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?
“The reason why we are getting more and more impoverished is that we have neglected our 7,00,000 villages. We have indeed thought of them, but only to the extent of exploiting them.” – Harijan, 11-5-1936.
What lies between the city and the wilderness?
Gandhi meets Mad Rush, the NRG (natural resource gobbling) monster and his two trusted lieutenants, Cranky Shaft and High Rise.
Just Undo It!
“The distinguishing characteristic of modern civilisation is an indefinite multiplicity of wants.”
— Young India, 2-6-1927
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
“Today the cities dominate and drain the villages so that they are crumbling to ruin.”
— Harijan, 20-1-1940
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
“True democracy cannot be worked by twenty men sitting at the Centre. It has to be worked from below by the people of every village.”
— Harijan , 18-1-1948
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
“The world has enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed.”
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.
“If a plain life is worth living, then the attempt is worth making, even though only an individual or a group makes the effort.”
— Harijan, 1-9-1946
This man is talking sensible. I am liking. In fact, I am voting him GT-wallah of the millennium. You will ask: why? I will answer: because G is for Gandhi. Then G is for Gobar. And G is for Gobar Times!
Write to me and tell me what you are thinking of Gandhiji and his ideas.
“This organic manure ever enriches, never impoverishes the soil. The daily waste, judiciously composted, returns to the soil in the form of golden manure increasing manifold the the total yield of grains and pulses. In addition, the judicious use of waste keeps the surroundings clean.”
— Harijan, 28-12-1947