A century of Gandhian economics

A century of Gandhian economics
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First Published: Thu, Oct 01 2009. 11 47 PM IST

Symbol of self-reliance: Mahatma Gandhi working on a (spinning wheel). In 1924, Gandhi had said: ‘What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such.’ Dinodia
Symbol of self-reliance: Mahatma Gandhi working on a (spinning wheel). In 1924, Gandhi had said: ‘What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such.’ Dinodia
Updated: Thu, Oct 01 2009. 11 47 PM IST
New Delhi: A hundred Dussehras ago, over a celebratory dinner at a London restaurant called Nazimuddin’s, Mahatma Gandhi sat and listened to a speech from V.D. Savarkar, the star pupil in what he called “the Indian school of violence”. The echoes of that speech rang so persistently in Gandhi’s ears that, when he sailed for South Africa a few days later, he reacted by writing Hind Swaraj, a slim exposition of his various philosophies, all of which would become immensely familiar in India over the next four decades.
Symbol of self-reliance: Mahatma Gandhi working on a (spinning wheel). In 1924, Gandhi had said: ‘What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such.’ Dinodia
Among its ruminations on freedom and religion and passive resistance, Hind Swaraj, which marks its centenary this November, contains Gandhi’s ideas for economic prosperity —or, to be more precise, for the economic prosperity of India. They sound, in a 2009 that is even more avowedly capitalist and materialistic than 1909, quaint or impractical. But those who continue to champion Gandhian economics insist that his ideas bear relevance even—or especially—today, some compromises to the modern era notwithstanding.
Most notably to our 21st-century eyes, Hind Swaraj inveighs against machinery—not with any caveats, but absolutely and bluntly, as if the further development of the idea could come later.
“It is necessary to realize that machinery is bad,” Gandhi wrote. “We shall then be able gradually to do away with it.” On the subject of railways, in particular, he was withering: “Railways accentuate the evil nature of man.”
But these thoughts of Gandhi’s, says Pulin Nayak, a professor at the Delhi School of Economics, should not be examined in isolation. “Gandhi was too intelligent to insist on no machinery at all,” Nayak says. “What he wanted was for machinery to not displace labour.” (And indeed, to a question from a Shantiniketan student in 1924, Gandhi would say: “What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour-saving machinery. Men go on ‘saving labour’ till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation.”)
Nayak first “seriously” read Hind Swaraj eight years ago, although he has been familiar with the precepts of Gandhian economics for far longer. He is reluctant to call himself a Gandhian economist, although he confesses that he agrees with much of what Gandhi says; where he differs, oddly enough, is in Gandhi not being radical enough. “He never considered any major changes in the ownership of the means of production itself,” Nayak says. “He believed that capitalists could go on holding factories and assets.”
Hind Swaraj is not an easily actionable document, as the Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation (Baif) in Pune has found out. Baif, a non-profit that nonetheless encourages farmers to be as profitable as possible, is a deeply Gandhian organization; it was, in fact, started by Gandhi’s disciple Manibhai Desai, deputed by the Mahatma in 1946 to work with the rural residents of the area. But its president, Girish Sohani, has found that Baif has had to adhere to the spirit, and not to the letter, of Gandhi’s various dicta.
“No tool or machine has an intrinsic value; it’s the application of the tool that counts,” Sohani says. “So, we use genetic technologies to produce better cattle, but if it’s done to produce a terminator gene in crops, then you’re taking the control out of millions of hands into your own, so that your seeds are the ones that are always in demand.”
Sohani is similarly pragmatic about the motive of profit, which can so easily be transmuted into the motive of greed that Gandhi detested. “We have to accept that the market is all-pervading, and that your livelihood status depends on how much you can participate in the market,” he says. “So, we need to help farmers negotiate better with the market. It isn’t always practical to stick to the letter of Gandhi’s prescriptions. It’s more important to understand the basic principle.”
Hind Swaraj is also dismissive of that other great linchpin of the modern economy, international trade, and its allied model of competitive advantage. Scoffing at the need to import machine-made pins, Gandhi wrote: “As long as we cannot make pins without machinery so long will we do without them.” So, also for glassware and machine-made cloth.
Again, Nayak offers the gentle reminder that these words were written in 1909. “Gandhi was never a person to close his mind, and if confronted with the clear benefits of trade, I think he would have accepted them,” he says. “But still, there is the view that the gains of trade are skewed in favour of the already better-off, and that further accentuates inequities. This was developed much later in the work of Latin American economists.”
The biggest stroke of foresight in Hind Swaraj is what Nayak calls the limitation of want—the notion that “you don’t need 200 types of toothpaste, you only need two or three or five.” Rajni Bakshi, who profiled 12 neo-Gandhians in her book Bapu Kuti, and whose birth-date (coincidentally enough) is 2 October, identifies, in this limitation of want, the ancestor of the modern, modish concept of sustainable living.
“I watched a panel discussion a few years ago, and Anand Mahindra told the panel the story of how, even back in the 1940s, Gandhi knew that the planet could not sustain its entire population living the way the West lived,” Bakshi says. “He knew so far in advance what is today a no-brainer. If nothing else, the international red alert on climate change is one incontrovertible piece of proof.”
Bakshi names a number of entrepreneurs shaped to varying degrees by Gandhi’s thoughts on economics, among them Ela Bhatt and her Self-Employed Women’s Association (Sewa) Bank, and Vijay Mahajan, founder of the microfinance firm Basix.
Mahajan calls Hind Swaraj a “very important book”: “I had wanted to plan a yatra across India in November, to celebrate its centenary. But we called it off because we thought it would be too political.”
Bakshi’s ongoing dialogue with Mahajan, she says, involves questioning the very way that money works in society, a point Nayak makes in a different way.
“After Rawls (John Rawls, the American political and moral philosopher), I think welfare economics has taken a course that forces us to look at its ethical dimensions,” Nayak says. “A part of the reason for the 2007 financial crash was just mindless greed.” The subsequent crisis was, in a way, validation of a principle that Gandhi held dear, one that he began to develop in Hind Swaraj . Nayak phrases it simply: “You just cannot separate the ethics from the economics.”
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First Published: Thu, Oct 01 2009. 11 47 PM IST