Feature Article: ‘Amirtasya Putraha’ (Children of Immortal Bliss) Rejoice being ‘Slumdog Millionaire’?

Feature Articles / January 2011

O. B. Ramasubramanian

Editors Note:The dawn of Independence in India also saw the breakdown of a dialogue between the believers in the Nehruvian Model of development and the Gandhian. What is visible today is the economic growth of India.  However, with the global crises accelerating, the Gandhian perspectives of development and growth are becoming recognized as a possible long term solution while the negative fall outs of the Nehruvian Model that many see as the continuation of the colonial ways, and an aping of the West, are becoming clear. There is a widening gap between the Westernized professional elite and the vernacular majority. Great poverty, disrespect of the environment and conspicuous consumerism replace the more sober values of a sustainable development proposed by Gandhiji.

The reader will be confronted with the reality of community governance in this paper. It will be tempting to look at ‘community’ as a purple v-meme. In India, communities spanned the entire subcontinent and had their own set of socio-technical and socio-political processes. They are therefore blue with orange and green subtexts. The idea of Kingdoms and economic governance ran parallel to these Pan-Indian community organizations. These communities have had to constantly battle the larger political reality since the times of the Moghul Invasions (around the 12th century) and the British Colonozation (17th century). It is a wonder as well as a tribute to their resilience that they serve the people to this day. Many have adopted Orange values with remarkable innovativeness.

This paper opens a window to the less glamorous and more arduous process of development that is not a colonization of India by its elite!

“Independence begins at the bottom… A society must be built in which every village has to be self sustained and capable of managing its own affairs… This does not exclude dependence on and willing help from neighbours or from the world. It will be a free and voluntary play of mutual forces…” – M.K. Gandhi

The persistent and intense conflict that India faces is in managing its idea of knowledge internally. It can be portrayed as a conflict between the eternal, civilizational India represented by its village communities and predominantly agrarian society that has a world view of its own (whose holistic wisdom like that of several traditional societies everywhere is increasingly seen as relevant to the whole world) and the modern India State, that has organized itself within the world order of modern western thought and technology domination. The conflict is between the world view that repeatedly proclaimed human life as potentially divine and which has been a dynamic knowledge society organized around definite principles, on the one hand, and on the other, the vague idea of a knowledge society that has been recently discovered by the modern State (and the industrial idea promoted by it) in narrow confines of information technology ghettos living a globalized, individualistic technology dependent ‘American way of life’.

Sustaining the lofty dollar world economy of the twentieth century has necessitated manufactured conflict in other societies. India is no exception. Twentieth century free India represented by its State and Market least represents the sum substance of the traditional knowledge of the people populating it, forever requiring external knowledge transfusion and support to sustain the structure, systems and symbols of the State.   On the idea of leadership and managing itself, too, the State promoted knowledge institutions looked at the Western world to evolve itself until recent decades and even today does to some extent.  The euro-centric social sciences that interspersed themselves based on the market demands of a particular time to evolve into modern management knowledge have been parroted by the Indian knowledge suppliers forever placing the Indian leaders and managers in a conflict.

My Personal Journey of Discovery

“Do you think the peasants in the field cannot manage themselves? Go ask them how to run a government, and they will tell you”, used to be an oft repeated indictment of Dharampal[1], the Gandhian historian with whom I had the opportunity to unlearn my corporate knowledge and re-learn to look at India afresh.  After all the so called, ‘unorganized’ and ‘informal’ sector of India employs more than half a billion people and contributes the majority of the earning for the State also. My own earlier work for corporate groups had made me aware of the conflict of Indian managers, between a management theory that was based on control, designed with no faith on the capacity of the employees on the one side and relationship-based managing things that people did outside the office/factory/corporate on the other. It was as though managers wore a mask inside the office and struggled with managing a small band of executives; when they stepped outside they removed the mask and became a much larger leader of people capable of governing and managing several things.

A Vedantic approach to management[2] that evolved in the early 90s in India, that treated human beings as having the potential to achieve divinity in a moment and equated it to capacity to achieve infinite performance (the expectation from manpower in the 80s and early 90s) had found several votaries, particularly senior management staff who had lived with this conflict all their lives. They found in its framework articulation of their own suppressed management learning, steeped as the management thinking was in the western models and its deep rooted premises.  The late 90s onslaught of motivational and principle focused management knowledge downloaded from the western world, saw some resonance in the Vedantic perspective in its own limited way. 

These were my learnings when I encountered Dharampal at the end of the 90s. His body of work profiles a different kind of India at the onset of the colonial rule; he identified its methods of governance and management of its resources and itself.  His painstaking compilation of the archival documents had proven how people innovated and practiced technology of superior levels, how they governed their natural resources and how they learnt and managed their knowledge institutions, apart from throwing light on how the roots of these were destroyed during the early Colonial period.

Having lived almost all of my life in a city, to look at the villages and their institutions for management or leadership models hadn’t occurred to me at all. After all, didn’t all urban education in India start with the assumption that to be urban was advanced and to be rural was backward? Generations of middle class moral consciousness had been driven by the need to ‘develop’ the rural and all that was perceived to be rural (including what most of my generation and subsequent grew up thinking—urban slums as synonymous with rural villages).  Since my encounter with Dharampal and thanks to my engagement and working with a few village-based initiatives, I have had the opportunity to expand my knowledge by interacting and studying village communities and their leaders. To me leadership is all about capacity to initiate, manage and govern. The current world shows an absolutely unimaginative and cowardly leadership, especially in the western sphere that is helplessly in a tailspin spending enormous energy to hold together an unsustainable order and organization.  While India today is in a position to showcase some of its capacities to lead, the India visible through the corporate media is the State and society that are not dissimilar to the Western world today.  The real leadership models that are uniquely Indian are to be found away from the mainstream media and knowledge institutions of the State. The vibrant, diverse and not too visible India lives away from the roads where the media vans may transit through.  It is in villages and small towns that I have found living examples of the leadership and management qualities that Dharampal and before him Gandhiji spoke of. I have chosen to depict below a few instances where I powerfully encountered this society and its methods of managing itself to give an insight into the minds, ways of life and qualities that define its world view.

Encounters of the Other Reality

‘How do you think we will decide differently?’ asked the Panchayat leader, the question shook me to my roots.  I had been to the village to understand how their system of governance worked, on what principles; what philosophy guided them, who frames these. I met with their village governance system (Panchayat) functionaries.  I was told that the village Palamedu had an elaborate system of electing the President and his judgment was the last word. Later as a special privilege I was permitted to watch the proceedings of a Panchayat. In the middle of the hearing, the all powerful head of the village got up and walked out for having a cup of tea in the nearby shop. The judgment was pronounced by the remaining members of the Panchayat before he could return. A fine was awarded and the disputing parties dispersed!  When I queried him on his return about the oft repeated statement that his ruling was final and how he was not even present when the ruling was being pronounced, he looked surprised. “How did you think we will decide, differently and in conflict with each other?” asked the Panchayat leader. The question shook me to my roots. In such a society, consensus borne out of an acceptance of common values and ethical understanding prevail over individual differences.

“If someone is struggling already, how can we further pressure them? We will try and support them further or else we write off the bad debt,”, said another elder when I enquired as to what will he do if the informal lending made by the community to its members was not returned. The community of sustenance farmers in Pudur, had come up with the innovative method of overcoming temporary capital needs in its society. Every family sent its able bodied young men to work as manual labourers in far off countries and after a few years they return with the money and take care of the immediate family needs before settling down to sustenance farming again. No family had money to send their son abroad, so the village created a fund to support those going out for a job, their interview cost, cost of documentation for going abroad, cost of travelling, etc. Once the person settled abroad, he sent a small sum of what he earned as the social investment in his village apart from re-paying his debt. This social investment accumulated over a period enough for the villagers to build some community infrastructure and revive its water tank for irrigation. But, with periodic news stories on cheating contractors and labourers stranded in far off countries, it was natural that I ask the village elder as to how they would handle defaults due to such issues.  Later, I found that this practice of community based lending at zero or low interest is prevalent in many trading communities of India.  It is said that when the Britishers started creating the tax system for India, the farmer’s refused to pay tax on a draught year, when enquiries were made, it was said that as far as the farmers could recollect, they had never paid tax during a draught or a famine year and instead the King or Emperor was supposed to release grains from his granary to support the population. Taxation was always relatively fixed or waived on compassionate grounds.

Community Self -Governance

In many communities, a Community tax is collected and doesn’t get reflected in any government record books. Even today the tax levied is always related to the capacity of the individual. This is possible to manage only in de-centralized small communities[3]. This levy is also related to the socializing of the individual to the village. A new entrant in the village could approach the group of elders for remitting a tax after his family has lived in the village for a year.  An assessment of his capacity to pay is made (the lowest and highest tax is controlled by a ceiling on the overall tax per family) and he is levied the same. However, he cannot be elected for any of the village institutions unless he has continuously lived in the village for a decade at least. Why? “It takes that long for someone to identify himself completely with the village!” exclaimed a village elder in Palamedu.  Understanding and adherence to value system and culture requires time and constant engagement. The village systems display an enormous understanding of this.

But, once someone becomes part of a community, the ability to initiate an act of common good is rather simple. In Virudhunagar, a small-size-trading town, the entire trading activity is organized around a village tank. A few years back when the government was still exploring legislation on roof top rainwater harvesting, the trading community in this town took note of the potential of this technique and in a very short time created one of the largest networked rooftop rainwater harvesting systems.  “Our process is very simple,” a merchant in the town explained, “If I and a group are convinced about an initiative and its social benefit, we buy a new notebook, write the name of the initiative and details, put our names and against each name how much we are willing to contribute and send someone around the tank to all the other merchants!”  This community had a century ago, collected a handful of rice from each family every day and created a series of educational institutions for its children, and today has more than 20 educational institutions. Many industry leaders and respected political leaders have grown out of this community.

The Grass Roots Innovativeness

The Anthropological Survey of India (ASI)[4], in its large project profiling different communities of India spread over study of several decades had recorded how each community had more than 5 vocational skills. While about two fifth were traditional, three fifths were always new and evolving. Initiatives management and innovation have been always a strength of the village community. So, as the renowned film maker Shekar Kapur recently discovered, a 13 year old could repair a complicated Black Berry phone for small change (as well as give free advice on clean usage!)[5]; and there are towns in India that could produce any machine part after examining it a few times.  The Honeybee Network[6] has in the last decade or so, recorded several thousand innovations amongst the rural communities.  These vary from simple, several thousand modifications of agricultural practices, to the most sophisticated and intricate techniques of boat building, silk weaving, designing and irrigation and a thousand other skills and knowledge forms in diverse ways and methods. Management of natural resources, manpower, time and energy is  effective and governing all of these resources was part of the community’s knowledge. And, this continues at several levels in society until today. When a civil society organization tried to understand the role of traditional  irrigation managers (called neerkattis in Tamizh) in rural societies, it was surprised to find that there were more than 1000 of them still functional and practicing their vocation in villages in just one region of the state of Tamilnadu.

Natural Genius and State Structures

Consensus, compassion, customization, common action through individual commitment and a creative approach to problems are some of the characteristics of the community governance methods that I have encountered repeatedly. Some of them are as sophisticated, if not more than, the current system of Governance of the Democratic Nation State of India. In a recent meeting when some of the traditional leaders were invited to share what was their idea of ‘sustainable development’, one of them said that having people with ‘manavalimai’ (strength of conviction) and sense of ‘samudayam’ (social consciousness and responsibility) along with ‘iraianbu’ (a recognition and love for divinity in all) would be his prescription for sustainability!

When the new Nation State was being created, somehow the village system of Governance was hardly acknowledged and not much integrated into the nation’s consciousness and constitution[7]. The euro-centric and misleading interpretation of Indian society was owned up to by the new rulers who super-imposed their ideas of ‘development’ on top of Colonial governance and management structure that was primarily created with the objective of sustaining slavery of the mind and spirit.  The entire diverse and rich body of knowledge that was created, managed and sustained by this civilization was ignored (and its amplified limitations that served the colonial enslavement policies reiterated) in a quest of making a new beginning.

Hence the State structure (and the later developed industrial complex) was largely based on colonial methods of governance and its practices. The characteristics that were common for the individual as much as for the society earlier were replaced with ‘rights’ for the individual and ‘privileges’ of the State. Since then until today, the self-respecting citizen tries to stay away as much as possible from the functionaries of the State. Any human collective effort that happens finds the State perfectly useless in its endavour and consequently ignores it[8]. Almost all the members elected to the State houses of Governance are misfits and unemployables in their own village communities. Subversion of the State started with the way it was structured. No regulation in India that is implemented by the State is honoured uniformly or consistently. Almost all rules and regulations by the local village society are adhered to voluntarily by each one of the members of the village.  Successive generations of followers of those who created the methods of Governance have tried to borrow the western crutches of science, technology, commerce, aid and more recently security to rein in the free people and make them manifest a controlled idea of a single ‘state’. The free society outside the State has tried to subvert the State, sustain its own practices, incorporate the methods and tools of the State in parts. Today both are weak and have lost the vision of a possible collective future.  They encounter each other every day, perhaps violently in political movements and articulations that spawn across the landscape and subtly in a billion day to day conflicts that govern the citizens’ life.

The Gandhian Perspective

Gandhiji was a rare leader who foresaw this conflict way before free India was born. He encountered the conflict in western society in its own way and could visualize how it might impact Indian society. So, in his ideas of Governance, he speaks of a method of governance that will not be top-down, but will be local in nature in the centre and will spread out like an ‘oceanic circle’[9] where the top circle is the outer most and will have least control over the centre, yet, will draw from the strength of the centre and contribute to it. His entire understanding of the Indian society was with immense respect for the ordinary citizen and faith in their capacity to manage themselves. He could move a nation to stand together and protest and he maintained that it was because he “articulated the aspirations that are deep in the hearts of the mute millions”. He often acknowledged that his biggest teachers were the ordinary people of this land and their practices and preferences.

His idea of Swaraj is the most radical challenge to the modern global form of Governance that permeates the world today. And it is an articulation of the models of governance and management of Indian villages and their ways. The residual practices of a quality of life in these villages are still present, indicating the potential that lurks beneath the surface that has accumulated several layers of State sponsored ‘development’ muck.  The Indians who identify themselves with the quality of life often find resonance with the exhortation of the Vedantic ‘amurtasya putraha[10]’ (the children of immortal bliss), while others who identify themselves with the muck, occasionally catch sight of a luster in it and rejoice in themselves as slumdog millionaires.


[1] More on him in Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharampal and the website www.dharampal.net

[2] I had compiled a short monograph called ‘An Introduction to Indian System of Management’ that provides an introduction and orientation on the principles and application of Vedanta in Management, published by SAMANVAYA, 2004

[3] The designer – teacher – thinker, Ravindra Sharma, once remarked that in the Indian mythology, the God Indra (considered King of Gods), is also known by the name ‘Upendra’, the vanquisher of large habitats. According to folklore, any habitat that was larger than 500,000 was considered too large and unsustainable and would be destroyed by Indra.

[4]Anthropological Survey of India, online at  http://www.ansi.gov.in

[5] The article can be found online at his official website – http://shekharkapur.com/blog/2010/07/a-blackberry-addict-discovers-grassroots-enterprise-in-india/

[6] Honeybee Network is a network of grass root innovators across India, details at – http://www.sristi.org

[7] A detailed note on the debate on the Panchayat System of Traditional Village Governance has been compiled by Dharampal and published by AVARD as ‘Panchayat Raj in the Constitutional Assembly Debate’ and later as part of his collected writings, can be freely downloaded from the Multiversity library available in the website www.multiversity.org.in

[8] The so called ‘un-organized sector’ in India is estimated to be employing more than 70% of the population whereas the State only employs about 6% of the population.

[9] “… In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever widening, never ascending circles. Growth will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose center will be the individual. Therefore the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swaraj#cite_note-12

[10] Vedanta, the pinnacle of knowledge is a body of several texts authored by several Seers based on their own experiences about life and is considered the very crux of the Indian philosophical knowledge. It treats each human as potentially divine and repeatedly addresses humans as children of immortal bliss, capable of achieving the immortal bliss in this life here and now.

About the Author

O. B. Ramasubramanian along with his wife Rama started and have managed a consulting firm for the social sector called, SAMANVAYA (www.samanvaya.com) for over a decade. He also jointly coordinates the Indian chapter of a network of intellectuals in third world countries called the Multiversity (http://www.multiversity.co.in/IIM.aspx). He aligns himself to the thinking of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian world view.  Currently, he teaches in a village-based management school near Madurai in Tamilnadu and researches on knowledge processes and on knowledge management in society. He has worked closely with late Gandhian historian Dharampal and has independently researched on village community institutions in the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu. Prior to starting Samanvaya, he had worked in the corporate consulting sector for close to a decade.  He lives in the coastal city of Chennai in southern India.