Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas are still highly relevant in
this day and age, particularly during debates on development issues.
One recalls his advice to policy-makers and others that whenever you
are in doubt “recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man
whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate
is going to be of any use to him? Will it restore him the control
over his own life and destiny?” Translated into tangible terms, the
needs of the poorest people should receive the topmost priority in
The two most important challenges today are: protecting the
environment; and meeting the basic needs of all. The Gandhian
response to both challenges is simple and identical – release
resources from the grip of the very rich so that the needs of the
poor can be met.
The lifestyle of the richest is attractive, and so it soon becomes a
model for others. Mahatma Gandhi had said clearly that this is a
model not worth emulating because it is destructive to nature.
Instead he tried throughout his life to experiment with low-cost
food, farming, education and medicare which could meet the needs of all.
He challenged the well-entrenched concepts of what passes by the
term “development”, a task which must have been even more difficult
in his time when development had not been impeded by the most
damaging aspects of the environment, as we know them now.
While considering an alternative path of development, Gandhi was
very clear on the point that it must not be based on exploitation.
He wrote in 1929, “Surely exploitation means usurpation. And
usurpation can never be reconciled with spiritualism.”
He was once asked whether he would like India to develop as much as
Britain. He replied that Britain was such a small country but it
required the plunder of half the planet to bring about such
development. Therefore, if a large country like India is to develop
in the same manner it will probably require the plunder of several
planets. But he was certain that even if these planets were
available, he would never want this country to follow this path. He
wrote in 1940: “I have no idea of exploiting other countries for the
benefit of India. We are suffering from the poisonous disease of
exploitation ourselves, and I would not like my country to be guilty
of any such thing.”
He went a step further and asked the rich to introspect how their
wealth has come directly or indirectly from the exploitation of the poor.
One aspect of this exploitation, which particularly pained him, was
the exploitation of villages by cities, of rural life by urban life.
He wrote in 1927: “The half-a-dozen modern cities are an excrescence
and serve, at the present moment, the evil purpose of draining the
life-blood of the villages.”
In 1936 he wrote in more specific terms: “Little flour mills are
ousting the chakki, oil mills the village ghani, rice mills the
village dhenki, sugar mills the village gud-pans, etc. This
displacement of village labour is impoverishing the villagers and
enriching the rich. If the process continues sufficiently long, the
villages will be destroyed without any further effort.”
In this system of exploitation a particularly destructive role was
played by labour displacing machinery. He wrote in 1936: “A factory
employs a few hundreds and renders thousands unemployed. I may
produce tons of oil from an oil mill, but I also drive thousands of
oilmen out of employment. I call this destructive energy, whereas
production by the labour of millions of hands is constructive and
conducive to the common good. Mass production through power-driven
machinery, even when state-owned, will be of no avail.”
When asked what kind of machinery he approved of, Gandhi said in
1935: “Any machinery which does not deprive masses of men of the
opportunity to labour, but which helps the individual and adds to
his efficiency, and which a man can handle at will without being its slave.”
Mahatma Gandhi’s views on machinery were not confined to a
theoretical level. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world,
these views found practical application. They became an integral
part of India’s freedom movement.
In 1936, while evaluating the progress made by khadi, he wrote with
some satisfaction: “The progress khadi has made in terms of the
millions, though little in itself, is comparatively the largest of
all the other single industries. It distributes yearly the largest
amount as wages among the largest number of wage-earners in the
villages with the minimum of overhead charges, and every pice
practically circulates among the people.”
Gandhi was very clear that the progress of Swadeshi and khadi should
continue after the end of foreign rule, as these are equally
relevant to post-independent India. He wrote in 1947: “We were
trying through khadi to place man above the machine, rather than
allow the machinery driven by electricity or steam, to be the
master. We were endeavouring through khadi to establish equality
between man and man in place of the enormous inequality now existing
between the poor and the rich, between the high and the low, between
the man and the woman. We also endeavoured to make the labourer
independent of the capitalist instead of the capitalist exploiting
labour and assuming undue prestige. If, therefore, what we did in
India during the last 30 years was not wrong, we should now carry on
the programme of the spinning wheel, with all its allied activities
with more understanding of all the implications and with greater
Benefits of Khadi
More recently, Nandini Joshi, who has a doctorate in Economics from
Harvard, wrote a book in Gujarati (which has also been translated in
Hindi) titled Our Distress and Alternatives. It argues that khadi
and the spinning wheel are still practical and economically viable
if only we give them a fair chance.
An additional argument she advances is that khadi can help us to
recover several hundred thousand hectares as urgently needed fertile
land to grow food. The mills require long and medium staple cotton
which need more fertile land, irrigation and chemicals.
On the other hand short-staple cotton needed for the charkha can be
obtained on less fertile land some of which is not under cultivation
at present and there is no need for agri-chemicals.
* The writer is a social activist.