Gandhi revisited

  • 14/07/1997

"The world has enough for every man's need, but not for any man's greed" - Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

AS THE world enters the twenty-first century in less than three years, the assumption that technology can provide easy solutions to all problems that face humankind, including environmental ones, is coming under scrutiny. Some of the most respected economists of today are questioning the basic assumptions of traditional economics. The pattern of industrialisation, based on insatiable consumerism as an indicator of growth and quality of life, is increasingly being considered a menace to the world's environment. But a close look at the views of economists and the scientific establishment in India shows that their concepts of 'development' and 'underdevelopment' are derived from outdated political-economic theories.

Technology is not value-free. It creates its own imperatives. The Gandhian view of the present world system needs to be seriously considered, as it is the only ideology which addresses both political and economic issues, and the question of level of technology desirable. It is true that the economic and demographic situation has altered considerably since Gandhi's lifetime, and that some of the solutions which he put forth, and wfiich might have been possible then, may no longer be feasible today. This is why we need a debate on the subject. It is not intended to make a fetish of Gandhian thought, but to consider its relevance today.
For an equal world The sleeping giants, China, Brazil and India, with low standards of living, high growth rates and hardworking populations, will eventually pose an economic threat to other parts of the world. What kind of economic system will these countries have in the twenty-first century? Will they be integrated into the world's economy, or will they face difficulties owing to their peculiar social, economic and cultural situations? If they become an integral part of the world economy, will their entry itself pose problems for the global economic scene?

Can there be growth with social justice? The new economic trends are widening the division between the haves and have-nots the world over. The inequalities of income in India are especially great. The free market system cannot work as well in these conditions as in other Asian countries, as it will only widen th@ gulf between the rich and the poor, and aggravate socialunrest.

It is clear that the large proportion of the population that has been kept out of the modern sector in countries like India, can hardly be expected to survive by the 'trickle-down effect'. The Indian political establishment, corrupt as it is, has accepted this by taking up major programmes for the benefit of the urban and rural poor, but the benefits do not reach those for whom they are intended.

Community development was, introduced in India during the Nehru era, and was later sought to be strengthened through the introduction of Panchayati Raj. The 73rd and 74th Amendements to the Indian Constitution have tried to strengthen local governments by insulating them from the state political process, but it is difficult to predict success for these efforts. In all these experiments, the incompetence and corruption of the governmental sector is a major problem as it gives employment to unemployables, and prevents the market economy from functioning according to its own norms.
Crowded planet The second major problem that requires analysis in the present world context is the question of population. How many people can the world support? The answer is obviously related to the standard of living at which they are to exist, and the quality of life that is expected. "A baby born in the United States represents twice the destructive impact on Earth's ecosystems and the services they provide as one born in Sweden, three times one born in Italy, 13 times one born in Brazil, 35 times one born in India, 40 times one in Bangladesh or Kenya, and 280 times one in Chad, Rwanda, Haiti or Nepal." (P and A Ehrlich, Population, Resources and Environment.- Issues in Human Ecology, San Francisco, 1972) Overpopulation has already reached Malthusian proportions, with the South expected to double its population (from one to two billion) between 1980 and 2000, and to double again to reach four billion by AD 2025. The natural checks which operated earlier - disease, war and the like - are no longer effective in controlling population growth.

Against this background, the demographic issues become inseparable from the environmental issues. The very measurement of development reflects the eco -insensitivity that has become a part of the conception -of the objective of development. For example, per capita energy consumption is treated by development economists as an indicator of development. The fact that India consumes only 231 units of energy per capita in oil equivalent as against 233 for Pakistan, 578 for China, 3646 for UK, 3563 for Japan and 7822 for USA, is not treated as a contribution to the globe's environment, but an indicator of India's backwardness. If the underdeveloped world, which accounts for 80 per cent of the world's population, were to increase its per capita energy consumption by 15 times in order to become developed, the world would either burst from heat, or instantaneously run out of energy resources.

How are we to persuade the poor in a developing country like India to accept family planning when their economic condition requires them to produce more children and set them to work at the age of six or seven? One way is to crack down on child labour, as India is now trying to do. But the demand for a large family cannot be wished away easily, as China has discovered in recent years. The mindset, and the propaganda for large families by certain religious leaders has to be faced. Population control has to be integrated with economic development. Can we have a small family norm with a low level of economic growth - the stress being on distribution rather than on massive investment? In this context, the Kerala model has be@n put forth as a possible solution. With the highest literacy level among the Indian states, and good health services, Kerala has brought down its population growth to manageable proportions. Such a result can hardly be achieved by the states of the Hindi-speaking belt, with their low levels of wonW's literacy, health services, high social backwardness, and insecurity of life and limb.

Part of the problem
The third major issue that requires debate is the question of environmental damage. Is sustainable development a real possibility, or merely a slogan? Global warming is now widely accepted as a reality. The depletion of the ozone layer is already being felt in countries of the southern hemisphere, like Chile and Australia. Yet scientists have been unable to convince policy-makers and world public opinion that something has to be done and quickly, and that globalisation of the world economy is a recipe for suicide. In fact, the very measures we take to control the heat caused by global warming (refrigerators, fans, air-conditioners) and to make our lives more comfortable (automobiles, microwave ovens) add to the problem itself.

Some positive developments are, however, visible. Multinationals (like Dupont) appear to have prepared for the possible success of the environmentalists in enforcing an environmentally sound economic order, by undertaking research which will enable them to eliminate chloroflurocarbons in refrigerators, or to switch to neem and other non-toxic plants in many commercial areas. In fact, it is, as usual, the Indian government that is behind.the times.

Changing tactics
Keeping in view the grim scenario that faces the world, we must ask ourselves if there is any solution, and if so, how it can be made acceptable to the common man and the powers that be in India and in the world at large. The solutions certainly do not consist in putting pressure on the industrialised countries to give financial aid to the third world countries for preserving their forests and changing over to environmentally sound technology (the Rio summit solution). If enough pressure is brought to bear on the multinationals (and more importantly, on our own elite who encourage the import of any foreign technology, no matter if it is polluting), the worst effects of global warming and environmental threat to the globe may still be averted.

India is probably the only country in which at least a modicum of effort has been made to understand and analyse the Gandhian approach to economics. Jawaharlal Nehru did not accept Gandhi's ideas, nor did most of the post- independence policy-makers of the country. However, some effort was made to introduce a self-reliant, village -oriented model of development, which would have made India a model for rural development for the Third World, somewhat on the lines of Maoist China, without the mass murders that took place in that country. We need to consider an Indian experiment in this context.

Indian scientists, economists and social thinkers need to think afresh on how India can tackle her critical problem of achieving sustainable development without destroving the value systems of the Gandhi-Nehru era. These value systems are relevent not only to India but to the entire south Asian region.

VK Bawa isformer vice chairperson of the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority

Related Content