Monday, December 19, 2005

The Welfare State and the Arthashastra

Kautilya authored the Arthashastra - a Sanskrit literary classic on statecraft - in the 3rd century BCE. I refer to L.N. Rangarajan, "Kautilya: The Arthashastra: Edited, Rearranged, Translated and Introduced"; Delhi: Penguin Publication, 1992.

The Arthashastra highlighted public administration, economic prosperity, social welfare, diplomacy and military readiness as essential ingredients of a successful state. A capable ruler had to focus on these five elements. I will limit myself to the subject of public welfare here. This 2,200 year old Sanskrit document defined welfare as "the increase in economic activity, the protection of livelihood, the protection of vulnerable segments of society, consumer protection, the prevention of the harassment of citizens, and the welfare of prisoners and labor". Kautilya begins his text by mentioning that "In the happiness of his subjects, rests the ruler's own happiness, in their welfare lies his welfare, whatever pleases him he shall not consider as good but whatever pleases his subjects he shall consider as good." Kautilya proceeds to define the ideal ruler as one "who is ever active in promoting the welfare of the people, and who endears himself by enriching them and doing good to them".

The vast empire founded by Chandragupta Maurya in 321 BCE was administered by an efficient bureaucracy, had a good communications network and came under the control of a strong ruler. Kautilya was the King's chief advisor and strategist. The Arthashastra provided a public ethos to unify hitherto small political units, weld divergent groups into a broader cohesive identity and transcend diverse racial groups. The emphasis on the common weal was intended to cement a diverse and pluralist population. This explains the continued relevance of several administrative principles enunciated in the classical text. The Sanskrit document influenced political theory and traditional statecraft in India and Hinduized classical South East Asia down the centuries.

The references to the welfare state in the Arthashastra are vast and I will confine the discussion to the prevention of harassment, the welfare of public servants and the welfare of prisoners. Kautilya begins by enumerating public harassment to include village officials who extort, heads of departments who are corrupt, judges who solicit bribes, counterfeiters, traders who cheat the public and military personnel who go on rampage. The Arthashastra suggests mechanisms to enable the public to routinely register their complaints, to investigate them and provide compensation where justified. Punishments for corrupt officials and traders are enumerated.

The Arthashastra defines the vulnerable segment of the population to include "minors, the aged, the sick, the disabled, the insane, the drunken, Brahmins and ascetics". The vulnerable segments "are to enjoy priority of audience before the king, maintenance at state expense, free travel on ferries and given special consideration by judges". Kautilya provides for the protection of women servants from exploitation, harsh punishment for rape, and the protection of commercial sex workers against physical injury and exploitation. Village elders were to hold the property of orphans in trust and look after them. The state had the obligation to maintain destitute children, the aged, childless women and the helpless. The Arthashastra emphasizes that "when an enemy fort was attacked, non-combatants, those who surrender and the frightened were not to be harmed".

In the section on the rights of prisoners, the Arthashastra emphasizes the need for "separate prisons for men and women, the provision of adequate halls, water wells, bathrooms and latrines, protecting prisoners from fire hazards and poisonous insects, and safeguarding the rights of prisoners to their daily activities such as eating, sleeping and exercise". Kautilya restricts warders from torturing prisoners and prescribes severe punishments for the rape of female prisoners. He advocates the periodic release of prisoners on general amnesty.

The Arthashastra recommends that "Those officials who do not eat up the state's wealth but increase it in a just manner and are loyally devoted to the state shall be made permanent in service". He adds that "an official who accomplishes a task as ordered or better shall be honored with a promotion and rewards." "The state is to provide for the family of a government servant who died on duty".

Many of these precepts are modern in outlook and resonate with a contemporary audience. It is important to note however that this represented theory and the ideal. The actual practice of statecraft through the centuries did not necessarily meet these high standards. Moreover, several principles are irrelevant today. However, the text continues to provide an archetype of political thought that defined Hindu political theory, much like Plato's Republic did in Europe. There are other chapters on trade, public finance and economic enterprise. But that discussion later.


Anonymous said...

Hey Jaffna,

Very well summarized as always :-) If you already haven't, please read the translation by R Shama Sastri who pioneered the research and publication of this work which was unearthed at the turn of the previous century. That's better than Rangarajan's book.


Jaffna said...

Dear Sandeep,

Thank you for the lead. I will get a hold of Shama Sastri's translation.

Best regards

Siva said...

Once again an excellent piece of work from Jaffna.However a drunk doesn't deserve a place in "Vulnerable segment of population".

And I find some Arthasastra principles relevant even today.

Anonymous said...

The Arthashastra, unlike Plato's Republic, is eminently practical and is thus superior. It will always be relevant with its hard nosed realism. No woolly headed ideas of the philosopher king a la Plato.


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