Mahatma Gandhi never used the words environment protection however what he said and did makes him an environmentalist. Although during his time environmental problems were not recognized as such however with his amazing foresight and insight he predicted that things are moving in the wrong direction. As early as in 1909 in his book Hind Swaraj he cautioned mankind against unrestricted industrialism and materialism.
He did not want India to follow the west in this regard and warned that if India, with its vast population, tried to imitate the West then the resources of the earth will not be enough. He argued even in 1909 that industrialization and machines have an adverse effect on the health of people. Although he was not opposed to machines as such, he definitely opposed the large scale use of machinery. He criticized people for polluting the rivers and other water bodies. He criticized mills and factories for polluting the air with smoke and noise.
What he advocated in place of industrialism and consumerism was a simple life based on physical labour. He implored people to “live simply so that others may simply live”. For he believed that earth provides “enough to satisfy every man’s need but not any man’s greed”. So the rich must not only restrict their wants but must also treat their wealth as a ‘trust’ for the poor and use it for the welfare of the poor. This can be done only if people can distinguish between their real needs and artificial wants and control the later.
To him the real need meant to posses only what is absolutely necessary for the moment. To him this would not only help the unprivileged of today but would help protect the environment for the next generation as to him the earth, the air, the land and the water were not an inheritance from our forefathers but a loan from our children. So we have to hand over to the next generation at least as it was handed over to us.
He also believed that one must “be the change that one wants to see in the world” and hence he practiced what he preached. His life was his message. So he and his wife gave away all their property. They had nothing beyond the clothes that they wore and a change or two. He used scraps of papers to write brief notes and reversed envelopes for reuse to send letters. Even when he used to bathe with water of the free flowing Sabarmati river he consciously used only the minimum water needed for taking a bath. However he did not equate simple living with abject poverty. In fact he believed that to deny a person the ordinary amenities of life is far worse than starving the body. It is starving the soul – the dweller in the body. To him poverty was the most severe polluter. Hence poverty must be eradicated and that can be done only when everybody is taking their own share and not grabbing others’ share by limiting their needs and sharing their resources.
However his concerns were not limited to human beings alone as he had a very strong sense of the unity of all life. He believed that all creatures had the right to live as much as human beings and felt a living bond between humans and the rest of the animate world. He believed that humans should live in harmony with their surroundings.
The best part of Gandhi’s ideas was that they empower the individual. It is up to each and every individual to simplify his or her life; to share his or her resources and to care for his and her surroundings.
Dr Anupma Kaushik is Reader in Political Science, Banasthali University, Rajasthan, India.