Relevance of Gandhian environmentalism

In the post-Gandhian era, environmental problems surfaced at a breakneck speed with large-scale and indiscriminate industrialisation leading to environmental hazards and degradations. Mahatma Gandhi’s critique of modernity reveals his concern about the emergence of a social order that exploits nature for short-term gains. He had written widely about the need for human beings to exercise restraint with respect to the use of natural resources. His “counter-thinking” is now increasingly becoming a mainstream thought with greater awareness of the environmental problems.

Troubled by unrestricted industrialism and materialism, Gandhi had foreseen a time when the resources of the earth will not be enough to meet the growing demands of the people. On the 69th death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Down To Earth tries to understand the man and what value his vision brings to the contemporary discourse on environment conservation.

Understanding Gandhi

GANDHI’s Vision and Valuesis meant to be a serious exploration into the contemporary meaning of Hind Swaraj and the kind of possibility it indicates for agricultural practices in rural India. Hind Swaraj herein refers to Gandhi’s text and also to India’s last 50 years as an independent country.

In recent times, the significance of Hind Swaraj for an understanding of Gandhi’s thought has come to be widely recognised. Vivek Pinto’s book isperhaps among the first few to attempt a serious and comprehensive examination of the significance of Hind Swaraj for agriculture and life in rural India. For that, it merits serious attention.

The principal concern, in the words of the author, is to see if it would be possible to reconstruct a “harmonious, poverty-free, non-violent and self-reliant society” on the basis of ethical principles marked by Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and his experiments with the agricultural communities. Pinto’s argument unfolds at three related planes. The first section explores the cognitive significance of Hind Swaraj as a text. Another section seeks to clarify the significance of Gandhi’s own attempts, as also of various individuals, to work out in practice the basic principles marked in Hind Swaraj. The third section is a “Gandhian critique” of the experiment with planned agricultural development in independent India.

If one were to present Pinto’s work as a coherent argument, one could begin by saying that the thirdsection is really the starting point of the argument. It spells out in distressing detail the worsening condition of agriculture in India. Most of the people still depend on agriculture and nearly 40per cent of them live below the poverty line.

After Independence, India chose to adopt the path of planned development. It was seen as a more humane and speedier way of securing a decent living for themillions of poor in thecountry. But, 50 years later, agricultural productivity still remains low.

Most of these grim details about peasant life and agriculture are fairly well-known. What is relevant is to see how the author proceeds to establish a kind of link between Gandhi’s text, his experiments and the present state of agriculture in the country.

Gandhi, while rejecting modern civilisation as a mode of life and work, invoked agriculture, charkha and the village as metaphors for sane human living. Pinto seeks out the implications of Hind Swaraj for agriculture as it could be practised in India. The citations from Gandhi’s writings on swadeshi as an idea of service and sensitivity to the needs of proximate communities is appropriate. The varied range of writings and case studies make interesting reading. However, all that still does not yield a coherent argument, or even a set of propositions.

Pinto’s work suffers from a recurrent confusion regarding the implications of the variety of arguments he seeks to harness. Take for instance the author’s endorsement of the castigation of the prevalent price structure as an expression of dominant class interests. True, Hind Swaraj does not exclude class interests and the exploitation it engenders, but the essential point about agriculture it seeks to make belongs perhaps to a different order of insight and moral judgement.

To Gandhi, the practice of agriculture signified a promise of limitless reach. The act of breaking and tending the soil carriedwithin it an ageless quality. It signified a mode of work and being which, while sustaining life, could nurture an ultimate sense of meaning and worth. At this point, one could perhaps question the Hind Swaraj principles on two accounts:

– What is one to read into the fact that Gandhi, the creator of institutions, never sought to create one devoted specially to the practice and science of agriculture; and

– What about Gandhi’s silence on the practice of shifting cultivation, which at several levels is so close to the fundamental principles of Hind Swaraj?

Gandhian model of development

Mahatma Gandhi never used the words environment protection. However what he said and did makes him an environmentalist. His writings are replete with remarks on the excesses of industrial society. Political psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy has written extensively on Gandhi. In a freewheeling chat with Kaushik Das Gupta he spoke on Gandhi’s vision of social change, his critique of industrialisation and the way movements draw inspiration from Gandhi.

We often talk of two visions of development, the Gandhian vision and the Nehruvian vision. What is the fundamental difference between the two?

The Nehruvian concept is the dominant concept of development. Gandhi never used the word development. The word was first used by the US president Harry S Truman in 1949. Yes, people often talk of the Gandhian model of development. But if such a model is genuinely Gandhian then it is not about development. And if it’s about development, then bringing in Gandhi is an exercise in legitimising something alien to Gandhi’s vision.

Social change is possible without development. Society did not stop changing before the idea of development was coined. President Truman was not such a great thinker that the concept he enunciated is indispensable to human societies.

Many activists who are against big developmental projects talk of following the Gandhian way. Your comments

Yes. They draw inspiration from Gandhi to resist aspects of development that does not tally with the Gandhian vision. In one way they are humanising Gandhi. All social change is not development. The fundamental aspects of development—for example unending industrialisation, unending urbanisation, unending consumption—are not justifiable according to the Gandhian way.

Gandhians have tried to take head on some major assumptions of development. When Medha Patkar protests against dams she is following the Gandhian way. Those who challenge key aspects of development are doing us a service. They are resisting the framework in which we are caught.

Many of the solutions to the current environmental problems are actually within the purview of industrialised society. But there are others who talk of a path other than that of industrialisation. Is Gandhi’s vision in sync with such alternatives?

Gandhian vision is now seen as an inspiration, as a source, for many enterprises that offer alternative to industrialisation. These movements began in the 1980s.

None of the greatest Gandhians of today belong to India. In fact, the greatest Gandhians of our times have not read Gandhi that carefully. They perhaps read his works after people started calling them Gandhians. Lech Walesa, the Polish shipyard trade unionist who later headed Poland’s non-Communist government, read Gandhi after people started calling him Gandhian. So did Benito Aquino. Gandhism has become a part of the process that offers alternatives to industrialisation. There are as many varieties of Gandhians as Marxists or liberals. I think that’s a very healthy development. Gandhi is a contemporary hero who is accessible—he was not a religious leader, yet religion has a big part in his politics, he was an ascetic but open to practical ways.

A lot of the de-growth movement, which believes progress is possible without economic growth, takes inspiration from Gandhi. Your comments?

I won’t use the word ‘progress’ because that is a contaminated word. The colonisers used the word progress. But yes, positive social change is possible without economic growth. And Gandhi has been an inspiration for such movements. However, we should also remember that most of the de-growth movement has taken place in societies which are over-consuming, exploiting nature and over-arming themselves—all these are hardly markers of good life.

I don’t think the hedonism associated with globalised capitalism is conducive to human happiness. Many communities have lived in poverty—but not destitution—and they haven’t been unhappy about it.

There are alternative visions but there is little by way of putting them into practice—except the endeavours of a few grassroots organisations. Your comments?

They have not been put into practice because our regimes are technocratic. Our solutions are technocratic. Technocrats go by the development textbooks. They do not keep elbow room for alternatives.

Yes, many with alternative vision keep away from the party-based political system. But they are part of the political process. The movement against dams is part of our political process. I feel that Arvind Kejriwal would have done well to have not become part of the party system. We need a group outside party politics to rate parties, rate individual candidates on yardsticks of honesty. We need an impartial agency to do that. For example, Uttar Pradesh has a system where bureaucrats vote on who the most corrupt bureaucrat is.

http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/feature-article/extract-interview-mahatma-gandhi

http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/feature-article/gandhi-angel-history-reading-hind-swaraj-today

http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/reports-documents/gandhi-and-environment

A human ecologist

Author(s): John S. Moolakkattu

Is Gandhi a human ecologist? If we go by the ideas generated by the environmental movement in India, which is strongly influenced by Gandhi, the answer is a definite ‘yes’. But Gandhi’s place in the ecological movement is yet to be established on a secure footing internationally. Even the recent Encyclopaedia of Human Ecology edited by Julia R Miller et al. omitted Gandhi as one of its entries in its otherwise impressive list.

http://cdn.downtoearth.org.in/themes/DTE/images/gandhi_jsmoolakkattu.pdf

— source downtoearth.org.in By Kaushik Das Gupta

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