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The root of the Mahatma’s politics: ecological concern

Gandhi may not have used the vocabulary of a modern-day environmentalist, but a consequence of his choice of lifestyle was ecological prudence. His colleague, JC Kumarappa, developed the idea that nature was the source of all economic value
There was an intimate relationship between ecology and economics and their impact on human welfare.
Updated on Oct 01, 2020 06:45 PM IST
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByVenu Madhav Govindu

Gandhi did not use the vocabulary of a modern-day environmentalist, but his way of living and philosophy reflected environmental concerns. Consider Gandhi’s ashrams in Ahmedabad and Sevagram which are different in structure and form, but equally striking in their simplicity and atmospheric elegance. They demonstrate the possibility of a good life within modest means. Gandhi’s frugality sprang from a deep egalitarian commitment. A lifestyle that was beyond the reach of the masses was not acceptable. A consequence of such choices was ecological prudence.

Gandhi’s environmental concerns extended far beyond questions of a personal lifestyle. To deploy a phrase from the 1960s, for Gandhi, the personal was also political. Consider his celebrated and oft-repeated statement from 1928: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialisation after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (i.e. England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” While presenting an ecological insight, it also reflected his understanding of the devastating human consequences of the global commodity trade under colonialism.

In Gandhi’s lifetime, many Indians argued against British rule but desired the fruits of a modern industrial economy. But Gandhi remained fundamentally sceptical of the emancipatory potential of industrialisation. He was prescient in recognising that a technologically sophisticated economy would have two fundamental consequences. It would disempower the masses of their economic autonomy and also seriously damage the ecological fabric which sustained millions, who toiled in an agrarian context.


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There was an intimate relationship between ecology and economics and their impact on human welfare. In the 1930s, this argument was developed by Gandhi’s colleague, the economic philosopher and environmental thinker, JC Kumarappa (1892-1960). Trained in accountancy and economics, Kumarappa spent a lifetime championing the agrarian economy and those who worked in it. He decried the ideology of endless economic growth through rapid, large scale industrialisation for its entailed economic inequality and ecological degradation. Rather, Kumarappa argued, justice demanded that our economic organisation and technological choices obey the constraints imposed by nature. This was only possible in a decentralised economic order that promoted economic equity while recognising ecological limits.

Arguing that nature was the source of all economic value, Kumarappa distinguished between non-renewable and renewable resources. In exploiting resources such as coal and minerals — of which there is only a fixed quantity on earth — we need to exercise extreme caution in their use. Kumarappa argued that minerals needed a policy of conservation since they had to also be “held in trust for generations to come”. This was an early argument for inter-generational equity. In using renewable resources such as water and forest produce, we need to work with their rates of replenishment in mind.

A fundamental ecological concern for Gandhi and Kumarappa was soil fertility. They advocated the maintenance of a cyclical balance between crop production and soil replenishment through manuring by careful use of a number of methods. The export of farm produce from the village to the factory and restrictive forest laws short circuited the nutritional cycle. Calling for the restoration of this cycle, Kumarappa opposed the mindless use of artificial fertilisers as they boosted short term productivity but ultimately degraded the soil. He insisted that we use only calibrated amounts of chemical inputs based on soil tests that scientifically identified deficiencies. As a corollary, Kumarappa argued against cash crops such as sugarcane and tobacco, which displaced nutritional food crops, depleted water resources and exhausted the land.

Kumarappa criticised the excessive use of precious groundwater for irrigation and argued against “grandiose plans” for large dams. Instead he advocated focusing on schemes to prevent soil erosion and raise the water table. Strikingly, as far back as 1951, Kumarappa noted that growing fruit for city markets resulted in the village’s share of water being “virtually exported”. Arguably, the idea of virtual water has older antecedents than commonly believed.

The industrial policy of the Nehruvian state rejected Gandhi’s economic ideology and the concomitant ecological restraint. Successive governments have reiterated their commitment to industrial growth and urbanisation. As a result, the environmental concerns shifted towards the impacts of deforestation, large dams, mining and large-scale industrialisation. Gandhians such as Mira behn and Sarala behn drew attention to Himalayan deforestation and inspired the celebrated Chipko movement. In the 1990s, in Tamil Nadu, the indefatigable Gandhian couple, Krishnammal and S Jagannathan, fought against export-oriented prawn culture that destroyed fertile land through salinisation. A number of people’s movements fighting for environmental and human rights have also drawn inspiration from Gandhi.

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Decades of policy bias and rampant violation of the law have created innumerable ecological crises across the country. The destruction of natural resources and brazen appropriation of land has disproportionately affected poorer communities of tribals and Dalits. India’s growth story has also created millions of ecological refugees. If much of agricultural land is degraded due to the excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides, urban India is beset with a number of environmental challenges. Indeed, there is scarcely an ecological niche that remains unaffected. All of these problems are exacerbated by the global crisis of climate change and its inescapable consequences.

Our contemporary environmental challenges are far more complex than those in Gandhi’s lifetime. Nevertheless, Gandhi and his co-workers offers many salutary lessons which apply to the world and not just in India. At a time when terms like green and sustainable have been emptied of meaning, it is worth reiterating their insight that ecological crises cannot be delinked from our economic and technological choices.


Bio: The author is writing a thematic history of Gandhi in the 1930s. He is an Associate Professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

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