On the trail of nehru

With Homi J Bhabha
With Homi J Bhabha

Narmada Valley

I reported on the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam project. Many of us cited Nehru’s immortal words, calling big dams and factories “the temples of modern India”. It is such a ‘temple’, the Bhakra dam, that made Punjab India’s bread basket.

Still, I was disturbed to see another big dam in Gujarat sinking the old temple of Manibeli village across the state border in Maharashtra along with what my Adivasi source Munga Mogya Padvi called his ‘universe’. “Jangal, zameen, pakshi, keede, daane… ,” he sang in his pantheistic chant.

By 2000, the World Commission of Dams questioned the wisdom of big projects: “While dams have delivered many benefits and made a significant contribution to human development, in too many cases the price paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, has been too high and, more importantly, could have been avoided.” Nehru’s efforts to modernise India came at a huge price in many instances.


singhstudent“I have heard that Nehru did good things for the country’s development. I began working as a driver in my youth and now at 72, I’m still landless and have to work to support my family”

Kulwinder Singh | Taxi Driver, Palliya, UP

“Nehru has and always will be one of the most influential leaders of India. He has struggled to give Indians freedom and rights such as equality by eliminating discrimination based on caste and much more”

Sanyukta Kamath | High School Student, San Franscisco



While researching, I realised that with Nehru’s blessing, India became one of the world’s leading dam builders with over 3,600 dams, displacing some 40 million people. Some studies suggest that over 40 percent of the displaced are Adivasis. It is a disturbing trend that Nehru foresaw as the “disease of giganticism”. Nehru later preferred “small irrigation projects, small industries and small plants for electric power…”

It is possible that he could not shut the floodgates that he opened. Historian Ramachandra Guha compares Nehru’s candid statements with those of Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv Gandhi’s regarding dams: “Nehru’s remarks were the most frank and direct. They were also unprompted, the self-correcting thoughts of a man who was a thinker before he was a prime minister.”

Reading memoirs of Nehru’s friends

One of Nehru’s friends was John Kenneth Galbraith, the US economist and ambassador to India (1961-’63). He recalled in an interview: “I made the observation that having (conservative economist Milton) Friedman advise on planning was very much like having the Holy Father in Rome advising a birth control clinic. And (Nehru’s advisor and Planning Commission member PC) Mahalanobis was sufficiently impressed by that figure of speech that he asked my wife and me to come, and we did… Of all the world leaders at that time, none attracted my attention more than Nehru.”

Gunnar Myrdal, another economist, India lover and friend of Nehru’s and Galbraith’s, observed about Nehru’s meeting with Congress High Command, as Nehru Memorial Library archives show: “Then I saw a sign, characteristic of Nehru, that he was very democratic in a fundamental, perhaps you can say, foolish way. He did want this thing to go through that committee, but without him pressing for it. This is a real sort of democratic attitude, but one which I think is rather unpractical for a prime minister in a very difficult country.” Nehru was a dreamer, before he was a Prime Minister.

Seeing Chandigarh

On my trips to the Himalayas, Chandigarh often served as the first stop. Its straight-line structures and minimalist beauty always attracted me. The story goes that architect Le Corbusier’s modernist vision appealed to Nehru, and he assigned him to lead the grand project of building this new city. “Let this be a new town, symbolic of freedom of India unfettered by the traditions of the past… an expression of the nation’s faith in the future,” Nehru said. Chandigarh was a replacement of Lahore that went to Pakistan after Partition. It was another dream of Nehru’s.


Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Jodhpur, Central Island Agricultural Research Institute in Andaman, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, the list goes on. In all parts of India, there are world-class laboratories. It was Nehru who built the base for India’s scientific research institutions. He was an institution builder.

High street fashion

When window shopping, I can see that an essential part of fashionable winter wardrobe is a Nehru jacket. It is a clean-cut version of achkan, the kind of a closed-neck coat that Nehru used to wear. Once a favourite of north Indian royalty, it became a fashion statement for celebrities ranging from the Beatles to Jeremy Irons. Nehru was stylish and inspired people across the world.