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Relevance Of Gandhi's Ideas

By Bharat Dogra*

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 development planning.
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.


The Environment
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 vigour.”


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.