An Era Of Emergency

The Emergency, often referred to as one of the most controversial events of the relatively short history of Independent India, was enforced on 25th June 1975. Former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, on the order of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, declared a 21-month long national Emergency. The Prime minister was bestowed with the authority to rule by decree, suspending all civil rights and liberty. It was indeed a hot mess because all the political figures who stood up against her were imprisoned and the elections also stood suspended.

How it all started

 The primary reasons for imposition of the Emergency trace back to the events that unfolded before 1975. The socio-economic condition of India was in a dire state following the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and the astounding influx of refugees. A slow industrial growth coupled with a high rate of unemployment and the government’s move to freeze the salaries of its employees led to an atmosphere of dissent. The US Government, too, stopped all aid to India leading to an increase in commodity pricing and prolonged distress among the people. In 1972-73, the monsoons caused a delay in the food grain production as well. Along with the economic distress that prevailed during these years, the various student strikes and protests that began to erupt across the nation further aggravated the situation which ultimately led to the imposition of the Emergency as proposed by Mrs. Indra Gandhi.

A Political Irony 

It was a political fiasco. This was the pinnacle of Command Economy and Licence-Quota-Permit Raj. Since the Emergency was a classic example of a dictatorship, its impact on the country meant that at the surface level, there was greater efficiency in performance of the machinery of the government.  The positive side of the implementation of the Emergency can be attributed to the reduction in strikes which reduced the man-days lost due to strikes from 17 Million during the first half of 1975 to only 2-4 million in the second half of 1975 (after the Emergency was imposed). Labour became more disciplined as government servants were mandated to come to office on time and were more considerate to the public. However, critically reviewing the point, I feel that the increased levels of discipline among the workforce was due to compulsion and not out of choice as all civil rights were taken away. Moreover, the judicial rights were suspended whereby the people could not appeal in the court of law.

Agricultural and Industrial Outlook

On the economic front, the Emergency gave rise to some positive trends which led many to wonder if dictatorship was really the modus operandi for economic growth. The agricultural production grew at approximately 15.6% while the Gross National Product (GNP) at 1970-71 prices grew at a spectacular rate of 8.9% during 1975-76. The Industrial Production growth during this time was approximately 6.1%. These facts and figures indeed give a strong picture of the economy during the Emergency, but they are not wholesome. Although there was an increase in agricultural production, it was due to the heavy rains and not due to any policy implementation during the Emergency. The climate was the major factor that drove down prices during the Emergency. On the Industrial front, EPW (January 8, 1977, p 8) reported a decline in industrial output between March and August 1976, it felt that “Industrial activity is stagnating. This deceleration in industrial output contrasts with the rapid increases in bank credit.” This contrast can be attributed to the government during that time who believed that the central task of economic management for the private sector was to boost investment and output. However, a better approach to this would have been a focus on boosting public savings and investments as it had fallen from to 16% of domestic savings in the year 1972-73 from that of 30% in the year 1964-65.

Socio-Economic Impact

A good way to give this event a socio-economic angle would be to discuss the social indicators that were impacted during the Emergency. Unemployment increased manifolds (28%) followed by an increase in death rate. However, on further contemplation, the influx of immigrants from Bangladesh before imposition of the Emergency could have driven the unemployment rate upward.  The fifth Five-Year Plan also had an outlay on education, health, social welfare, urban development, and water supply which accounted for 12.6% in the plan but during implementation, it was brought down to 8%. This reduction was because the resources were at the disposal of the capitalist who would supposedly use it for productive investments. This makes complete sense as one of the objectives while implementing the Emergency was to boost the private sector as well as public sector investments. Therefore, this clearly shows the compromise of India’s social economy with that of the capitalist economy. 

The Emergency and Sanjay Gandhi

This period also saw the rise of Sanjay Gandhi, in fact it was he who played a critical role in politicizing the mass sterilization campaign. More importantly, if Mr. Gandhi was successful in reducing population growth even by a small fraction, he would receive national and international recognition because India had taken a loan from the World Bank to implement the policies that  focused on poverty and population reduction.The Constitution Act of 1976 gave the central government the right to execute family planning programs. Soon after, the central government mobilized the state political leadership and took decisive actions, such as setting up camps and sterilization targets. These targets were mainly the lower middle class. They were not only forced physically but also in indirect ways. Circulars were issued in which men who had not been sterilized, their child was detained in schools. Moreover, the salaries were given on the  basis of being certified as strelized. This was indeed traumatic because a lot of social norms were compromised by Sanjay Gandhi in order to achieve his target. Ironically, the government put up posters which promoted the need of being sterilized, but on the contrary, the government lacked in providing quality treatment thereby increasing the deaths of the innocent.


There are a plethora of perspectives on how the Emergency impacted the Indian economy. While some people chose to focus on the positive albeit short-lived benefits of its imposition, others advocated how its imposition was a clear demonstration of how an autocratic regime could disrupt the working of the economy. Pursuant to the figures mentioned above, I feel that the improvements in various economic indicators were a result of fortuitous influences, rather than policies made possible by the declaration of the Emergency. Whether the imposition was an attempt to uplift the economy or just an attempt to save the political empire of a party is still debatable. However, one aspect is certain, the widespread outrage of the masses and the resultant defeat of Indra Gandhi’s government in the election of 1977 helps us envision the hot mess that prevailed during and after the Emergency.

Shanay Ranka

Three words to describe me. Daydreams, food, sports, smart.