Will India and Japan forge a New Asia?


Amid the cheering of nearly 20,000 supporters and the vocal protests of academics and human rights advocates, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s theatrical appearance in New York on September 28th embodied many of the contradictions of his highly polarising popular mandate. Still, despite the attention understandably being drawn to Modi’s first visit to America (having previously been denied a visa due to accusations of complicity in the Gujarat killings of 2002), his visit to Japan one month previous may prove in the long term to be more significant.

Much has been said about the economic and geopolitical potential of a stronger relationship between India and Japan, widely acknowledged as two of the key powerhouses of the 21st century. On issues of defence, demography and technology both countries complement each other well, with India offering a youthful labour pool and massive market in contrast to Japan’s ageing population and potential for technological investment.

In assessing this relationship, however, some have gone beyond economic analysis, arguing that ‘historic links’ or ‘civilisational’ harmony can provide the glue for a relationship that transcends political pragmatism, with Modi himself saying that his visit to Kyoto “reflects the ancient foundations of our contemporary relations.” As Asia regains its historic role as the economic and geopolitical centre of gravity in a world-system that has become global, it is worth thinking about how these civilisational arguments can be interpreted within a broader context of modern Asian history and political thought.

Interwar Pan-Asianism and why it matters

Following widespread disillusionment with Eurocentric visions of modernity in the wake of the horrors of the First World War, similar arguments regarding the shared heritage of India and Japan were used by thinkers such as Rash Behari Bose in order to present a powerful counter-narrative to the oppressive status quo of Western imperialism. Not to be confused with the more famous Subhas Chandra Bose, Rash Behari Bose was a Bengali revolutionary who gained widespread notoriety when he threw a bomb at Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy and Governor General of India, during a triumphal procession at Delhi in 1912.

Fleeing British authorities in India, Bose lived out the rest of his life in Japan, where he became an important and influential advocate of Asian unity. At Nagasaki in 1926, Bose attended an international conference with representatives from all over Asia, whose stated goal was “to bring about permanent world peace based on justice and equality and secure the freedom and happiness of all races without regard to class, racial, or religious differences.” This ideology, called Pan-Asianism, argued that a new diplomacy centred in a ‘New Asia’ was the solution to an international system suffering from the twin scourges of capitalist imperialism and socialist materialism. 

Despite the enormous potential of the ideology in charting an alternative course for international politics, Pan-Asianism came to be appropriated as a political strategy by Japanese nationalists seeking to enhance the legitimacy of their own imperial agenda in the build-up to the Second World War. Aligning Pan-Asianism with right-wing militarism resulted in a loss of credibility for the ideology, particularly among Korean and Chinese intellectuals suffering under Japanese imperial ambitions, and the New Asia envisioned by Bose vanished into obscurity in the postwar period.

Understanding the global political thought of interwar radicals like Rash Behari Bose can provide a useful framework for charting potential courses for bilateral relations between countries like India and Japan in the

21st century. With the motivations of both Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe being questioned by critics wary of right-wing nationalist agendas, the story of interwar Pan-Asianism should be a source of both optimism and caution. If this is the dawn of Bose’s New Asia, the willingness of leaders to learn from the past may play a key role in shaping the course of the future.

*Joseph McQuade [2013] is doing a PhD in History. Picture of Narendra Modi. Credit: Mayur Bhatt and Wiki Commons.


The second Green Revolution

Just over a month ago, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, the Chairman of the World Food Prize called me to say that I had won the Inaugural Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application. I will receive this award later this week at a ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa. As the father of Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug is much loved and respected in India. So this news was covered by almost all major newspapers, from the Times of India and the Hindustan Times to the Economic Times and Dainik Jagaran.

I started working on groundwater and irrigation issues in 2001 when I joined the IWMI-Tata Programme in Anand, Gujarat. As a part of that work, I helped design a survey of groundwater users in South Asia and the survey results surprised me. I realised that groundwater economies in eastern India were very different from those elsewhere in the country. This made me curious and I wanted to understand the role of groundwater in the agrarian economies of eastern India better. So, when I went to Cambridge, I decided to work on policy and institutional issues regarding access to groundwater in West Bengal. After my PhD, I joined the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka and continued this work.

We found that, after showing high growth in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, West Bengal’s agricultural economy had slowed down with an adverse impact on farmers’ incomes and livelihoods. In recent years, it has barely registered 1% annual growth. The groundwater economy contracted too. For example, according to the Minor Irrigation Census, the number of groundwater wells declined by over 100,000 from 2001 to 2007 – entirely unprecedented in India. This is a paradox given that the same minor irrigation census shows that in 80% of the villages, groundwater is available within less than 10 metres and that groundwater levels recover sufficiently after the monsoon season due to high rainfall (1,500-3,000 mm per year) and the alluvial nature of the aquifer [underground layer of water-bearing rock]. Yet, farmers found it difficult to pump water from aquifers for their crops. Why was this so?

We discovered that the reason was that farmers were facing high energy costs for pumping groundwater because of their dependence on diesel pumps and the fact that diesel prices have been increasing quite rapidly since the early 2000s. In West Bengal, only 17% of all pumps are electrified, compared to a national average of over 60%. The electrification of pumps would have been an easy solution, especially since West Bengal has been an electricity surplus state for a long time now. However, we found that farmers faced two difficulties in connecting their pumps to the electricity grid. First was the Groundwater Act of 2005 which required all farmers to procure a permit from the groundwater authority before they could apply for a connection. This process of getting a permit was fraught with red tape and corruption and often led to harassment of farmers by unscrupulous officials. And then, even if a farmer managed to get a permit from the groundwater authorities he had to pay the full capital cost of electrification of tube wells which was often much beyond the capacity of small and marginal farmers owning less than half a hectare of land.

We presented our research findings to Dr Mihir Shah, Member of the Indian Planning Commission, and with his help we took our results and recommendations to the top bureaucrats in Bengal. We suggested removing the permits system in all places where the groundwater situation is safe. We also suggested rationalising the capital costs of initial electrification. In addition, we suggested that funds from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) should be used in a targeted manner for the excavation of ponds in districts with alluvial aquifers. The government accepted most of these suggestions. On 9th November, 2011, via an administrative order, the Secretary of Water Resources changed the law whereby farmers residing in safe areas and wanting to install pumps with less than 5 Horse Power would no longer require a permit from the groundwater department. Similarly, the West Bengal State Electricity Board has also come out with a circular saying that farmers will have to pay a one-time fixed cost for electrification and this cost will be around Rs. 10,000 or so. They will, of course, then continue to pay a metered tariff.  Here, let me emphasise that West Bengal has one of the best agricultural electricity governance regimes in India. Unlike other states where farmers get free and unmetered electricity, in Bengal, electric pumps are metered and farmers pay quite high electricity tariffs for pumping groundwater. This gives them an incentive to make efficient use of groundwater and electricity.

With both these policy changes in place, it is expected that farmers will have easier access to groundwater and will be able to intensify their cropping systems, earn more and emerge out of poverty. Together these have the potential to drastically change the nature of agriculture in West Bengal and usher in a second Green Revolution. The state has 7 million land holdings, of which 5.6 million are less than one hectare in size and belong to small and marginal farmers. Thus the possible implications for agricultural output and poverty reduction of these two policy changes are huge. I also think that these policies are replicable in many parts of the eastern Indian states of Bihar and Assam with similar hydro-geological conditions. By providing timely, adequate and reliable irrigation, groundwater helps in reducing poverty.

*Aditi Mukherji [2003] did a PhD in Geography and is currently a senior researcher with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in New Delhi.