Chronicling the history of organisations

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Many may consider the general absence of a sense of history as reflective of the country's ethos. The Reserve Bank of India has, however, demonstrated that this need not be so. It has shown that oral history has a place in the recounting of past events. Also, organisational histories must be supplemented with conversations with master policy-thinkers if future generations are to draw lessons from the past, says A. Vasudevan.

A. Vasudevan

WAY BACK in 1964-65 working on a Ford Foundation project under Professor H. K. Paranjape on the evaluation of the Planning Commission's work, I had the good fortune of going through the files of the Commission and getting an idea of how policymakers, including the Chairman of the Commission, had interfaced with one another on issues of the day and on the goals that should be pursued.

This project was a sequel to the descriptive account of the Planning Commission that Prof Paranjape wrote in 1964. Our work on the evaluation, however, was more than half-way through when the Foundation withdrew its support with the result the work remained incomplete.

This was my first brush with what might be regarded as history of an official organ of the Government that enjoyed enormous intellectual supremacy during the 1950s and perhaps until the mid-1960s. This background gave me some confidence when I was given the opportunity to draft the history of the Reserve Bank of India for the period 1967-1981 with the help of a team of RBI officials.

My assignment, however, was to focus only on the critical domestic component of the working of the RBI during the said period. The external component would, as discernible observers know, be less important in inward-looking regimes that are characterised by unquestioned power of the governments.

These experiences have been diverse in several respects. The study on the evaluation of the Planning Commission was based on the files of the Commission whereas the study on the working of the RBI was based not only on the files of the organisation but also on what is known widely as oral history and published memoirs of senior policy thinkers of the past.

Interestingly enough, the notes of the Commission of the 1950s were elaborate, frank with less `officialese'. One could also glean in the notes differences of views among the senior functionaries of the Commission. The differences, however, were invariably expressed in a refined language reminiscent of the interventions of Gopal Krishna Gokhale on public finance matters in the Legislative Assembly/Council of the day.

The 1950s represented a continuation of the traditions established by the `middle-class' that led the movement for Indian independence and stood for liberty of expression and action in line with the need to promote social welfare. The more recent experience has convinced me that as societies change, the behaviour of organisations and of those who run them also changes.

Organisations adapt themselves to the wishes of the powerful in all centrally controlled regimes. As a consequence, such noting as `Please discuss' or `Discussed' have begun to appear more frequently on most documents at the draft stage. The finalised drafts placed before the decision-makers ended almost always with the words, `May be considered'. What is more annoying is that the finalised drafts tended to be brief and factual. The positions that organisations could take on issues are rarely mentioned in full detail.

The historian looking at the files would wonder whether there were at all comprehensive discussions on the alternative sets of policies and whether there was any definitive reasoning provided for the decision that was ultimately taken. This is where `oral' history plays a useful part.

The memoirs of retired technocrats also come in handy in that they supplement the oral discussions that historians conduct for delving into the decision-making processes. My experience in the drafting of the RBI's history confirms that both oral history and memoirs when viewed along with the matter recorded in official files would provide a more representative picture of the events than what would emerge from the recounting of events based purely on official files.

This approach, however, would make the historian's task difficult because very few persons maintain diaries and keep record of the course of events and the processes behind decision-making. The historian, therefore, has to tap the memory of the retired senior technocrats without being elaborately quizzical or cynical.

As memories tend to fade with time, the historian has to countercheck events and decision-making processes by rounds of oral interviews of peers or `immediate successors' to the positions held by the prime interviewees. The historian would encounter difficulties here too. For there are instances of the peers or immediate successors making claims about their own contributions to the processes of decision-making.

To ensure that such claims are not exaggerated, the historian has to search for some corroborative evidence in the absence of which it is difficult to make a judgment about what is most plausible.

What, then, are the lessons from writing of histories of official organisations? First and foremost, organisations must maintain sound filing systems and ensure their safety and secure retrieval. This is an aspect where many organisations fail. Often, files are either incomplete or missing. The files are also not maintained with appropriate contents indices and cross-references to other files.

It is not that there are no administrative manuals about filing systems; the fact is that organisations do not have appropriate machinery to ensure that the systems as provided for in their own manuals are in place.

Most organisations go through rounds of drafting stages. To illustrate, the first or initial draft would be on a certain type of paper, say, yellow in colour, the next draft by the middle-level functionaries would be on a different colour paper (say, blue), and the final draft emanating from relatively senior functionaries would be on thick paper of another colour (say, light blue).

The organisations should make it a point to retain all the drafts so that the historian gets a balanced view of the decision-making processes.

Where the filing systems are inadequate, oral history becomes critical. Organisations should encourage their professional staff to express their viewpoints and assure the staff that they would be given due attention without attracting any displeasure if the recommended views differ from the ultimately favoured view.

Such a transparent approach would help the historian to appreciate the level of knowledge and the size and content of data that was available at the time of decision-making.

While the historian is expected to determine the level of available knowledge, it is for the organisations to preserve provisional data in a systematic manner.

It is no use having archives if there are no sound oversight mechanisms about preservation of files and data in various departments of the organisation.

The problems mentioned above would not disappear even when electronic filing systems replace paper-based systems. There are many who consider the general absence of a sense of history as reflective of the country's ethos. The RBI, however, has demonstrated that this need not be so. It has shown that oral history has a place in the recounting of past events. Organisational histories, however, are not enough. Surely they would not give full flavour to the evolution of economic policies.

It is, therefore, necessary to record conversations with master policy thinkers of the past, beginning with I. G. Patel, and countercheck their views with the files in respective Ministries, the Planning Commission and the RBI.

Such overarching initiatives need to be given sufficient financial and organisational support if we care about the lessons we could draw from the past for the benefit of posterity.

(The author, former Executive Director of the Reserve Bank of India, could be contacted at

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 26, 2005)
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