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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 17 New Delhi, April 11, 2020

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar: Tribute to a leader of the masses

Saturday 11 April 2020

[It is the 127th birth anniversary of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on 14 April 2020]

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by Dr. Atul Krishna Biswas

As Member (Labour), Viceroy’s Executive Council, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar held from July 20, 1942 to June 29, 1946. These four years eleven months witnessed the social visionary’s intense nation building activities. This essay, as a tribute to his 127th birth anniversary, attempts at focusing the phase of his activities, over which widespread ignorance prevails.

Part - I

Dr Ambedkar as the pioneer of National Water Resources and Water Development Policy

Paying glowing tribes to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, while he inaugurated the Maritime Investment Summit 2016 in Mumbai on April 14, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, the father of the Constitution was also the architect of the water and river navigation policy. [1] Definitely he struck a strong note in highlighting the little focused role Ambedkar assiduously played as a builder of modern nation. This might be the reason why he, at the same time, took a sharp dig at India’s high-profile ignoramus, occupying the centrestage of intellectual domain that "Many of us may not know that Babasaheb created two powerful institutions related to water, navigation and power. They were: The Central Waterways, Irrigation and Navigation Commission and The Central Technical Power Board. Dr Ambedkar is also the architect of the water and river navigation policy in India." [2]

The tragedy, let it be emphasized out at the outset, is that a powerful lobby at work has been labouring to divest Dr. Ambedkar of his unique accomplishments in the field of development of India’s national water policy and resources in total disregard for extant voluminous official records. The countrymen are in the abyss of darkness because of calculated intellectual denial for the visionary’s rightful recognition Dr. Ambedkar merited in academic as well as public discourses.

A 307-page Commemorative Volume captioned ‘Ambedkar’s Contribution to Water Resources Development’ in 1993 to mark his birth centenary was reissued by Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation by publishing in 2016. Uma Bharati, Union Minister of Water Resources in her message to the volume observed:

Dr Ambedkar evolved a new water and power policy during 1942-46 to utilise the water resources of the country to the best advantage of everybody and the Tennessee Valley Scheme of USA was an ideal model to emulate. He rightly visualised that only multipurpose project can be a fine prospect of the control of the river, a prospect of controlling floods of securing a fine area for perennial irrigation with resultant insurance against famine, much needed supply of power and uplifting the living standard of poverty-stricken people of India. [3]

Her focus on the holistic approach for development and management of India’s water resources by Dr. Ambedkar would shock the countrymen as to why so much darkness enveloped the area. Union Minister’s message added:

Dr Ambedkar was instrumental in evolving multipurpose approach for water resources development on the basis of river valley basin, and introduction of the concept of river valley authority which are summarily now-a-days termed as Integrated Water Resources Management.

The river valley projects which were under the active consideration of the Labour Department during 1944-46 were Damodar River Valley Projects, the Sone River Valley Projects, the Mahanadi (the Hirakud Project) and the Kosi and others on river Chambal and rivers of the Deccan.”

These projects were conceived, commented the Minister,” essentially for multipurpose development with flood control, irrigation, navigation, domestic water supply, hydropower and other purposes. The Damodar River Valley Projects and Hirakud Multipurpose Project are standing monuments in the memory of this great visionary.” [4]

Lest the nation continues to shower apathy on Dr Ambedkar’s contribution, Miss Bharti did not forget to underscore as well that,

The Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956 and the River Boards Act, 1956 are a well-thought vision of Dr Ambedkar to deal with the matters of the interstate rivers. The former provides, in the words of its preamble, “for the adjudication of disputes relating to the waters of inter-state rivers and river valley. [5]

Prof. Sanwar Lal Jat, Minister of States for Water Resources joined his Minister to pay tribes saying that Dr. Ambedkar was the pioneer to draft new water policy and laid down the foundation for development of multipurpose projects for independent India.

He had, in fact, been the guiding spirit behind Damodar Valley, Hirakud and many other projects in those days. [6]

Confrontation between Viceroy Wavell and Dr. Ambedkar, a rare spectacle!

Here we can refer to an epic confrontation, Dr Ambedkar, Member (Labour) had with Viceroy Lord Wavell, the Supreme Authority of the Empire in India. This was documented by the doyen of Indian journalism, Durga Das in the following words,

A chief engineer was needed to head the commission to draw up plans for flood control in the Damodar Valley Corporation in Bihar. Wavell favoured the choice of a British expert who had been adviser on the Aswan Dam project in Egypt. Ambedkar, however, wanted an American who had experience of the development undertaken by the Tennessee Valley Authority. He argued in support of his demand that Britain had no big rivers and its engineers lacked experience in building big dams. [7]

Forceful logic and weighty eloquence of fearless Labour Member silenced the Viceroy and he had his way. The same journalist also observed that “Ambedkar was perhaps the most erudite member of the Executive Council and was a powerful speaker.” [8]

In the circumstance, the first technical expert for the DVC from USA inducted by Dr. Ambedkar was W. L. Voorduin, with profound experience of Tennessee Valley Authority. Appointed to head the DVC, he reported for duties in no time and in August 1944, Voorduin submitted his ‘Preliminary Memorandum on the unified Development of the ‘Damodar River.’

Indian Information, April 1, 1946 reported that Ross M. Riegel and Fred C. Schlemmer, both leading engineers, also from the Tennessee Valley Authority, reached India on a mission to advise on the plans being made by the Central Technical Power Board for the Maithon, Alyar and Panchet Hill Projects. Both of them were in India for eight weeks, “their services having been made available to the Government of India by the Tennessee Valley Authority, with the approval of the State Department, Washington. [9] A meeting presided by Dr. Ambedkar held on April 25 and 26 in Delhi attended by representatives of the Central, Bengal & Bihar Government recommended for starting construction of the [first] Tilya Dam at Rs. 55 crores. [10]

Dr. Ambedkar as the Executive Member (Labour), addressed five conferences between November 15, 1943 and November 8, 1945---two on the Damodar Valley Project at Calcutta (January 3 and August 23, 1944), Multipurpose Development of Orissa’s Rivers (Cuttack, November 8, 1945) and two on Electric Power (Delhi, October 25, 1943 and February 2, 1945). [11]

The Central Water, Irrigation and Navigation Commission established in the year 1945 is what is now called Central Water Commission at Centre. The Central Water Commission, under Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Government of India is the spearhead of formulation, guidance and implementation of Government’s national policy for water.

Essence of water resources and development

     M. S. Reddy, Chairman, Central Water Commission dealt in perspective in 1993 what Dr Ambedkar was responsible for---

the emergence of a definite all-India policy with regard to the development of water and electric power resources in India; [2] the creation of the Central Waterways, Irrigation and Water Commission and the Central Technical Power Board, now known the Central Electricity Authority, as the administrative apparatus and technical bodies at the Centre to assist the States in the development of irrigation and electric power respectively; [3] introduction of the concept of River Valley Authority or Corporation for the integrated development of th rivers in the regions; [4] introduction of the concept of multipurpose development of river valley basin for the first time in India; amending entry “74” in the Constitution and bringing part of it to the Union List and introducing article 262 regarding the adjudication of disputes relating to waters of inter-state rivers or river valleys; and [5] initiation of some important present-day river valley projects, particularly in Damodar, Sone and Mahanadi river basin. [12]

Attempt at piracy of Dr. Ambedkar’s achievement?

A biography has recently staked a claim to the effect that

In accordance with the Government’s industrial policy, the Chittaranjan Locomotive Works (at Chittaranjan, West Bengal) the Hindustan Aircraft Factory (Bangalore), the Sindri Fertilizer Factory, (Sindri, Bihar) the four most successful and gigantic ventures, were conceived and organized by Dr. (S. P.) Mookerjee. [13]

Emphasizing further, the biographer underlined that

The multipurpose Damodar River Valley Project, which was modelled after, but was far more complicated than the Tennessee Valley Authority, is another outstanding achievement of Dr Mookerjee. Its need had been particularly felt after a devastating flood on the Damodar River in 1943. [14]

This claim with respect to DVC seems to have been made without any shred of evidence in support to prove Dr. Mookerjee’s role and claim for accomplishment.

 It is a matter of record Independent India’s first Council of Ministers including Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee headed by Jawaharlal Nehru took oath of office on August 15, 1947. Anybody would be confused as to how was it possible to lay claim for credit on DVC which went ahead good three years before Dr. Mookerjee was sworn in as a Minister. This sounds like putting the proverbial cart before the horse and therefore, untenable per se.

The aforesaid citation would leave none in any shadow of doubts about the role Dr. B R Ambedkar played in National Water Resources and Water Development Policy. In the teeth of unassailable facts, the claim for Dr. Syma Prasad Mookerjee by his biographer attempted to create confusion in the minds of readers and scholars.

This only substantiates the essence of time-honoured proverb correct: “Success has many fathers but failures have none.”

Part II

Dr Ambedkar’s contributions towards modernizing India

“Dr Ambedkar is my father in economics. His contribution in the field of economics is marvellous and will be remembered forever...!” - Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate

Bengali intellectual class have shown alacrity to adopt and/or embrace any outsider or even foreigner who showed affinity or allegiance to them at some stage of their life. This is a striking failure. Let me cite two magnificent illustrations when they behaved strangely.

Dr. Ambedkar was elected in 1946 to the Constituent Assembly Jessore-Khulna constituency of united Bengal frustrating powerful Congress efforts. And soon enough he became the Father of the Indian Constitution, but nonetheless he remained a dalit leader, unwelcome to the bhadralok in general. Jaipal Singh Munda, the other, was the architect of winning the first Olympic Gold medal from Amsterdam in 1928 for India. He had married Tara Winfrey Majumdar. She was a granddaughter of W. C. Bonnerjee, the first and founder President of Indian National Congress in 1885. Jaipal resigned from ICS, then under probation in England, when he was refused leave of absence for proceeding to Amsterdam to lead as Captain the Indian Hockey squad. He was the guiding spirit and leading light of tribal aspiration as their leader and dreamer of tribal state Jharkhand. The voluble Bengali did not claim that their grandson-in- law was India’s, nay Asia’s, first Olympic Gold medal winner. Striking aberration of the bhadralok in adopting highly outstanding outsiders!

The name of Dr. Ambedkar was never remembered by the dictators of the Bengali proletariat, who ignominiously perpetuated their rule with iron hand for almost four decades. And at the end their countless misdeeds and brutal misadventures uprooted them erased themselves with their sordid record. Bengalis could have claimed that their representative in the Parliament Dr Ambedkar had the honour of writing almost single handed the Constitution of Independent. They never did so. Now Jaipal is a tribal and Ambedkar an untouchable. They never belonged to their class, bhadralok. What all Ambedkar did as the Member of Labour in Viceroy’s Executive Council for the working classes in five years was envy to the white-collar, armed chair revolutionaries for their entire four decades of rule.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s approach towards welfare of working classes, as Labour Member of Viceroy was comprehensive. He appointed a Labour Investigation Committee, on February 12, 1944, headed by D. V. Rege, ICS, for fact finding with respect to wages and earnings, employment, housing and social conditions of labour in 38 selected industries. The following industries were brought under the net of investigation of this Committee:

Mining—Coal, Manganese, Gold, Mica, Iron Ore and Salt:

Plantations---Tea, Coffee and Rubber:

Factories—Cotton, Jute, Silk, Woollen, Mineral Oil, Dockyard, Engineering, Cement, Matches, Paper, Carpet weaving, Coirmatting, Tanneries and Leather Goods Manufacture, Potteries, Printing Presses, Glass Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works, Shellac, Bidi-making, Mica Splitting, Sugar, Cotton, Ginning and Baling and Rice Mills;

Transport—Tramways and Buses and Non-gazetted Railway Staff; and

Other Types—Port Labour, Municipal Labour, Central P.W.D., and Rickshaw Pullers. We cannot fail to notice that even the rickshaw pullers did not escape attention of the Viceroy’s Labour Member in the Executive Council.

On April 6, 1946 the Labour Member laid on Table of the House twenty reports of the aforesaid Labour Investigation Committee into conditions of labour in the silk industry, cement industry, carpet-weaving, iron ore industry, coir mat and matting industry, mica mine and mica manufacturing industry, dockyards, shellac industry, rickshaw pullers, rice mills, glass industry, bidi, cigar and cigarette industries, plantations, gola mining industry, potteries, chemical industry, manganese mining industry, mineral oil industry, woollen textile industry and paper mill industry.

Other Members drafted for the Labour Investigation Committee were S. R. Deshpande, Dr. Ahmad Mukhtar and Prof. B. P. Adarkar. [15] Observing aptly, The Indian Information hoped that reports containing two million words, embracing every aspect of working classes was rightly expected “to help the future planning of social security for labour and legislation by the Government.” [16]

To mark the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar, the Labour Minister of India highlighting some critical initiatives Labour Member took towards national reconstruction, said,

Dr. Ambedkar while working as labour minister had initiated and framed several laws for employment security, wage security and social security for the work force in India. Some of the major initiatives were; Mines Maternity Benefit Act; women Labour Welfare Fund, Women and Child Labour Protection Act, Indian Factory Act, National Employment Agency, Mica Mines Labour Welfare Fund, Employees State Insurance and Tripartite Labour Council, etc.-

Now I come to details of Labour Welfare measures: The Employee’s State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) which is one of the premiere health and insurance corporation for the organized labour and which is providing medical health and disability benefits of the workers had been enacted way back in 1942 by Dr. B R Ambedkar. [17]

Despite the stated position, we find widespread misinformation campaigns have been carried out and an impression created by influential quarters that Prof. B. P. Adarkar was the architect of the Employees State Insurance Scheme in India though he was one of the members of the Labour Investigation Committee. This is another attempt at piracy of Dr Ambedkar’s achievement to appease some section without justification or basis.

Government of India decided to give scholarship during 1946-47 for courses as below to students belonging to scheduled castes:

(1) Intermediate with Science, (2) B. Sc. (Pass or Honours), (3) M. Sc., (4) Engineering, (5) Technology, (6) Medical, (7) Agriculture, (8) Teacher’s Training and (9) Shorthand and Typewriting. For shorthand training every student got stipend at rate of Rs. 20 a month. [18]

Scheduled caste women students with Arts in Intermediate and Graduate courses were also eligible with undertaking to pursue Teacher’s Training courses after their courses of study were completed. If they did not pursue their training course, they were under obligation to refund the scholarship.

By a Resolution published in the Gazette of India of June 15, 1946, the Government of India increased the reservation in favour of Scheduled Castes of vacancies to be filled by direct recruitment in the Central Services from 8⅓ per cent to 12½ per cent, so as to bring it in accord with the population ratio. [19] These benefits were sanctioned at the initiatives of Dr. B R Ambedkar.

Some pioneering labour welfare measures

Dr. Ambedkar devoted two days, December 9 and 10, 1943 respectively to visit Dhanbad in Bihar and Raniganj, in Burdwan [Bengal]---then popularly called Ruhr of India referring to Germany’s rich coal-belts. In both these places, the 50-year old Labour Member, donning “safety cap” on head went 400 feet underground and inspected coalmine operations. He saw the miners--- men and women---working there. He also visited the labour quarters and familiarized himself with their standard of life. The kind of rooms in their occupation along with its furniture, utensils, washrooms, ventilation, etc. did not escape his notice. A coalminer, he found, allowed his domesticated cow, to share his small veranda.

Next year on 29 April, he had visited Koderma subdivision in Hazaribagh district, Bihar and addressed meeting of the Mica Mines Council. Such field visits enriched his vision and perception about the working classes. In Koderma too, he went 400 ft underground ‘by means of a ladder’ to inspect working of mica mine. [20] This concern for the working classes, particularly in the coal mines, manifested itself in the Coalmines Labour Welfare Ordinance in 1944, wrote one observer. [21]

Tribal women’s great manual dexterity
Secret of Bihar mica’s international pre-eminence

Ambedkar stated that India was the world’s largest producer of mica---80% of which was yielded by two districts, Hazaribagh and Gaya of Bihar whereas the balance came from Nellore of Madras, and Tonk State and Ajmer-Merwara in Rajputana. India’s “pre-eminence in the world’s markets”, recorded he, “is due largely to the excellent quality of the so-called “Bengal ruby “ mica of Bihar, but also to the great manual dexterity of the aboriginals, mainly women, who trim and split the mica with crude soft-iron sickles (or shears in Nellore.” [22] Mica has been used in India for centuries for decorative and medicinal purposes.

The economist’s unrestrained conscience dictated his perception emphatically that “if Government was to help the industry it would not allow the industry to exploit labour. If this was true it was not a matter of compliment either to the industry or to labour. If Government was to intervene or to take measures in order to stabilise the industry, Government would expect the industry to safeguard the interests of labour.” [23] This sounds like the command of a patriot; whose approach and outlook are distinctive. Many argue India as the comparatively better place for industry because of availability of cheap labour. The capitalists developed vested interests in keeping Indian labour illiterate and ignorant to be available for exploitation at comparatively cheap cost.

Some of Ambedkar’s reforms of labour laws as Member [Labour], Executive Council were pioneering.

1] He reduced the working hours in factories and shops from 14 hours to eight hours with a total of 48 hours a week. This enhanced the production of the workers and led to creation of more employment opportunities. [24]

[2] Law enacted by Ambedkar entitled labourers, irrespective of sex, equal pay for equal work.

[3] He created the mechanism for Plenary Labour Conference, Standing Labour Committee and Tripartite Labour Conference towards resolution of disputes between Management and labourers.

[4] He passed law mandating the management for compulsory recognition of labour union with certain stipulations. Failure to comply the law entailed punishment of the offender.

[5] He restored ban on employment of women miners underground for lifting coal.

[6] Dr. Ambedkar initiated measures for 8 weeks---four weeks pre-natal and 4 weeks post- delivery---of maternity leave for women labourers @ 8 annas.

[7] On May 7 and 8, 1943, Dr Ambedkar addressed a meeting Bombay that favoured the scheme for establishing employment exchanges for skilled and semi-skilled personnel benefitting both the employment seekers and employers to a large extent. [25] He had inspected Employment Exchange at Calcutta and examined its activities.

India at the moment can boast of over 900 Employment Exchanges.

Holidays with Pay was made an entitlement for Factory Workers by Dr. Ambedkar. [26]

Mica Labour Welfare Fund Act 1946 rendered the following benefits to mica mines labour:

(i) the improvement of public health and sanitation, the prevention of disease, and the provision and improvement of medical facilities,

(ii) the provision and improvement of water supplies and facilities for washing,

(iii) the provision and improvement of educational facilities,

(iv) the improvement of standards of living, including housing and nutrition, the amelioration of social conditions and the provision of recreational facilities,

(v) the provision of transport to and from work,

[(vi) the provision of family welfare, including family planning education and services.

Reserve Bank of India

Conceptualized by Dr. B R Ambedkar

Before we conclude, it is appropriate to state that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s role in establishment of India’s Central Bank. A Central Bank commonly known as a financial institution enjoying privileged control over the production and distribution of money and credit for a nation. It is bankers’ bank and the banker to the Government. In modern economies, the central bank is usually responsible for the formulation of monetary policy and the regulation of member banks. Till 1930’s India did not have her Central Bank. In 1925 the Royal Commission on Indian Currency & Finance, also called Hilton Young Commission after its Chairman visited India. On the banking, Dr Ambedkar was a prominent scholar who was consulted and examined by the Commission at great length. His dissertation "The Problems of The Rupee and Its Origin and Its Solution" was published in 1923 from London, when its author was just 30-year old.

Dr. Ambedkar’s book occupied the epicentre of attention of the Royal Commission. Ultimately “the Reserve Bank of India was conceptualized based on the guidelines presented by Dr. Ambedkar to the "Royal Commission on Indian Currency & Finance” in 1925. Commission members found Dr. Ambedkar’s book "The Problem of the Rupee- Its Problems and Its Solution” an invaluable reference tool and the Central Legislative Assembly eventually passed these guidelines as the RBI Act 1934.”  [27] And India’s Reserve Bank came into existence on April 1, 1935. According to preamble, the ambit of activities of the RBI Act are:

"to regulate the issue of Bank notes and keeping of reserves with a view to securing monetary stability in India and generally to operate the currency and credit system of the country to its advantage; to have a modern monetary policy framework to meet the challenge of an increasingly complex economy, to maintain price stability while keeping in mind the objective of growth."

Too stupendous a mark for a man of 41 year to make on the financial institution that occupies the pinnacle of stature in nation’s life! To make it a public knowledge and in recognition of his achievement, life size statute of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, placed prominently at the entry of the buildings housing Reserve Bank of India in every state as also national capital would be a befitting memorial to this great philosopher, emancipator and Constitutional expert.

The writer, a social anthropologist and analyst, is retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B. R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar.


[1News 18 April 14, 2016, ‘Dr Ambedkar Also the Architect of Water, River Navigation Policy: Modi.’

[2Ibid.

[3Commemorative Volume on Ambedkar’s Contribution to Water Resource Development by Ministry of Water Resources, Water Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Central Water Commission, New Delhi, 2nd Edition, 2016. http://cwc.gov.in/sites/default/files/ambedkars-book_1.pdf

[4Ibid.

[5Ibid.

[6Ibid.

[7Durga Das, India—-From Curzon to Nehru and After, Collins, London, 1969, p. 236.

[8Ibid.

[9“T.V.A. EXPERTS TO ADVISE ON DAMODAR VALLEY PROJECT” @ Indian Information, April 1, 1946, quoted in Writings and Speeches of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Vol. 10, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, p. 403.

[10Ibid., p. 682.

[11Commemorative Volume on Ambedkar’s Contribution to Water Resource Development by Ministry of Water Resources, Water Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Central Water Commission, New Delhi, 2nd Edition, 2016, pp. 233-274.

[12Commemorative Volume on Dr Ambedkar by Ministry of Water Resources.

[13Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Life and Times, Penguin Viking, 2018, p. 247.

[14Tathagata Roy, op cit., pp. 248-249.

[15Indian Information, April 15, 1946, p. 568.

[16Writings & Speeches of Dr. B R Ambedkar, Vol. 10, p. 394.

[17Speech delivered by Bandaru Dattatreya in the Lok Sabha to mark the 125th Anniversary of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. https://eparlib.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/750171/1/5267.pdf

[18Indian Information, March 15, 1946, p. 310.

[19Writings & Speeches of Dr B R Ambedkar, Vol. 10, Government of Maharashtra, p. 398.

[20Ibid., p. 175.

[21Ibid., pp. viii-ix.

[22Ibid., p. 176.

[23Ibid., 173.

[24Speech by the president of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee delivering Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture 2014 on ‘vision of India in 21st century, as envisaged by Dr. Ambedkar’ by Press Information Bureau
Government of India, President’s Secretariat, 04-September-2014.

[25Indian Information, June 1, 1943, quoted in Writings and Speeches of Dr B R Ambedkar, Vol. 10, Government of Maharashtra, p. 78.

[26Legislative Assembly Debates (Central), Vol. IV, 1st Nov. 1944, pp. 89-91.

[27Press Information Bureau, Government of India, President’s Secretariat, 04-September-2014, op. cit.

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