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Gandhian Concept Of Decentralization

By N. Prasad

Gandhi's greatest contribution to the social thought of this century is perhaps his insistence on decentralization of the means of production (i.e. say economic power). There are many who are ready to give thoughtful consideration to his theory because it is the only way out of the problem of unemployment in this country. They argue that it is desirable to go in for decentralization because huge capital accumulation is needed to industrialize the country through large-scale industries. They also contend that because large scale industrialization presupposes the existence of foreign markets which this country cannot have, decentralization is the only cherishable goal. In other words large-scale industrialization will be preferable in case the problems of capital formation and foreign market are solved.

Now this line of reasoning constitutes a danger to the whole theory of decentralization as put forward by Gandhi. It would be wrong to presume that Gandhi propounded his theory only to suit Indian conditions. On the other hand, Gandhi's theory of decentralization was the result of his keen and almost prophetic insight into the numerous political, social and cultural ills which the age of large-scale industrialization has brought in its wake.

This is what Bertrand Russell has to say as regards Gandhi's concept of decentralization: "In those parts of the world in which industrialism is still young, the possibility of avoiding the horrors we have experienced still exists. India, for example is traditionally a land of village communities. It would be a tragedy if this traditional way of life with all its evils were to be suddenly and violently exchanged for the greater evils of industrialism and they would apply to people whose standard of living is already pitifully low..... "

Therefore, one has only to understand the magnitude of those "horrors" of which Russell speaks, before one can truly appreciate Gandhi's idea of decentralization.

Large-scale industrialism is at the base of the centralization of political power in few hands. It is in the very nature of large-scale industries to centralize economic power in the hands of a few individuals. Under capitalism this power comes to be concentrated in the hands of individual capitalists and under socialism it is arrogated by managers, technocrats and bureaucrats.
Thus the centralization of power in the State negates the very conception of democracy.

This is why Gandhi did not favour the so-called democracy in the West. In his view, Western democracy was only formal. In reality it was totalitarian in so far as only a few could enjoy the political power in this system.

Apart from the political consequences, there are the evil effects of industrialization on the personality of man. Industrialism starts by snapping the navel chord of man which binds him with soil and corrosive and all-enveloping shadow of giant machineries. As a result he is reduced to a mere cog in the wheel.

Since industrialization is based on the division of labour, it limits man's self-expression. The famous illustration of Adam Smith that a pin has to pass through ninety hands before it is completely manufactured only reaffirms the above charge. Hence the work loses its variety, initiative and colour. No doubt such a division increases the productivity. But it obstructs the full foliation of man's natural skill.

Not only this, industrialization does not cater to the biological needs of man. Man as a biological being requires "a specific temperature, a specific quality of climate, air, light, humidity and food." It is by working in such conditions that man maintains his bodily equilibrium. Industrialization usurps these organic needs of man. Moreover industrialization tends to gather man in the collective. This inevitably fosters the growth of totalitarian impulse in man. Man becomes oblivious of his own sovereignty. He merges his personality in the collective with the result that ultimately he is accustomed to tolerate every form of tyranny and cruelty in the name of the collective wellbeing of the society.

There are some of the most eloquent ills which result from an unchecked pursuit of industrialism. As a matter of fact, many thinkers and social reformers, Wen, Simon, Fouriser and especially Marx tired to go into the causes of these ills. According to them, the root of the malady lay in the system of ownership; all social, political and cultural ills were due to private ownership of the means of production. Once this private system of ownership was removed and instruments of production socialized they thought the malady would disappear, rather melt as if into thin air.

But experience gave a lie to the rosy picture which these reforms Marx had painted. Even after socialization the ills tended to appear in diverse other forms. Liberty disappeared. And the mad pursuit after power tended to reduce man to the lowest denominator of beast living as George Orwell would like to call on 'Animal Farm'

Where lay then the root of the disease, the fallacy in the whole approach? Undoubtedly much of the evil originated from the system of ownership. Gandhi accepted Marx in this respect. But he went a step further and delved deeper. According to him both the system of ownership and the technique of production were the real cause of the malady. Marx attacked the system of ownership in his humanistic zeal. But he left the technique of production altogether untouched. Gandhi focused his attention on the technique also. He suggested that large-scale technique should give way to small-scale technique. This, therefore, forms the core of his decentralization theory.

Does this mean that Gandhi was against the application of science to the instruments of production, i.e. machinery? To this he replied, "What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such....." (Young India, 1925). Indeed he favoured the application of science towards developing the small-scale technique: "I would welcome every improvement in the cottage machine", he wrote in Young India. Replying to a suggestion whether he was against all machinery he said, "My answer is emphatically no. But I am against its indiscriminate multiplication. I refuse to be dazzled by the seeming triumph of machinery. But simple tools and implements and such machinery as saves individual labour and lightens the burden of millions of cottages, I should welcome." (Young India, 1926)

We see therefore, that Gandhi was not against machinery as such. His whole approach to machinery and the use of science was radically different, deeply revolutionary and humanly conscious. A technique which tends to make man a robot, robs him of his perennial urge to freedom and makes an all-out invasion on his political, economic and social liberties is not acceptable to Gandhi.

"Science in so far as it consists of knowledge, must be regarded as having value, but in so far as it consists of technique, the question whether it is to be praised or blamed depends upon the use that is made of the technique. In itself it is neutral, neither good or bad and any ultimate view that we may have about what gives value to this or that must come from some other source than science." This is what Bertrand Russell has to say about the use of scientific technique.

According to Gandhi, the scientific technique, therefore, must be informed by a deep awareness of values which it is out to create. In other words, the advancement of technique and perfection must accord with the general aims. Large-Scale technique strikes at the very root of the general aims. Gandhi, therefore, does not show any quarter to it.

Source: Harijan, 30 July 1955