Gandhi Environmentalism - An unfinished task
By T.N. Khoshoo
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 at Porbandar, the capital of a small princely state in Gujarat. His father Karamchand Gandhi was the Chief Minister of the State of Porbandar. Putlibai, Gandhiji's mother was pious and deeply religious person. The family was Vaishnavite, which is a sect of Hindus who worship Lord Vishnu (The Creator). Gandhiji was a strict vegetarian. He was also a believer in fasting as a means of self-purification and religious tolerance.
In his lifetime Gandhiji was regarded as a Mahatma (a Great Soul) by the people of India. He became the principal architect of India's Independence and nationalism and set his head and heart to stop the blatant exploitation of India's people and loot of natural resources. He advocated the use of the same for the good, the benefit and well-being of the teeming millions of India. After Gautam Buddha, he has been the Prophet of Non-violence (ahimsa), Truth (satya) and sticking to the truth (satyagraha) even under the greatest provocation. He was the unquestioned apostle of applied human ecology. Using non-violent means, he set in motion a process that led to the Independence of India and many nations in Asia and Africa and elsewhere. These countries, like India, were under an alien rule before. Thereafter they were in control of their own destiny and free to come out of the quagmire of abject poverty and penury.
Very early in life he set for himself two objectives: near-term objective of political Independence of India following the path of ahimsa and satyagraha, and long-term objective of economic Independence for India's teeming millions based on social, economic, environmental equity and ethical considerations. While he achieved the former in his life time, the latter is still a dream even after 50 years of Independence of the country.
As is borne out by his life and work, Gandhiji was much ahead of his time. Few could have made such futuristic statements on environment and development, particularly when, at that time the environmental problems were either not too obvious, or at best were only in their incipient stages. It needed the Mahatma's mind and eye to discern these, and talk and write about the same. This only shows his forethought and vision of the shape of things to come.
Yoga and Ecology
Even a cursory study of his life shows that Gandhiji was indeed a practicing yogi, although he never claimed to be so. Yoga, in simple words, is discipline and control over body and mind, through physical practices (Hat Yoga) and ethical code of conduct (Raj Yoga). In the latter, there are eight formal disciplines, and first two (yamas and niyamas), pertain to environment and ethics of resource use. These were actually first practiced and then preached by Gandhiji.
The yamas are ethical commandments relating to human behaviour in relation to other humans and living creatures and non-living resources. Essentially these are a set of don'ts, the five yamas are: non-violence (ahimsa) towards all animate and inanimate creations; truth (satya); shunning the use of materials obtained by illegitimate means and avoiding destruction and vandalism (asteya); celibacy (brahmacharya) because humans need to keep their numbers in check, otherwise demand on resources will increase; and lastly, not coveting or amassing materials and wealth beyond requirement (aparigraha).
The five niyamas are self-based codes of conduct: these prescribe what a human being should do, and relate to cleanliness/sanitation (shaucha) of one's mind, body, and the surroundings - for a human being is essentially dirty animal which, unlike other animals, generates considerable waste and garbage, often non-biodegradable in character and as such pollutes the environment. Shaucha also includes ridding oneself of undue lust including sexual desire (Kama), anger (krodh), greed (lobha), undue attachment (moha) and conceit and vanity (ahankar). Other niyamas are contentment (santosh); austerity (tapas); introspection on the self (swadhyaya); and prayer and meditation (ishwar pranidhan) for any dereliction of duty towards yamas and niyamas and towards Nature and components of the biosphere of which humans are an integral part. A yogi controls himself by himself, and thus becomes humane. Gandhiji practiced all the yamas and niyamas without claiming to be a yogi.
He encouraged indigenous capability and local self-reliance (swadeshi); self-rule and local self-governance (swaraja) at the level of village; and welfare of the weakest (antyodaya) leading to welfare of all (sarvodaya). His chief 'weapons' were non-violence (ahimsa) and sticking to the truth (satyagraha) which he used to rid India of the British rule and the plunder of the country's resources.
Most of the commandments enumerated above, though essentially personal moral codes, were converted by Gandhiji to a socio-economic and political movement to galvanize India and Indians into a cohesive force to drive the British out. Essentially it was conversion of environmental, socio-economic and ethical principles into political movement. It was only his genius that could accomplish this. In short, he blazed a new trail: Non-violent Method of Conflict Resolution, which before him, was seldom, if ever, accomplished.
Widening Horizons of Environment
During the last five decades, after Gandhiji's assassination in 1948, there has been an ever-widening circle of environmental concerns and strategies, starting with conservation of the big cats and ending with ethics of resource use and everything in between. The earth is regarded as the Universal Mother (Dharti Mata or Greek Gaia) which harbours her 'brood' of a very large family of living organisms (Vasudhaiva- kutumbakam). Humankind is only one out of millions of species described so far. Being a thinking species, it is no doubt different from others.
Gandhiji believed that there is divinity in all life, and that there is thus a fundamental unity in diversity. His faith in non-violence and vegetarianism made him a votary of conservation of all diversity including all forms of life, societies, cultures, religions, traditions, etc. His argument for conservation of biodiversity was indeed simple: since a "human being has no power to create life, he has, therefore no right to destroy life". Further, Gandhiji felt that there cannot be any ecological movement designed to prevent violence against nature unless the principle of non-violence becomes central to the ethos of human culture.
Gandhiji was particularly concerned about women, who have actually been traditional conservators and far more committed to conservation than men. Historically, women have been gatherers, and not hunters and killers of life like men. Woman by her very nature creates, cares and shares. At the subsistence level, woman's plight moved Gandhiji. He eulogized women for their role at various social levels and considered them equal to men in all respects. He "worshipped women as an embodiment of the spirit of service and sacrifice" and helped them to take up national reconstruction. It is only now that the world has focused its attention on women and children and begun to talk of gender equality.
Gandhiji was equally concerned about sanitation and also the liberation of scavengers. He called them Harijans (God's People) because of the great service they were rendering to the society at large, a service which no one else was prepared to render. He did a lot to remove their drudgery, led movements against Hindu orthodoxy to admit them in temples, and reuse the rich night soil as a source of manure and energy, which was otherwise a potential environmental hazard: Breeding ground for and spread of highly infectious diseases of poverty.
Equally important for Gandhiji was the role of an individual, which he regarded as of utmost importance because a society or a government is only extension of individuals. Hence, environmental perceptions of an individual are of critical importance. He was very concerned about inequities/disparities in resource-use of various sections of the society and said: "Man's happiness lies in contentment. "He who is discontented, however much he possesses, becomes a slave to his desires". Here then lies his basic ethic behind resource use. If implemented, the downstream environmental degradation that follows overuse of resources could also be controlled if not eliminated altogether.
Acid Test of Development
Gandhiji's personal life style was the most sustainable one. He identified himself with the poorest in the country who were irresistibly drawn towards him. His strength came from the fact that he preached what he practiced. He experimented first on himself and then shared his experience with others. Gandhiji's choice was clear: He was for the poorest of the poor: The Daridranarayana. In fact his advice to everyone was that, before embarking on any project or programme, he or she must use a simple talisman: Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate to take is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? This has to be the acid-test of all development.
Gandhiji was a votary of basic education of the village level. He was very particular regarding educating children about their surrounding environment and availability of resources, together with giving them a thorough grounding in self-help and self-reliance through productive crafts. According to him, education must be aimed at children being integrated with environment, and must have "strong pupil teacher relationship and appreciation for Indian culture".
As a result of his first hand experience at the grass-roots level, there emerged a definite Gandhian Model of Rural Development which meant concentrating on villages (over 576000 in number) and villagers. It is here that 76 percent of India's population resides in abject poverty. He was for a proper legally-binding empowerment of the poor and women in our society. The model envisaged that development and governance should be bottom-up and not top-down; goals should be self-defined and not stranger-defined; production should be aimed at basic goods to fulfill basic needs to use-values, and not at non-basic and greed-oriented luxury goods; the process of production should be by masses and not through mass production; and the whole approach should be holistic and not sectoral. He felt that unless India focuses on the economic development of villages and the villagers, which are the weakest link in the socio-economic chain, the country cannot become strong in the real sense of the world. His chief aim was to strengthen political independence with economic independence of sustainable kind.
He was opposed to following Western industrialism blindly because of the associated environmental, social and economic problems. The principal reason was that such industrialism is based on an assumption that resources are unlimited which is actually not the case. The biosphere does not have unlimited capacity to hear the eco-degradation resulting from unsustainable development. While our planet's resources do not grow, population and wants grow exponentially. This means that there cannot be unlimited and infinite growth and development with limited and finite resources. He was not averse to industrialism per se as long as it was not resource- and energy-intensive and did not displace small cottage industry and labour. Cottage industry, according to him, has a future in the Indian context. It would help the villagers generate marketable goods. He advocated that we should not become slaves to unlimited desires for material growth.
If we do not follow an austere path, there would follow an ecological backlash which may engulf the human race, with nowhere else to go. Therefore, the delicate, and holistic balance that exists in Nature has to be respected and maintained. Gone is the time when environmental protection was synonymous with caring for the big cats; today, on it depends the well-being of the Planet as a whole, together with all its inhabitants (including human beings) and non-living resources. There is a tremendous connectivity and interdependence among various components, like natural living and non-living resources, with considerable social, economic, historical, cultural, philosophical, ethical and moral dimensions. All these aspects are now under purview of environment. Thus a healthy economy cannot flourish in an unhealthy environment. The reason being that in final analysis, economy depends on resources available on earth and the incoming solar energy coupled with human ingenuity (technology).
The enemy of our environment is within each one of us because we want more and more at the expense of nature and consume more than our share of materials. Furthermore, ecological security is equally, if not more, important than economic security. Today the human race is at the cross roads: The present eco-degradation and pollution are the result of greed of the rich, need of the poor to eke out an existence, and careless application of technology.
The Way Out
The right choices have to be made by the human race. Having already attained a certain level of quality of life, the North needs to aim at non-material growth; but the South needs to profit from the past mistakes of the North and aim at sustainable material growth to a reasonable extent together with stringent population control.
Years ago Gandhiji was asked if he would like to have the same standard of living for India's teeming millions as was prevalent in England. He quipped: "It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets will a country life India require!" Behind this statement lies his life's experience of dealing with environmental and developmental issues. Following Gandhiji, the human race, in both industrial and developing countries, has to exercise a deliberate restraint on resources use. Here then comes the question of what is enough for a need-based comfortable living. He advocated that industrial countries must bring down resource use in their own countries. Mercifully, thinkers like Mahatma Buddha, Mahavira and Mahatma Gandhi in the south, hove not only been talking about resource conservation, but also do practicing it since the dawn of human history. It is against such a background that one would like to define development, i.e., which leads to economic development based on ecological principles of environmental harmony, economic efficiency, resource (energy included) conservation, local self-reliance and equity with social justice. Such a revolution has to be guided by need and comfort, and not by greed and luxury. The basic principles of Yogic practices in ecology, environment and sustainable resource use have to be emulated in our daily lives. In this connection it is very pertinent to note that Gandhiji had thought about this much earlier when he said: "The earth provides enough for everyman's needs but not for everyman's greed." This statement of his has gone in folklore and environmental literature.
The basic principles (local self-reliance and equity with social justice) of the Gandhian Model of Development must become applicable to all situations - from ecosystem to industrial societies.
The Nehruvian Model of Development involves industrial development in which mostly non-renewable resources (including energy) are used. Generally, such development everywhere has been oblivious of the destruction of natural resources, which represent wealth in their own right. The prime indicator of this development in the increase in Gross National Product (GNP). This is essentially a human-made macro-economic indicator, which neither reflects the extent and nature of human well-being, nor the damage done to the environment.
The Two Models of Development
The Nehruvian Model of industrial development is relevant primarily to the Industrial Economic Sector. This model needs refinement and has to be made sustainable. The Gandhian Model, in the words of J.C. Kumarappa, leads to decentralized economic planning and is actually "Economy of Permanence", while in the Nehruvian Model of industrial economy there is the danger that the rich may become richer and poor poorer. India's success will be measured not by homogenizing a heterogeneous situation, but by the success with which diverse societies can be harmonized and can co-exist and become mutually reinforcing and supportive; where traditions and modernity are appropriately blended, and where man-made capital does not become destructive of the natural capital. Both models have their specific constituencies in India. Thus, following a democratic path, there is a need for a creative synthesis of the Gandhian and the Nehruvian Models (Table I).
A Creative synthesis of the two models is needed for achieving sustainable bio-industrial growth and development.
The Gandhian Model is basically aimed at building self-reliance and self-respect in a villager, and poverty alleviation of India's teeming millions which are steeped in penury. This Model is primarily based on enhanced biomass production, processing, and utilization. The larger section of our society to be served by this model depends on renewable resources (both man-made and natural) and the Model is fuelled largely by solar energy (photosynthesis). The indicator to be used for estimating growth of such a Model has to be the increase in the Gross National Resource Product at the village level, which should be sustainable and should cause the least or manageable amount of ecological damage to the production base. The basic principles (local self-reliance and equity with social justice) of the Gandhian Model of Development must become applicable to all situations - from Ecosystem to Industrial Societies. However, the Nehruvian Model of industrial development is relevant primarily to the Industrial Economic Sector. This model needs refinement and has to be made sustainable.
In industrial development generally a small percentage of population uses an unusually large amount of resources. Globally this is also true of a small number of powerful industrial countries guzzling resources far out of proportion. The rural development model results in a large percentage of population using a small amount of resources as is also true of a large number of populous (but rather powerless) developing countries. Equalization between the two models can only be possible by shrinking the resource use in the first group, while by enhancing resource use and controlling growth of population in the second group. At present, all these are only pious wishes.
USA has about 5 percent of population of the world, but is guzzling a large amount of resources. From resource-consumption point of view, it population is actually over 20% of the whole world; while India has 16% of the world population, but from actual resource - consumption point of view it represents less than 4% of population of the world. The present situation neither reflects any form of equity not of social justice, and is indeed inherently unsustainable. It needs urgent attention, for otherwise it carries in it the germ of future confrontation between developing and industrial countries. The advice from the latter to the former regarding controlling their population will carry conviction only when industrial countries give demonstrable proof of reducing their resource consumption.
Gandhiji was indeed concerned about the inequitable development that the country had under the British Raj. Most unfortunately, the situation is no better after 50 years of Independence. As early as 1944 he had opined about this question in the following words: "Economic equality is the master key to non-violent independence. Working for economic equality means abolishing the eternal conflict between capital and labour. It means the leveling down of the few rich in whose hands is concentrating the bulk of the nation's wealth on the one hand, and a leveling up of the semi-starved naked millions on the other. A non-violent system of government is clearly an impossibility so long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists. The contrast between of New Delhi and the miserable hovels of the poor labouring class cannot last one day in a free India in which the poor will enjoy the same power as the richest in the land. A violent and bloody revolution is a certainty one day unless there is a voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give and sharing them for the common good. I adhere to my doctrine of trusteeship in spite of the ridicule that has been poured upon it."
The precepts and concepts of the Gandhian Model of Development are based on biomass production, processing and utilization, and are relevant to almost all situations at the grass roots. It leads to "Economy of Permanence" which can be sustainable under most circumstances. All development must prevent man-made capital becoming destructive of the natural capital. Herein lies India's future role of blending ecology and economy in one connected whole; this is both a challenge and an opportunity for us.
At the outset it may be pointed out that Gandhiji was not an economic theorist but an economic reformer. The major characteristics of his economic ideas can be summed up in the following twenty points:
The important elements of Gandhian environmentalism are:
The best option for India with its very large rural population (40 percent below poverty line) is Bio-industrial Development, rather than pure industrial development. The bedrock of such a development is sustainable production, processing and utilization of biomass (to meet the needs of the unusually large rural sector), together with a commensurate amount of pure industrial development. Furthermore, GNP needs to be recalculated on the basis of depreciation or appreciation in land and soil, forests, water, biodiversity, fisheries, extent of climate change and ozone layer depletion, etc. These calculations must also include specific indicators of human development and well-being. This is where India, in the course of time, can blaze a new trail by appropriately blending economics and ecology into one connected whole. Herein lies India's future in fostering pluralism and not singularism. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the country.
It is clear that Gandhiji was not against industrialism per se but he wanted industrialism minus its negative impacts, e.g., labour displacement, exploitation, environmental degradation, etc. He envisaged co-existence of shipbuilding, electric generation, steel mills, machine making in cities with handicrafts in villages. He felt that nothing should be produced in cities that villages can produce so that migration of villagers as "ecological refugees" is halted. As stated earlier, the enemy of environment is within most of us, because we want more and more at the expense of Nature. We are at war with Nature to varying degrees.
Environmental Priorities for 21st Century
Keeping in mind the type of environment that Gandhiji thought and practiced, one can make a fair list of environmental priorities for the next century. These are:
Human Being in Universe
Being a practicing yogi, Gandhiji had tremendous control over his body and mind. He realized both the significance and insignificance of human being. The latter has attracted the western mind as well. One way it has been expressed is the place of human being in the universe. This is depicted in the following diagram. A few points emerge from this diagram. Firstly, there is a continuum from one's self to universe. Secondly, the expanding circles from one's self to reveal the progressing dwarfening of the human being. Someone has expressed this idea differently: collect all the sand grains available on Mother Earth. These would give an idea of the celestial bodies floating in the Universe. One of the grains from this heap is Mother Earth. Imagine one's own self standing on this grain, one among billions of human beings, and one among the countless plants, animals and micro-organisms. The result is dwarfening, better still miniaturization of human being. Can we really recognize ourselves! Lastly, the question arises, whether human being is a co-creator. This question is relevant because westerners think so. The oriental viewpoint is that human being no doubt can think, recall and foresee, but he is not a co-creator.
It is this basic difference that distinguishes the Western and Eastern thoughts, i.e. an arrogant versus a reverential attitude towards the Mother Earth and then Mother India. This is also the basic lesson that can be drawn from the Gandhian environmentalism.
The foregoing code of human ecology would help humankind to enter into a dahrmic or a yogic phase of environmentalism where human being not only controls himself by himself, but, in that process, also becomes truly human. Gandhiji was a person who was in harmony and peace with environment and with himself, although for his whole life he was locked in an unequal battle with the then mighty British.
What are the important elements of Gandhian environmentalism? One has to base the answer to this question on his utterances and writings and above all on the very life style he adopted, and then try to echo some of his ideals and ideas. First and foremost, he would have wanted us to follow the path of a robust left-of-the-centre social democratism where empowerment of women and weaker/poorer sections of our society was guaranteed. Secondly, he would have liked us to link environmentalism with some basic social, economic and ethical tenets. He would have also liked the society at large to take the full responsibility of carving its own future within the framework of a robust, sensible, credible and implementable environmentalism. Gandhiji's expectation about India was: "I have not pictured a poverty-stricken India containing ignorant millions. I have pictured to myself an India continually progressing along the lines best suited to her genius. I do not, however, picture it as a third class or even a first-class copy of the dying civilization of the West." Furthermore, a year before his assassination, Gandhiji expressed the following wish: "Independent India, as conceived by me, will have all Indians belonging to different religions, living in perfect friendship. There need be no millionaires and no paupers, all would belong to the state, for the state belonged to them. I will die in the act of realizing this dream."
Albert Einstein has said: Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this, it may be ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth... The moral influence which Gandhi has exercised upon thinking people may be far more durable than would appear likely in our present age, with its exaggeration of brute force. We are fortunate and grateful that fate has bestowed upon us so luminous a contemporary, a beacon to generations to come."
The twentieth century was dominated by Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Gandhi. In contrast to the first three, Gandhiji was not a tormentor but a pacifist and a benefactor. He believed that "he who is unable to rule over self, can never really succeed in ruling others." We Indians killed and like Mahatma Buddha, we forgot him only to come back to us today, half a century later, via the West. This also happened to Sanskrit language which came back to us thanks to Max Muller and other German scholars.
Despite his differences with Gandhiji regarding the pattern of development to be followed in free India, Jawaharlal Nehru acknowledged Gandhiji's greatness in glowing terms. He said it was clear that "this man of poor physique had something of steel in him, something rocklike which did not yield to physical powers, however great they might be. And in spite of his unimpressive features, in his loin cloth and bare body there was a royalty and kingliness in him which compelled a willing obeisance from others... His voice clear and limpid would purr its way into the heart and evoke an emotional response." Finally, Nehru said: "Gandhi's words, his use of pious phrases, may sound platitudinous, but make no mistake, there is power behind his words. Gandhi came to represent India to an amazing degree and to express the very spirit of the ancient and tortured land. To the millions of India he was India."
The impact of Gandhiji can be seen from the deliberations and declarations of a plethora of conferences and meetings under the aegis of the United Nations and other international and national bodies on problems of population, women, children, labour, human rights, tolerance, environment together with the associated social, economic, environmental and political dimensions. The impact of Gandhian ideas is seen everywhere. Though not being with us physically, today his silence speaks louder than his words; and initially his wisdom constituted philosophy, but now it has become common sense. Still there are doubts about the way the country can make Gandhian environmentalism work. The way out is that the emerging society has to be based on the village reconstruction or what A T Ariyaratne calls Sarvodaya Society. According to him, this would be the best tribute to the Mahatma. A country can be self-reliant only when villages become self-reliant.
The bottom line is that there is an urgent need for a transition in human consciousness from techno (logical)-economical to eco (logical)-economical.
In the present times, the central message about environment comes to us in the words of the living apostle of ahimsa. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said: "If we care for Nature, it can be rich, bountiful and inexhaustible sustainable." Finally P.N. Haskar, a noted Indian thinker of our times, has said: "There is need to reiterate Gandhian values and instead of merely garlanding the portraits of Gandhiji, Indians must translate his ideals into real life." Let us then resolve and dedicate ourselves to complete the unfinished tasks in whatever field we may be working. Gandhiji's precepts and concepts have global implications. Let his memory guide us to the right path.
Source: IASSI Quarterly, Vol. 16 No. 1, July-September 1997