Posted by: cochinblogger | February 6, 2013

Two Little-Known Pioneering Innovations from India: Payroll Deduction for Retirement Savings and Fingerprinting

Not even many Indians would know about these path-breaking innovations that emerged from India. I learned about the first innovation when a distant relative, who worked in Tata Steel, came visiting. He told me that the payroll-deduction-based retirement savings scheme (called the provident fund scheme in India) that is now universal in most countries of the world was first introduced by Tata Steel. I was struck by what he said but took it with a pinch of salt. True, the Tata business group (set up by Parsis) is known for its social vision and generous philanthropic contributions; it was practicing corporate social responsibility (CSR) even before the term was invented. But the first in the world to implement a payroll-deduction-based retirement savings scheme? I was skeptical, but I need not have been. My relative was right! I quote from a Tata website (Tata Steel Heritage):

The Tatas were the first employers to introduce the 8-hour working day (1912), free medical aid (1915), workers’ provident fund scheme (1920) and many other welfare schemes even before they were introduced in the West.

The year of introduction of the provident fund scheme, 1920, is significant. In America, for instance, payroll deduction toward retirement savings was introduced only in 1974 with the enactment of ERISA. Of course, the Tatas introduced their scheme even before the government of the day mandated it, so it’s possible that there were companies elsewhere in the world that introduced payroll deduction before the Tatas in 1920 — but until I see evidence of this, the claim by the Tatas stands.

The second innovation I learned about from M.J. Akbar’s Have Pen, Will Travel; he’s describing his passport being stamped at the Jordanian immigration counter at the airport:

The common signature of a hundred governments thuds into the booklet; the ubiquitous rubber stamp, invented, believe it or not, by a British ICS sahib posted to Hooghly district in Bengal in the nineteenth century, who forgot to patent his invention.

I had to verify this assertion, given the carelessness with which Akbar attributed a Dorothy Parker quote to Ogden Nash (see From M.J. Akbar to Dorothy Parker). Who was this British ICS officer? A little Googling turned up a likely candidate in Edward Henry, but there is no mention of his inventing the rubber stamp. In fact, other sources name two or three Americans as candidates for the inventor of the rubber stamp: The Rubber Stamp

Whoever the invented the rubber stamp, I learned today that it was Edward Henry who introduced dogs to the police force and also championed the use of fingerprinting to identify criminals. In fact, the fingerprint classification system that bears his name, the Henry Classification System, which was used by the police worldwide until it was recently supplanted by technological advances, was invented by his Indian subordinates. According to a standard book on fingerprinting technology, Advances in Fingerprint Technology by Henry C. Lee and R.E. Gaenslen:

Sir Edward Henry shrewdly gave his name to the classification system worked out by his Indian employees Khan Bahadur Azizul Haque and Rai Bahadur Hem Chandra Bose. Haque is alleged to have muttered to confidants that Henry could not even understand the system when it was patiently explained to him.

According the Wikipedia page on Sir Edward Richard Henry:

Between July 1896 and February 1897, with the assistance of sub-inspectors Azizil Haque and Hemchandra Bose, Henry developed a system of fingerprint classification enabling fingerprint records to be organized and searched with relative ease. It was Haque who was primarily responsible for developing a mathematical formula to supplement Henry’s idea of sorting in 1,024 pigeon holes based on fingerprint patterns. Years later, both Haque and Bose, on Henry’s recommendation, received recognition by the British Government for their contribution to the development of fingerprint classification.

The following article (History and Development of Forensic Science in India) on the history of forensic science in India, published in the Journal of Postgraduate Science, contains some fascinating details:

Indians studied various patterns of the papillary lines, thousands of years ago. It is presumed that they knew about the persistency and individuality of fingerprints, which they used as signatures. Even Mr. KM Kata, a frequent contributor to Nature, stated that the Chinese records proved the use of fingerprints in an ancient kingdom of southern India. The Indians knew for long that the handprints, known as the Tarija’, were inimitable. The use of fingerprints as signatures by illiterate people in India, introduced centuries ago, was considered by some people as ceremonial only, till it was scientifically proved that identification from fingerprints was infallible.

The article introduces a new fingerprint enthusiast in 19th century British India:

William Herschel [not to be confused with the famous astronomer], the Collector of the District of Hooghly (Bengal), found that markings on the fingertips of a person never changed during his lifetime. Herschel applied his knowledge and skill in devising a system of registration of finger or thumb impressions of native contractors to safeguard the interests of the Government against the repudiation of contracts by them. Thereafter, he extended his registration procedure to prison regulations for identifying convicted criminals.

William Herschel would appear to be the person M.J. Akbar had in mind as the inventor of the rubber stamp. No, Herschel didn’t invent the rubber stamp, but he did appear to have used thumb impressions instead.

The article goes on to describe Henry’s contributions, and then comes this paragraph:

Henry approached the Government to seek approval for replacing the anthropometric data by fingerprints for the identification of habitual criminals. Government readily agreed, and the first fingerprint bureau in the world was officially declared open at Calcutta in July 1897, although the collection of record slips had started a few years earlier. Thus, the personnel identification solely on the basis of fingerprints commenced in India.

After long and meandering detective work on the Net, I can confidently state that M.J. Akbar’s claim about the rubber stamp having been invented in India is wrong — but, hey, by way of recompense, I learned that the first fingerprint bureau in the world was opened in Calcutta, India, in 1897.

I lived in Calcutta for over 20 years without knowing this. Such is life.

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