Kumarappa and His Economy of Permanence - Utham Kumar Sinha

Joseph Cornelius Kumarappa [1892 – 1960], better known as J. C. Kumarappa, occupies a prominent position among the primary group of Gandhian constructive workers. An acclaimed scholar of economics, he was, perhaps among the few original thinkers and practitioners of Gandhian principles that modern India has produced. His professional acumen of a grassroots economist was recognized by Gandhiji and was effectively put to use for the important task of Indian nation building. This became his lifelong mission. He pursued it with the same spirit even in post Gandhian era without bothering how much he was being noticed by the free Indian dispensation. On the broader framework of Gandhian socio-economic vision, Kumarappa produced some of the finest works providing blueprints for future India’s economic model of development. His writings on simple and small economy and on percepts of Jesus appeared so powerful in the universal content to Gandhiji that he conferred on him title of Doctor of Village Industry [DVI] and Doctor of Divinity [DD] out of his appreciation for the writings.

Year 2017 being 125th birth anniversary of this great son of India, it becomes imperative to bring out J. C. Kumarappa’s holistic socio-economic vision of human society, especially the agrarian one, before the younger generation of this country. He is among those few who opined that agriculture always remains the most important part of an economy. This was as valuable and unusual for economic understanding of his time. Three economic surveys that he designed and led in the 1930s and early 40s made him better informed than anyone else about the rural economy of India in those days. The knowledge that he acquired was based on an abundance of systematic first-hand and nearly first hand observations.

Kumarappa supported Gandhi’s percept that each village in India ought to be self-sufficient economically as far as possible. He also warned, as an economist, against ignoring the ‘useful functions’ performed by certain traditional Indian institutions, and against assuming that people in India must behave economically in the same way as Westerners do. Kumarappa’s appeal to strengthen local rural economy by empowering rural masses and respecting the logic of nature makes more practical sense than any other developmental theories today. His concerns are not primitive just because of endorsement of traditional living; they rather promote prosperity and justice with an affirmation of human dignity. Current developmental researchers have valued such traditional social living for being more environments friendly and sustainable as compared to the urban industrial societies.

India’s younger population that is almost the largest in the world at present hardly had occasion to hear about J. C.  Kumarappa or his works but they are sufficiently aware of the state of our environment. They know how traditional community living and small and local economy can help minimize environmental destruction and cost of development. In this context, Kumarappa’s work will prove to be a revealing experience for them. They could certainly see that Kumarappa’s concerns are not impractical rather are in harmony with the current idea of sustainability and sustainable development, though different from the Western perspective. He favoured a secular society with peace, prosperity and justice. The dream that he had for India not only coincides with the vision of today’s post modern society but also enriches it by suggesting cost effective solutions for holistic and sustainable development. Unfortunately as not much awareness of environmental dynamism was there at his time, people missed the universal appeal in his vision. Today when we are striving to achieve our developmental goals, Kumarappa’s economic model spontaneously draws our attention and offers fresh insights. On the edifice of such fundamentals a more human and nonviolent economic paradigm can be framed which may better address our today’s concerns. In that sense his life and works form part of our precious nonviolent resources.

Kumarappa was not only a scholar of economics but also a Satyagrahi having been into the Gandhian fold. Some of his biographers feel that his engagement in the 1930s in struggle for Indian independence put him into an unfortunately dualistic frame of mind between evil and good. Evils existed in the form of wolf-pack societies, British imperialists and industrialists while good existed as sheep-herd societies, vegetarians, Indian subjects like peasants and artisans. But he could find a way to transcend this dualistic approach by devising five types of economic activities as predatory, parasitical, enterprising, gregarious, and service-oriented and thus conducive to an economy of permanence. But the fact of the matter is that very transcendence occurred only in the confines of prison wall. He faced imprisonment and trials many times during the struggle and wrote extensively without fear. He had to stand many times in opposition to the post Independent Government of India also in matters of economic planning and decentralization. An intense deliberation upon his economic philosophy, life and works during the whole of the Centenary Year will invite fresh perspectives which can be well utilised for meeting India’s international obligation of Sustainable Development Goals which it seeks to realize by 2030.

J.C. Kumarappa was popularly known as Gandhiji’s economist though he met Gandhi at a later stage of former’s life. He was born on 4th January 1892 to Christian parents. His family hailed from Thanjavur region of Tamil Nadu. Kumarappa was the ninth child of his parents. Having finished his basic education at Madras, he left for London in 1913 to pursue Chartered Accountancy course. After working for couple of years for London Bank and British Auditors’ firm he returned to Bombay in 1919. There he established his own firm of Auditors ‘Cornelius and Davar’ to cater to the accounting requirements of British and Parsi business firms. He also worked as vice principal and part time professor in Davar’s College of commerce. By the year 1927 his eldest brother invited him to visit United States where he was doing his Ph. D. course. After vacationing for one month Joseph eventually joined B. Sc. Course in Business Administration and earned the degree in 1928. His studies included a course in public finance under a professor Harvey W. Peck, to whom he submitted an eleven-page, hand written thesis entitled Tax-Exempt Securities and Progressive Surtax. The professor found in him an excellent student and a man of mature judgement with wide experience and broad culture.  He advised him to go for M.A. degree in Public Finance from Columbia University. His thesis under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Seligman on Public Finance and India’s Poverty (published in India in 1930 under the title Public Finance and Our Poverty: The Contribution of Public Finance to the Present Economic State of India) established him as a committed Indian nationalist. On return in 1929 to resume his auditing practice at Bombay, he tried to find a publisher who could publish his research findings on how British were exploiting India through their taxation policy. Chance occurred to him in the form of a suggestion of one of his friends to consult Gandhiji in the matter who might be interested in his findings. With the help of Pyarelal, he submitted a copy of his thesis to Gandhiji and could meet him at Sabarmati Ashram on 30th of May 1929. This was a historical meeting which changed the course of his life. Gandhiji not only agreed to publish his thesis serially in his weekly journal Young India but also asked him to undertake a rural survey of a set of 54 villages of Gujarat. This classic survey done during December 1929 to March 1930 was published under the title A Survey of Matar Taluka: Kaira District and became a proof of his approach in economics similar to that of Gandhiji. He had already arrived at Gujarat Vidyapith in July 1929 and was appointed Professor on Gandhiji’s recommendation. Before starting off Dandi March, Gandhiji encouraged him to write regularly in Young India and he won so much confidence of Gandhiji through his original writings that he got the responsibility of editorship of the Journal. The Navajivan Press was confiscated in July 1930 but Kumarappa continued to publish Young India as a cyclostyled sheet. His fiery editorial writings led to his arrest and on 25th February 1931 he was awarded one year simple imprisonment, but was released by March end as a result of Gandhi-Erwin Pact.

Kumarappa was then appointed convener of a committee formed under Karachi Congress resolution to look into the financial obligations of Great Britain. The publication of this report reflected in adverse sentiments of London market. He again took up the editorship of Young India in 1931 and his vigorous articles finally landed him to a prolonged jail term. Having been released from Nasik prison after two and a half years, he was called on by Gandhiji to help Dr Rajendra Prasad in keeping accounts of one of the biggest relief operations after Bihar earthquake which took almost one year. When All India Village Industries Association [AIVIA] was formed by the Indian National Congress in 1935, Kumarappa was appointed as organizer and Secretary under the advise and guidance of Gandhiji to develop rural economy of the country. Between the years 1935 to 1939 he developed various experiments of rural technologies and helped [AIVIA] having recognized all over the country. The Gram Udyog Patrika which he edited during this period contains his original ideas of village development and a book Why the Village Movement? confirmed his lifelong commitment to rural economy. He undertook economic surveys of Central Province and Berar, North West Frontier Province during that period which was highly appreciated by Economists of that time. When National Planning Committee was formed in 1938 on the insistence of Subhash Chandra Bose, he was requested to serve as member of the Committee under the Chairmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru. But he resigned after merely three months from that Committee because of difference in approach as he was in favour of decentralized participatory planning.

During the ongoing World War II when British exploitation of Indians through taxation policy was at peak, Kumarappa wrote an article Stone for Bread in 1942. He was put under detention for one and a half years and had to face trials at Bombay and Nagpur. He was also involved in underground activities at Bombay during the Quit India Movement which finally led to his arrest and two and a half years of rigorous imprisonment at Jabalpur Central Jail till early 1945. Here he wrote two significant books – Economy of Permanence and Practice and Precepts of Jesus. These were considered splendid works produced by him. By looking at the underlying universal value of these books, Gandhiji in capacity of Chancellor of National University conferred on him degrees of Doctor of Village Industry [DVI] and Doctor of Divinity [DD] respectively.

In July 1947, he joined a delegation of Government of India for the meeting of shippers in London to help India’s economic interest in maritime transport. This visit also revealed to him the devastation of Europe after the World War II. Soon after his return he started his crusade against policies averse to rural economy through his speeches and writings throughout India. Temperamentally being apolitical, he rejected the offer to become member of AICC in place of Jaiprakash Narayan in early 1947 despite Gandhiji’s persuasion. Having no interest in power politics he focused on bringing out a consensus plan of action on the economic policy of Independent India between left and right wings of the Congress. Gandhiji appreciated his plan report when Jawaharlal Nehru presented it before him in Nov. 1947. But all his efforts were set aside by the new dispensation after the death of Gandhiji. By the end of 1947, an Agrarian Reforms Committee was set up by AICC with Kumarappa as its Chairman. He travelled all over the country for the next two years in that capacity. The final report of the committee came in July 1949 which advocated very important recommendations on management of land and agriculture.

In the post Gandhian era also he actively participated in the peace movement of War Resisters and attended its international meet at Shrewburgh, England. He also remained involved in organizing Pacifists Conferences in India at Shantiniketan [1949] and in Sevagram [1950]. Here also he took a role of major critique of Western Pacifist Movement. He represented the Gandhian body, Sarva Seva Sangh at the Indian Planning Commission Advisory Body and had strong arguments with people in power for decentralization. Government of India sent him to China as a member of goodwill delegation to attend Independence Day celebration in 1951, and soon after returning, to Japan to study their work in the field of Village Industries and reconstruction.

Finally Kumarappa left AIVIA campus in 1952 to experience a living in Dalit village, Seldoh some 20 miles from Wardha. There he established Panini (meaning ‘agriculture’ in Tamil) Ashram and lived till 1955. He made frequent visits of Eastern Europe and then USSR during this period to study their economics with fresh outlook. Their achievements impressed him but he was still looking for a nonviolent alternate economy for India. All heavy strain on his body resulted in hyper-tension and he was medically advised to shift to a calmer place with milder climate. In November 1953 he went to Ceylon to undergo Ayurvedic treatment and returned to stay at Gandhi Niketan Ashram at T. Kallupatti, Madurai. This became his headquarters in 1955 where his colleagues like Vinoba, Rajendra Prasad, Ariyanayakam, Bharatan Kumarappa and S. K. Dey called on him. His health kept deteriorating and he had to shuttle between hospital and home many a times. Finally he was admitted to Government General Hospital at Madrass where he breathed his last on 30th January 1960. Coincidently 30th January was the date on which his mentor, Gandhiji was martyred.

Kumarappa’s body of work presents a radical economic ideal that require further maturation and for that matter, needs revisiting again and again. It is also a time for alternative ideas and economic models which may have potential to replace the carbon economy. The demand of sustainable development also presupposes a peaceful social condition as envisaged in nonviolent economy of Kumarappa. His economic philosophy in that sense truly serves as nonviolent resource to help achieve sustainable development for India and its people, if not for the world at large. Its India centric economic solutions and measures are time tested and have roots in its long tradition and culture. It would be befitting to reveal these important aspects of his socio-economic vision through dialogue and public discourses while celebrating his 125th birth anniversary. This is also a time to take notice of the initiatives taken in the field of village development on the lines suggested by Gandhiji and articulated by Kumarappa, either existing or non functional, scattered in the remotest corners of this vast country in want of our appreciation and support.