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The Historical Context and Contemporary Relevance of PM Modi's 'Zero Defect, Make in India' Vision

29/09/2014 12:27 BST | Updated 28/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Prime Minister Modi's recent launch of a roadmap to transform India into a high quality, global manufacturing hub is rightly seen as a boon to economic and job creation prospects; Abhaey Singh highlights the Prime Minister's vision in broader historical, cultural and contemporary global contexts.

Until the end of the 17th Century, and before she became a dominant maritime power, British ships were of a maximum of approximately 600 tonnes in weight, would require repair every decade or so, and were of relatively fragile build. When British and European 'traders' discovered Indian ships, the realisation that they were typically more than double the size - and as large as 1,500 tonnes, would function without repair for half a century at a stretch, and had hulls designed to make them far less sinkable was as confounding technologically, as it was impelling for the prospects of trade and blue-water power projection.

The quality and scale of British and European shipbuilding was thereafter transformed, and with the reverse-engineering and transfer of Indian technology, techniques and skill to Europe - and the subsequent, systematic dismantling of India's own shipbuilding industries - the 200 year process of the de-industrialisation of modern India was firmly set into motion. The myth that the world was only ever industrialised in the past two centuries is just that - a myth.

At a similar time, India was the world's largest producer of (first-rate) textiles. When Indians - for whom having a 'feel for the cloth' is more than a mere metaphor - were offered English fabric by East India Company traders, they were flatly refused because of their inferior qualities. The subsequent foundation of Britain's industrial revolution, which gave rise to the developed, modern Britain that we know today, was not purely based on the extraction of Indian (as well as African, Chinese, and other colonised) raw materials, labour and wealth, but also of her ideas, techniques and technologies.

In metallurgy, Britain and France also essentially cloned long-established Indian techniques of carburising steel, which again became central to the industrial revolution. Similar patterns can be seen in the adoption of modern sewage systems, high quality building construction, Brunel's canals, suspension bridges and other manufacturing and industrial 'innovations' that we still associate with our own, relatively recent industrial revolution.

"India was a far greater manufacturing nation than any in Europe or Asia; she was the greatest ship-building nation (and) nearly every kind of product known to the civilised world had long been produced there. Such was the India the British found when they came." Rev J. T. Sunderland, American Christian minister.

Cars, smart-phones and fridges are to the 21st Century what ships, textiles and metals were to the pre-colonial world. In the context of Prime Minister Modi's 'Make In India' & 'Zero Defect' visions, a return to the country's roots as a global manufacturing hub of high quality goods is to be viewed not only through the prism of business, economics or job creation, but also through that of India's historical leadership in advanced manufacturing, itself shaped by a deep-rooted philosophy and culture.

The dharmic and karmic pillars at the centre of Vedic economic and leadership philosophy, coupled with age-old Indian concepts such as swa-dharma (self-ethics), gunavizistata (excellence in quality) and navapravartana (innovation) have shaped an inclusive and fundamentally benign culture of enterprise in India that has not only promoted high quality manufacturing, but also provides a templated solution to the West's broader economic woes, rendering the simplistic contemporary debate on the choice between 'Capitalism' and 'Socialism' obsolete.

21st Century India's path-breaking successes in space and advanced technology, her rapid re-industrialisation since independence, and her disproportionate contribution to the leadership of the US' largest firms - despite now being a developing nation - is testament to the endurance, virtue and utility of these ancient codes of conduct. Prime Minister Modi's efforts to revolutionise manufacturing in India is connected at its core to these value systems, as it carries with it the philosophical subtleties which his Ivy-league and Oxbridge educated predecessors - as well as counterparts throughout the world - have repeatedly omitted; a fastidious focus on quality, a dedication to consumer value, and an uncompromising sense of responsibility towards all stakeholders.

The manufacturing philosophy adopted by our European (and American) forefathers over the past two centuries - and sometimes wrongly, patronisingly attributed to modern China - centred on maximising profitability through mass-production, 'piling-them-high', and 'selling-them-cheap'. It is that model which today also churns out products - from light bulbs to televisions, and clothing to cars - which are often deliberately designed to fail or become redundant after a pre-defined life-cycle, as a means to spur 'replacement demand'.

Even our health has not been spared by a Western - namely Anglo-Saxon - business and manufacturing outlook which emphasises bottom-line returns above all else; Brits who subsisted on wholegrain, complex carbohydrates for centuries, for instance, are today marketed and fed mass-produced, high shelf-life, chemically bleached white bread, which is akin to eating poison as part of a staple diet. Former colonies, including India, are now mindlessly sustaining demand for such products, and with it, the perpetuation of such unpropitious business models.

Conversely, a previously dominant Indian - and Asian - manufacturing philosophy dictated that a product be built for life, where feasible, and with the requirements of the end user, not the 'wealth creator', assuming primacy and remaining sacrosanct.

Therefore, when Prime Minister Modi's vision to revive India's historical role as a workshop - and more pertinently, a quality workshop - of the world begins to bear fruit, the real significance should hopefully not merely be limited to that of business opportunities, economic growth and employment, but even more importantly, to the universally accessible provision of higher quality, better value, and more consumer-focussed commodities.

Given China's continuation of a broadly Anglo-Saxon model of economics and manufacture, instead of one derived from her own exemplary past - which in turn equates to a lost opportunity for all global consumers - the inherent 'Indianess' of Prime Minister Modi's manufacturing vision may ultimately be good news for all of us.

Read: 15 Indian Discoveries That Shaped The Modern World

Abhaey Singh is a social investor and the founder of the The Indian Debating Union. His promotion of 'Values-Based Leadership' and 'Socially-Focussed Enterprise' has been acclaimed internationally.