piece suit (plus turban) even for a walk in his garden. When he spoke, his words came pregnant with substance, and he travelled the world—from America to Japan—commenting on everything from urban drainage to women’s employment. He loved statistics with a passion: when he published Reconstructing India in 1920, he peppered it with facts and figures so diverse, that it remains an encyclopedia that tells us, among other things, how India a century ago had 19,410 post offices.

Such rigour served Visvesvaraya well. Soon after he acquired his bachelor of arts degree, he went to Pune to qualify as an engineer. He worked in the Deccan and served in the Sindh, developing irrigation channels and building filtering systems. By his late 30s, he had superseded as many as 18 seniors in the jealous ranks of officialdom, retiring in 1908 when he realized he would never be made, on account of the colour of his skin, that special thing: chief engineer of an entire British province. While touring Italy later that year, he received an invitation from the nizam of Hyderabad. And so Visvesvaraya commenced the next part of his career, designing infrastructure in that prince’s capital before transferring his services to the maharajah of his native state of Mysore.

At first, Visvesvaraya was chief engineer in India’s most advanced princely realm, till in 1912 his ruler elevated him to the dignity of dewan (chief minister). Some muttered that handing the administration to an engineer was akin to placing a woodcutter at the helm of government, but the technocrat shook the place up, marching the state ahead by systematic leaps and bounds. He set up Mysore University, and pumped money into the Krishna Raja Sagara dam; he established the Bank of Mysore and set in motion what would become the iron and steel works in Bhadravati. From developing the sandalwood soap industry to promoting silks from Mysore’s looms, Visvesvaraya soon proved himself the force behind a thriving state, resigning only after six years, following a quarrel with the maharajah on the issue of reservations.

By now Visvesvaraya, who among other things was a MICE (Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers), was ready for even bigger things. He had views not only on economics and governance, but also on social policy and national enlightenment. In Reconstructing India, in fact, are ideas that even today resonate. “If bureaucracy prevails," he warned, for instance, “industries will not prosper." Without modern industry—which meant progressive education, social reform, and women’s empowerment—the nation itself would not prosper. The state had to guide the process but know its limits: the “people require help and backing," he argued, “not control and direction." Page after page presented a vision for India, one in which caste retreated before “a saner social system" and nationalism meant love for the country as much as everyday civic awareness.

By the 1920s and 1930s, Visvesvaraya was already an elder with a voice that mattered. He sat on the board of the Tata Iron and Steel Co. and served as president of the Indian Science Congress. He lambasted the British for their economic exploitation, even as he lectured his countrymen against making fatalistic philosophical excuses. In 1934, he argued even with Gandhi—the Mahatma did not share Visvesvaraya’s faith in large-scale industry, noting that “we hold perhaps diametrically opposite views" on which path would deliver the country to its destiny. “I could never persuade myself to take up a hostile attitude toward…one with your brilliant achievements," wrote the south Indian to the Gujarati sincerely. But he still believed that alongside the village and its cottage industries, India needed steel plants and factories, to transform itself and rise in the 20th century.

Though they respected each other, Visvesvaraya had disagreements with Jawaharlal Nehru too. On one occasion, he admonished the prime minister publicly. He was also a strong advocate of meaningful federalism, where the centre’s “intervention in provincial affairs (is) reduced to the lowest possible minimum". Nehru meanwhile empowered the capital and could not grant the states real autonomy. But between them emerged a constructive engagement, and the old man’s letters were always welcome at the prime minister’s desk.

Visvesvaraya, by now, had risen from legendary mind into an object of sheer wonder. Nearing his 100th birthday, when asked about the secret of his longevity, he remarked matter-of-factly: “Death called on me long ago but found me not at home and went away." It returned on 12 April 1962, and this time the bachelor from Muddenahalli was ready, having made his mark in the world, and having said everything that needed to be said.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @UnamPillai

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