Gobar Times
Cover Story

Was Gandhi an environmentalist?


We don’t know.
What we do know is that he had a lot of ideas.

HIS IDEAS are scattered in articles he wrote in the Harijan and the Young India during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. And out of the many, many things he believed in and wrote about, some make a lot of sense today.

We move into the next millennium with a lot of questions buzzing around us. Splat! Squash one, and another zings past the ear. Wave them away, and they come right back. How should we meet the challenge of environmental damage? Can it be that, in India, millions are still poor not because there are too many of them but because the air and water, trees and land they depend on are being poisoned and polluted, being felled and taken away from them? Why are the natural resources of the countryside being used to meet the needs only of cities and industries?

Basic needs or Baskin Robbins? Poverty or Pepsi? Survival of the fittest, or survival of the littlest? What have you to say, Mr. Gandhi?

Gandhi came to India in 1914. For the next two years, he went travelling around the countryside. He wanted to know: what exactly was happening in India’s villages? How were villagers doing? In 1917 and 1918, he took part in protests by peasants who had got fed up of being hit around like cricket balls by landlords (check out: a chronology of Gandhi’s life, pp 64-65).

His travels, and the part he played in the peasant protests, were experiences he never forgot. They helped him decide what issues were worth fighting about. They opened his eyes. He had put on new spectacles, and these experiences were the lenses that allowed him to see things clearly. Differently.

What he saw through the new spectacles was Mad Rush. Mad Rush didn’t think or see; it was an NRG (Natural Resource Gobbling) monster. It had a mouth and 32 large teeth. 16 of these were Want-teeth, and 16 More-teeth. Mad Rush went about clamping its jaws. It had to gobble everything up. If it didn’t, the millions of Bellygoods in its huge MawPaunch stomach would not let it sleep. To keep the Bellygoods happy, Mad Rush stomped about trying to chew up all the air, water, trees, and land it came across. In this, it was helped by its trusted lieutenants: Cranky Shaft and the High Rise.

To Gandhi, it looked as if Mad Rush was ready to leap upon the villages. The Bellygoods were waiting, rumbling in the MawPaunch. Orders had been given, and Cranky Shaft and the High Rise were eager to fall upon the villages. “God forbid that India should take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million (India) took to similar economic exploitation it would strip the world bare like locusts.” — Young India, 28-12-1928

“The blood of the villages is the cement with which the edifice of the cities is built.” Harijan, 23-6-1946

What to do with Mad Rush the NRG monster? In his writings, Gandhi tries to answer the question. Obviously, Mad Rush couldn’t be allowed to do what it wanted. But this was difficult. For Mad Rush had its lieutenants, who were very good at their jobs.

On the one hand, there was the High Rise. Its motto: Big is Beautiful. Its heart was like a vacuum pump. To live, it sucked up everything around it. The more it tore up villages, the more muscular it got.

On the other hand, there was Cranky Shaft. Its motto: Make More, Not Less. Cranky Shaft made lots of lovely things, and dangled it in front of people. It dazzled people into buying all the things it made. The idea was to make people fight for these things. And if you didn’t have the money to buy, well, you got eaten up. So what did one do?

“Industrialisation on a mass scale will necessarily lead to active or passive exploitation of the villages as the problems of competition and marketing come in.” Harijan, 29-8-1936

To Gandhi, there was a way out. Instead of letting Mad Rush do what it wanted, one had to let the villagers do what they wanted. You had to walk, not with Mad Rush, but with villagers. You had to grab Cranky Shaft and the High Rise. You had to wrestle with them, and tie them down. If this was done, Mad Rush wouldn’t be so mad, or in such a rush, anymore.

“Therefore, we have to concentrate on the village being self-contained, manufacturing mainly for use. Provided this character of the industry is maintained, there would be no objection to villagers using even modern machines and tools that they can make and afford to use. Only they should not be used as a means of exploitation of others. Harijan, 29-8-1936.

“My Khadi mentality tells me cities must subserve villages.” Harijan, 20-1-1940

Gandhi had an idea: why couldn’t villages become powerful enough to tie down Cranky Shaft and the High Rise? Why couldn’t Cranky Shaft and the High Rise be made to do what villages wanted?

They could. If villages had the power, they would change the Cranky Shaft and the High Rise mottoes. For the one, the new motto would be: Small is Beautiful. For the other: Make Less, Not More. Both Cranky Shaft and the High Rise would no longer interested in attacking villages and feeding them to Mad Rush. Mad Rush would no longer be an NRG monster, and villages would not lose their resources.

But all this was possible only if villages had the power to make decisions. Gandhi believed that the pattern of decision-making in India had to be re-designed. Let villages control Mad Rush. Let them control their land and water. Let villages decide. This was all that was required for India to become a great country.

“I suggest that if India is to evolve along non-violent lines, it will have to decentralise many things. Centralization cannot be defended without adequate force. Simple homes from which there is nothing to take away require no policing; the palaces of the rich must have strong guards to protect them against dacoity. So must huge factories. Rurally organised India will run less risk of foreign invasion than urbanised India well equipped with military, naval, and air forces.” Harijan, 30-12-1939

What would happen if people refused to get dazzled by the goodies Cranky Shaft dangled in front of them? What if people said: Enough, I don’t want any more?

For Gandhi, this was something he always was scratching his head about. To him, it was a good/bad thing. Only good people would say they didn’t want more than they needed. But wanting things came naturally to people. It wasn’t bad to want things, was it?

For us in GT, this is no longer a good/bad thing. It is something all of us have to start thinking about. Because the way we live, and think we would like to live, has so much of NRG about it that we could very easily be confused for the Bellygoods in the MawPaunch of Mad Rush, perhaps Mad Rush itself.

Thus what Gandhi says about becoming more human seems to us to be, today, a very useful environmental message. After all, if we have to live sustainably, then does it not mean that we should start wanting less and stop wanting more? Think about it.

What's common to scientist C V Seshadri, activist Medha Patkar and economist J C Kumarappa? Like Gandhi, they say:

Let's tie Mad Rush up!

Science, and Affection, for People

There came a time in Chetput Venkatasubban Seshadri's life as a research associate in the US when he could no longer ignore a little voice piping inside his brain. He was doing experiments to find out a way of making sure that aircraft wings always remained de-iced. He began to feel that the work he was doing would in no way help people in India. What had the poor to do with de-iced aircraft wings? And, for that matter, what had modern Western science to do with them?

CVS returned to India. He taught first at IIT, Chennai. In 1965 he shifted to IIT, Kanpur. During the 1970s and 1980s, as ecological crisis set in, CVS argued that the main culprit was the idea that human beings had the power to control nature. It was an idea basic to Western science. This idea — and its application as technology — had to be questioned if the crisis was to be solved. "All this would be nice if it would benefit our people more than we have or improve the resource base of the country to make it sustainable". Why did our policy-makers, for example, think it was better to convert molasses into alcohol for industrial use rather than into yeast that has food value for humans and animals? Why were farmers urged to sell sugarcane to centralised sugar mills instead of converting it to jaggery (which had superior nutrition value)? Why couldn't science be first and foremost for the poor?

He left teaching and in 1977 set up the AMM Murugappa Chettiar Research Centre. Here, scientists worked on putting science at the service of poor. Scientists experimented with a wide variety of devices, like a mini bio-gas plant which could solve the problems of farmers who had only one cow. The Centre developed a technique of making paper out of
silk cotton (this way, one needn't fell trees to make paper). They tried to develop bio-fertilisers and ways to treat heavy metals in factory effluents.

It was tough. For years he tried to get what were called Fish Aggregating Devices (a FAD is a large 3- dimensional triangle made of waste plastic and things like tyres submerged just below the water surface. It acted like a mock-reef: loads of fish would gather under it) installed in shallow waters along the coast. These would help poor fisherfolk raise a healthy catch without them having to fish in the open sea. It would also keep trawlers away from shallow waters. The idea was presented to the Central government, in whose offices it still lies buried in files!

At the first Congress on Traditional Sciences and Technologies of India, held in IIT Mumbai in 1993, CVS spoke to a packed hall about the many ways in which people in India had used natural resources wisely and scientifically. For him, attending such a Congress meant that, slowly but surely, his message was coming home. "We need to make a larger effort to get the commonality of our mind from people. Compassion and love grow from use. Where did we lose the love and affection for people?"

"Koi nahi hatega — bandh nahi banega"

Since 1989, this slogan — not one will move; the dam will not be made — has echoed across India at different locations along the river Narmada in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, and even in Mumbai and Delhi. It is the slogan of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the Save Narmada Movement, led by Medha Patkar.

Medha grew up in a socialist family. After her college, Medha worked in the Mumbai slums. She first went to Narmada valley as a researcher to try and make sure that the people affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project — a mega-dam to be built across the river Narmada in Gujarat — would get what the government had promised them as compensation. But within two years, she and her colleagues were convinced that people were getting a lousy deal, and that the dam was a social and economic nightmare.

Then began the showdown. 1990. The place: Ferukwa, a small town on the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh border. In the last week of this year, thousands of people affected by the dam set off from Badwani, MP, on a march to the dam site. They were stopped at Ferukwa. Armed police refused to let them cross into Gujarat. The marchers squatted by the roadside and refused to move. Medha Patkar and 5 others began a fast to draw attention to their demands. On the other side of the border, the Gujarat chief minister's wife led a dharna of those who supported the dam.

For three weeks, the two sides shouted slogans at each other. As the fast crossed the three-week mark, people began to panic. Medha Patkar's kidneys were on the verge of collapse, it was rumoured. The central government was deluged with calls to review the Project. Government refused; so did Medha. The crisis deepened. Eventually, supporters of the NBA got hold of a team of eminent citizens to hold a review.

The fast was called off. The month-long protest had failed in its effort to get an official review. But the world woke up to the NBA struggle for social and ecological justice. So began a movement that is often described as a satyagraha: an act ofnon-violent disobedience with truth on its side.

Out of a suit, into khadi

One day in 1929, a man came to meet Gandhi at the Sabarmati Ashram. Could he show Gandhi his P hD thesis? It contained a different idea of economics. Gandhi read the thesis and was amazed. Here was a man who thought exactly like him. Humans were not merely wealth-producing animals. They were members of society with political, social, moral and spiritual responsibilities. Gandhi immediately asked this man to join him in
his efforts to develop a new way of thinking and doing economics.

So Joseph Cornellius Kumarappa, who once was an accountant running his own firm in Mumbai and had just returned from the US, changed his suit for khadi. In 1934, after Gandhi moved to Wardha and set up the All India Village Industries Association (AIVIA), he found in Kumarappa a willing worker. Here, in the 1940s, Kumarappa worked as AIVIA secretary.

In a book called Economy of Permanence: A Quest for Social Order Based on Non-violence, Kumarappa sets down his ideas on economics. In
nature, creatures co-exist in such a way that each fulfilled its necessary role. "In this way, nature enlists the co-operation of all its units, each working
for itself and in the process helping other units to get along their own too. When this works out harmoniously and violence does not break the chain, we have an economy of permanence." In an economy of permanence, everybody helped each other out. In contrast, there was the economy of transience, in which everyone tried to do well only for him/herself. An economy of transience was violent; it chewed up nature. Kumarappa's favourite example for this was the way pesticides and chemical fertilisers were used to produce crops in ever increasing amounts.Sure, the crops got produced, but after a while the soil got spoilt: no more lush green fields. An economy of permanence, on the other hand, did not destroy nature.

Kumarappa died in 1961. For a long time, everyone forgot him. But today, as we talk of sustainable development, there are those who realise that it means exactly what Kumarappa had called an economy of permanence. They ask: can we learn, for our own good, from Kumarappa all over again?