Ever since Gandhi had entered Indian public life in 1915, he had been pleading for a new deal for the village. The acute pressure on land and the absence of supplementary industries had caused chronic unemployment and under-employment among the peasants whose appalling poverty never ceased to weigh upon Gandhis mind. His advocacy of the spinning wheel really derived from its immediate value as a palliative. Since eighty-five per cent of the population of India lived in villages, their economic and social resuscitation seemed to Gandhi to be a sine qua non for freedom from foreign rule. The growing gap in economic standards and social amenities between the village and the town had to be bridged. This could best be done by volunteers from the towns who spread themselves in the countryside to help revive dead or dying village industries, and to improve standards of nutrition, education and sanitation.
It was not Gandhis habit to preach what he did not practise; he decided to settle in a
village. His choice fell upon Segaon which was situated near Wardha. It had a population
of six hundred, and lacked such bare amenities as a pucca road, a shop and a post office.
Here, on land owned by his friend and disciple Jamnalal Bajaj, Gandhi occupied a one-room
hut. Those who came to see him during the rains had to wade through ankle-deep mud. The
climate was inhospitable; there was not an inhabitant of this village who had not suffered
from dysentery or malaria. Gandhi himself fell sick but was resolved not to leave Segaon.
He hoped he would draw his team for village uplift from Segaon itself, but could not
prevent his disciples, old and new, from collecting around him. When Dr. John Mott
interviewed him in 1937, Gandhis was the solitary hut; before long a colony of mud
and bamboo grew up. Among its residents were Prof. Bhansali, who had roamed in forests
naked and with sealed lips, subsisting on neem leaves; Maurice Frydman, a Pole, who became
a convert to the Gandhian of a handicraft civilization based on non-violence; a Sanskrit
scholar who was a leper and was housed next to Gandhis hut so that he could tend
him; a Japanese monk who (in the words of Mahadev Desai, Gandhis Secretary) worked
like a horse and lived like a hermit.
Sevagram (as Segaon came to be known) was not planned as an ashram.
Gandhi never conceived it as such and did not impose any formal discipline upon it. It
became a centre of the Gandhian scheme of village welfare. A number of institutions grew
up in and around it to take up he various strands of economic and social uplift. The All
India Village Industries Association supported and developed such industries as could
easily be fostered, required little capital and did not need help from outside the
village. The Association set up a school for training village workers and published its
own periodical, the Gram Udyog Patrika. There were other organizations such as the Goseva
Sangh, which sought to improve the condition and breed of the Hindustani Talimi Sangh,
which experimented in Gandhis ideas on education.
The educational system in India had always struck Gandhi as
inadequate and wasteful. The vast majority of the population could not get the rudiments
of education, but even those who went to village primary schools soon unlearnt what was
taught to them because it had little to do with their daily lives and environment. Gandhi
suggested that elementary education suited to the Indian village could best be imparted
through handicrafts so as to substitute a coordinated training in the use of the hand and
the eye for a notoriously bookish and volatile learning. His ideas found an expression in
the scheme of "Basic Education" which stirred the stagnant pools of the Indian
educational system and stimulated administrators and educationists along new lines.
Work in the village was an arduous and slow affair; it was
plodders work, as Gandhi once put it. It did not earn banner headlines in the press
and did not seem to embarrass the Government. Many of Gandhis colleagues did not see
how this innocuous activity could help India in advancing to the real goalthat of
political freedom. On the other hand, the first official reaction to Gandhis village
uplift work was to consider it a well-laid plan to spread sedition among the rural masses;
the government of India warned the provincial governments to be on their guard and to
start counter-propaganda in the villages.