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Empowerment of the Rural Poor: The Gandhian Approach
By Dr. D. Pulla Rao*
The Problem

Empowerment of the rural poor has become a major problem of rural India over the last 100 years. In 1930s when Mahatma Gandhi took the reigns of the freedom movement, about 300 millions rural poor were suffering from chronic poverty for 120 days during the lien period of agriculture and were relegated to subsistence living for the rest 245 days in a year. The situation of the rural poor over the last 70 years has further worsened in spite of our continuous efforts to alleviate rural poverty.

Mere pallative efforts will not work. It needs a historic intervention on behalf of this poverty battalion to bring the dramatic change reuired on this front.

Under these circumstances, a close look at the Gandhian approach for empowering the rural poor is highly essential.

Gandhi : A Great Participatory Rural Appraiser of All Times

The primary objective of Mahatma Gandhi was to achieve freedom for India from the British Raj. And this forced him to make an extensive tour of the Indian sub continent and mingle with the rural masses more frequently. His close association with the rural masses enabled him to examin very closely the pathetic living conditions. Thus he obtained first hand knowledge about rural poverty pervading throughout the country. In his own words, "The people are rooted to the soil, and the vast majority is living a hand to mouth life. Whatever may be said to the country, having traveled throughout the length and breadth of the land with eyes open and mixed with millions, there can be no doubt that pauperism is growing."

"When all about me are dying for want of food, the only occupation permissible to me is to feed the hungry. It is my conviction that India is a house on fire because its manhood is being daily scorchedm, it is dying of hunger because it has no work to buy food with ____".

This suggests the depth of knowledge Gandhi had gained about the living conditions of the rural poor. And from there onwards Gandhi added an equally important agenda for his mass movement, i.e., freedom from hunger for the rural masses. All through in his speeches, press meetings and writings in Young India and Harijan, as well as his private letters to various friends in India and outside in the world, Gandhi always mentioned about the rural poverty, its reasons and solutions and urged every body to fight against rural poverty.

Gandhian Philosophy of Truth and Non-violence

Mahatma Gandhi took up the philosophy of truth as his personal living experimentation and adopted the method of non-violence, whevener and wherever he had to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of truth. According to Gandhi truth and peace are two sides of the same coin.

Serving the Suffering Was Serving God

For Mahatma Gandhi, neither the name of religion nor the name of god was important but as serving the suffering mane was. In Gandhi's own words, "I cannot starve my neighbour and claim to serve my distant cousin in the North Pole. This is the basic principle of all religions and we will find it is also of true and humane economics. Therefore, whenever any person of any caste or gender complained of suffering he took up the cause and acted immediately through his twin philosophies of truth and non-violence. Gandhi had neither friends nor foes at large. He treated all persons equally.

Analysis of Rural Poverty

Mahatma Gandhi went round the entire country several times and bserved their living conditions and understood the causes for their poverty more than any researcher had ever done before time.
He identified 'the period of no work' (unemployed days) as the raison d'être for rural poverty in India. According to him the rural masses were unemployed for about 4 months or 120 days in a year. And he considered that about 85 per cent of the rural masses were famished during that period of unemployment. As agriculture had no scope to provide extra employment required during its lien period, an alternative was to be chalked out.

The Wheel of Truth and Non-violence
Mahatma Gandhi proposed the spinning wheel as the tool for the unemployed rural masses to earn their bread during the lien period in agriculture, keeping two basic constraints.
First, he observed that agriculture was saturated and could not be improved further to provide extra employment for the unemployed labour force. He stated that the Indian peasant required a supplementary industry.
Second, he observed that in rural India of his time there was limited and acceptable non-agricultural rural occupations for the common masses. Among the then existing rural non-agricultural occupations, spinning and khadi was the chief village handicraft that could absorb any number of persons. Besides, it was the most decent, acceptable and easily adoptable with out much financial investment. Above all it was highly labour oriented occupation that answered the employment and income needs of the teeming millions of rural India. Therefore, Gandhiji proposed spinning wheel programme for entire rural India.
Gandhi visualized 3 messages in the spinning wheel. They are: (a) the economical message, (b) the cultural message and (c) the humane message. For him the spinning wheel supplies bread, brings people together and makes man to live a simple life with high thinking. In fact, spinning and khadi production was a decent occupation, it was a non-caste, colour and creed based occupation.

Gandhiji was as Practical as Philosophical
Till the time of Gandhi more than one third of the rural population in India were socially and culturally treated as untouchables or semi-untouchables or second-rate citizens. Had Gandhi asked such socially and culturally marginalized masses to take up the occupations of the upper castes that could not have been allowed at all. Here was the spinning wheel any person without any bar can take up. The yarn and the khadi produced by any body and every body could be acquired and pooled together and sold in the market by any government sponsored organization like the Khadi and Village Industries Commission or any voluntary organization. Any body could participate in this programme and earn his/her bread. A kind of brotherhood was supposed to be brought in across various castes, communities and regions of India. In addition, khadi cloth was supposed to gain more market by replacing banished mill cloth from England through Gandhi's banishment of foreign goods movement.'

Minimum Clothing to the Rural Poor
Food, clothing and shelter are the three basic needs of India daridra narayanas (The name given to the poor by Gandhi. Agriculture was providing food, all through the ages. But most of the Indians at the time of Gandhi were either naked with just a 6 inches piece of cloth or half naked with a dhoti of 3 feet length.
Therefore, Gandhi wanted to provide reasonable clothing to the daridra narayanas of rural India. The spinning wheel came handy to fulfill his dream. Mass mobilization of the people through his programme after the banishment of foreign made mill cloths was supposed to achieve 'Swadeshi' (self-reliance) objective of Gandhi.

A Retrospect
Many scholars, even today, failed to understand the basic philosophy behind the spinning wheel. Agriculture is no more saturated. Several types of handicrafts are helping the rural masses through gainful employment and substantial additional income. However, the need for extra employment for the unemployed rural labour force is also increasing simultaneously due to high growth of rural population. About 40 per cent of the rural population in India is living below the poverty line and the peasant community is suffering from unemployment for about 100 days in a year. This suggests that the two basic observations Gandhiji had made 70 years ago remain as they are. The total number of man days needed to fill the gap with extra employment will be more than double now than it was at the time of Gandhiji. Hence, the issue of employment of the rural masses through massive rural employment programme out side agriculture is more serious now than at the time of Gandhiji. Therefore, Gandhian prescription for empowerment of the rural masses through creation of extra employment outside agriculture is highly valid at present. We are expanding and extending his philosophy further to cover several other areas to tackle the same basic issue, that is elimination of rural poverty (upliftment of the daridra narayanas) in a changed setting.

Article is adapted from Journal, GANDHI MARG, Volume 33, Number 1, April-June 2011
* Dr. D. PULLA RAO, Professor of Economics, 3/5 Siripuram Quarters, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, A. P.