What Would a Gandhian Business Model Look Like?

The Gandhi Foundation Annual Lecture 2013 was given by Rt Hon Vince Cable MP. photo courtesy of Prem Prakash & Twisha Chandra

The Gandhi Foundation Annual Lecture 2013 was given by
Rt Hon Vince Cable MP
photo courtesy of Prem Prakash & Twisha Chandra

The Rt Hon Vince Cable MP, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills delivered the Gandhi Foundation Annual Lecture in October 2013. The title of his lecture was What Would a Gandhian Business Model Look Like? You can read the full speech by clicking here.

You can read a review by Robert Fisher and analysis by Antony Copley below.

What Would a Gandhian Business Model Look Like?
By Robert Fisher

At the recent Gandhi Foundation Annual Lecture, The Rt Hon Vince Cable MP spoke of Mahatma Gandhi as one of the three great 20th century political activists who along with Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King brought to the consciousness of humanity some of the injustices that human kind has heaped upon his fellow man/woman.

At the same time reminding us of three 20th Century tyrants who had brought humanity to the depths of evil and despair, Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong who collectively killed millions in their attempts to control the destinies of many with their ill conceived ideological objectives.

And of the legacies of these six individuals, exemplified by the election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States of America, the emergence of India and China as two of the great economic powers in the world and of the recent joint American and Russian intervention in Syria in bringing about the destruction of its chemical weapons.

The legacies of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong are not forgotten, there are still many within global society who would kill with impunity anyone questioning their authority or ideological beliefs.

Whilst Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela have undoubtedly helped to reduce the incidents of institutional racism and colonialism, sexism, ageism, classism etc. still exist and as was stated by Dr Cable, nonviolent direct action by all, wherever these incidents occur, will eventually bring these prejudices and injustices to an end.

It is noted that Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Gandhi were all individuals who fought against their political systems at the time to achieve their moral objectives.

The world of commerce and industry, based on mutual self interest has steadily moved on, perhaps providing some insight as to the way in which finding ways of working together can be more important than seeking to impose one ideological view over another. Politicians around the world will be aware of the impact the Internet has had on the political landscape.

Dr Cable spoke of globalisation, of economics and of ethics and of cultural and subsequent ethical conflicts between those who are the wealth creators in society and some who retain it to create even more money and of the differences between great wealth and deep poverty, inequalities and injustices in society.

Within the bandwidth of ethics that allows for freedom of thought and deed, I believe different and deeper truths and cultural values will emerge as nations converge and collective society moves forward in what I imagine Gandhi’s definition of Sarvodaya to be.

Globalisation, in this digital age, brings with it the hopes and aspirations of many and the potential for all cultures and nation states to collaborate in trying to address the many challenges that face humanity and earth’s subsystems, and the many opportunities in so doing.

Just under 40 years ago the combined intellectual capacity of only a few motivated individuals addressed the challenge of taking humanity to the moon and back.

It is entirely plausible that the combined intellectual capacity of humanity, connected, motivated and focused on addressing the many challenges we undoubtedly will face as we all move forward in eliminating extremes of poverty and injustice in society and the degradation of the natural world will be achieved. Gandhi and those like him have shown the many what only a few can achieve.

True economics, articulated by Vince Cable as social justice, equality and the good of all is not only aspirational it is logical and demonstrable through the concept of mutual self interest.

Whatever our views of capitalism are, laissez-faire or some other form of capitalism, we are part of global economic community and what we do in one part of the world has an impact in another. Dr Cable in his Ministerial capacity in relation to business, innovation and skills will I’m sure be aware of the need of a fine balance between government (regulation, innovation), and economic (stimulation and equilibrium).

Dr Cable spoke of the liberalisation of the Indian economy and of the dismantling of state control of its planning processes and what would have been Gandhi’s opposition in the protection of rural industries. I can see both sides to this argument, in the semi rural community within which I live I am aware of a balance that needs to kept in the development of any economy, local, national or international and of the need to support those whose aspirations are to the husbandry of natural / rural environments (you cannot eat software), and there is much more to true economics than generating GDP through irresponsible planning processes and ill thought through economic stimuli. I believe aesthetics and analysis both to be part of this liberalisation and planning process, soul with pragmatism.

The balance between materialism / consumerism / waste in a world of finite resources and the subsequent impact on global ecology I feel sure concerns the majority of people in society today and as set out in Vince Cable’s view of true economics it will be the innovators, scientists, engineers, businesses, social entrepreneurs who will address these challenges, but perhaps equally as important the spiritual / moral dimension to be included in this equation will determine the society in which we all will eventually live.

Dr Cable then commented on the benefits of the “green revolution” and of the efficiencies gained in multiple cropping, fertilizers etc.

Those cultures who have tilled the land responsibly for centuries will already be aware of nature’s natural and sustainable cycles, the green revolution will be nothing new to them. However irrigation and mobile telephony, in ways as yet to be imagined, will transform their lives forever.

Jevon’s paradox however puts forward the view that efficiencies gained through technological progress in accessing resources, tend to increase the rate of consumption and if this is the case I believe humanity must define and find ways of living within a sustainable global budget.

Vince Cable then went on to elaborate on the meaning of Swadeshi, as self-reliant village communities, independent from their neighbours for vital wants.

All modern communities of which I am aware are reliant on some of their vital resources from others. Within my own village community I can see many benefits in the reduction of waste by providing within its borders a balanced local economy and employment for its residents, whatever their aspirations are. In all transactions going forward there should be benefits, financial, social or environmental, but no transaction should be at the expense of the other, the metrics and algorithm developed to measure impact, an important factor in creating a sustainable and equitable society, wherever it exists.

Community cohesion and social mobility, mentioned by Dr Cable, should mean something different to the emergence of ghettoes in the city of London for highly paid bankers, or traveling miles to get to work because a person in his or her chosen occupation cannot afford to live close to their employment. These are complexities any economic system will have to deal with, but not, I feel, insurmountable.

Personally I can see some merits in Gandhi’s Swadeshi that should be nurtured, valued and protected, however this should be in a local / national /international / mutual self-interest context.

We have seen both positive and negative impacts of outsourcing our industrial and other capabilities since the 1970s to places such as the far-east and the impact of this short term bottom line thinking has had on the manufacturing skills base of the United Kingdom. There are now not enough engineers to rebuild our own critical infrastructures.

There is a comfort in the idea of British critical infrastructure being held in trust on behalf of its population by a British institution, built and managed by British engineers and if the money needed to build it comes from abroad I feel sure, within the concept of mutual self interest, this can be achieved.

Protectionism is not a viable option in modern day society, whichever industry people are in, but perhaps as is the current focus of Dr Cable’s attention in the development of government economic policy it will include joined up thinking in areas such as education, infrastructure, employment and planning.

Dr Cable then went on to state that he saw little merit in British Swadeshi, and in terms of international trade I would agree that the sum of the whole, in an international context, is much greater than its individual parts. However I imagine in line with government policy, localism, the decentralization /devolution of government and the organic development of clusters of various activities at a local level will inevitably provide the international community with significantly more parts to the whole, which perhaps will propel all nations, including the United Kingdom, who adopt the same model, into an age of socioeconomic and environmental equilibrium.

Finally Dr Cable went on to state that he wanted to see businesses in the United Kingdom that were socially responsible to customers, supply chains, workers and to the exchequer, by self regulation, by naming and shaming. I would add, naming and shaming, if it is to be effective in the world of classic capitalism, transparency and accountability must be part of this Process.

It was a good lecture and a shared vision for the future.

Where is the Gandhian Business Model?
by Antony Copley

No Gandhian could disagree with Vince Cable’s interpretation of Gandhi’s approach to economics as far as his lecture went. He stopped short of Gandhi’s late visionary hopes for the Indian economy, one that was to be taken forward by the left Gandhians, J P Narayan and Vinobe Bhave. No doubt, however, it would be naïve to expect a Secretary of State for Business to move beyond the conventional paradigms of the market economy and the overriding importance of economic growth.

Cable led us through a perfectly plausible account of the way Gandhi had to work within the constraints of a colonial economy, rejecting laissez-faire, the imperial policy which of course advantaged British exports, and a nationalist demand for protectionism, the wish of Indian business interests to play a significant role in shaping Congress policy. This would shelter emergent indigenous capitalist growth, a protectionism most strikingly expressed in the doctrine of swadeshi, the clarion cry of the nationalist movement in its outraged rejection of the partition of Bengal in 1905. I’m not sure if Gandhi ever actually endorsed swadeshi, his concern being to protect artisan industry against both foreign and Indian factory production. I think Cable’s may be special pleading in speculating that Gandhi would have gone along with a globalisation that saw Indian handloom products being sold as luxury items abroad. It would be interesting to read his exposition of this in a jointly authored book with Gandhian L C Jain. But one can agree that Gandhi would have rejected the economic nationalism of the Hindutva movement and the BJP, despite their claims that he was one of their own.

And of course he is surely right to argue that Gandhi engaged in this debate not so much as an economist, for he was no expert in this field, but as a moralist. His concerns were ethical. Cable overlooks the profound influence of John Ruskin’s ideas on Gandhi, above all on the sacred nature of work. Here was one reason for Gandhi’s championing of khadi, his high evaluation of the skills of artisan workers through his constructive programme. The relevant concept here is sarvodaya. It was a policy that did indeed look to the self-sufficiency of the village community. This was nothing to do with the highly regressive programme of autarchy pursued by the Axis powers and such latterday totalitarian states as North Korea. Cable, at the end, advocates forms of decentralisation and here he is seemingly on Gandhi’s wavelength. But something much more far reaching than local autonomy is encompassed in Gandhi’s vision.

Maybe this late Gandhian outlook was never coherently expressed, with his life so tragically cut short. The left Gandhians teased out the quasi-socialist implications of Gandhi’s vision of a new social structure which would radiate outwards from the village, inspired by an oceanic, quasi-mystical sense. So Bhave took up a national crusade of land redistribution, the bhoodan movement, though this was to be on a voluntary basis, appealing to landlords to hand over land to the poor. Narayan of course moved into left-wing politics and was a critical figure in challenging Mrs Gandhi’s increasingly autocratic rule that led to the Emergency regime of 1975-77. Sadly, Bhave and Narayan stood on different sides in that crisis. This possibly reflected the ambiguities in Gandhi’s own outlook.

Arguably Gandhi’s late vision represented a new paradigm on how the economy was to based. All along he had opposed the liberal capitalist insistence on growth above all. His was an economic vision of reaching out to abject levels of poverty but seeking no more than the meeting of basic human needs, a view that rejected a merely materialist approach and was inherently ascetic. This was the way of life in his ashrams. Really and truly here lay Gandhi’s new business model and Cable was way off target. Are Gandhi’s panchayats [small elected body governing a village] indeed so irrelevant?

When the banking crisis struck in 2010 many believed this exposed the inherently flawed nature of capitalism and the opportunity to move from its endlessly preached mantra of growth to an entirely new paradigm of a sustainable economy. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote eloquently of the need to respect our environment and not to exploit and abuse its resources. Of course all this was to tap into a long lament on such abuse from Rachel Carson to James Lovelock and many others. All this has taken on a horrible urgency with the recognition of the threat from climate change. A recent article in the New Statesman by Naomi Klein, ‘Science says: Revolt!’ (25-31 October 2013) describes how leading scientists reinforce this search for a new paradigm, the way government see the revolutionary implications of this new paradigm and are trying to suppress the scientists, and the need for direct action. In this context the ideas of Gandhi, far from seeming utopian, have an all too urgent relevance.

The way the Gandhian ashram and panchayat have been brought up to date and prove that they are not pie in the sky is demonstrated in an astonishing experiment in Gandhian-style communitarian living in Andalucia. In 1979 one Sanchez Gordillo was the first elected mayor of the pueblo of Marinaleda, today with but 2,700 citizens. In 1980 he led a hunger strike ‘against hunger’. In 1991 the 1,200 hectare El Humoso farm was taken over by the Marinaleda co-operative. It chose to develop an agriculture which maximised the use of labour and provide much needed employment. It was a rejection of a wheat based economy that used little labour and pursued mere economic efficiency. Profits of the co-operative are used to create ever newer employment. It is an anti-capitalist example which is catching on. Neighbouring Somante has set up its own co-operative on government owned land. Admittedly the Andalucian Workers Union were initially evicted in March 2012 but returned the next day and never left. Here, argues Dan Hancox, is just the kind of new economy that the indignados are seeking. (See his essay ‘Since the Financial Crisis, the Spanish Economy has been on its Knees. But one Village Stood and Fought’, The Observer 20/10/13 and his book The Village Against the World, Verso). Gandhi is certainly one source for Sanchez Gordillo’s visionary new economy. (Others are Jesus Christ, Marx, Lenin, and Che Guevara.) Gandhi’s attitude to labour, the need for both full employment and a shared labour within the community, is brilliantly realised in these two pueblos. It is of course equally a fulfilment of the ideals of Spanish anarchism.

Quite obviously Vince Cable could not have advocated such a radical new paradigm. He has no option but to stick with the mantra of growth. But here is in fact where a truly Gandhian business model lies.

Antony Copley is an honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Kent and a Trustee of The Gandhi Foundation
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Gandhi Foundation.

A World of Limited Resources – The Gandhi Foundation Summer Gathering 2013 by Natasha Lewis

The Abbey, in the little village of Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, was again the setting for this year’s Gathering, a week of attempting to live in the style of one of Gandhi’s ashrams whilst allowing a space for discussion into applying his principles to issues faced in the modern world. The building itself is a perfect facilitator for this event, providing several cosy sitting rooms, a kitchen and dining room dating to the 13th century, and a large Great Hall which has windows that open out into the main garden. The grounds give ample space for camping and sports including badminton, as well as a large kitchen garden which provides much of the delicious food for the week! The surrounding countryside also provides several beautiful walks along the river Thames.


The Gandhi Foundation Summer Gathering 2013

Although some rooms are available in the Abbey itself, most Gatherers stay in the guest house annexe, which has the advantage of 20th rather than 13th century plumbing and heating! The braver amongst us, mostly families, camped and this year a camper van was also used for accommodation. Thirty Seven people attended over the first weekend, with people coming and going over the next week.

The premise of Gandhi’s ashram means that a great communal spirit is built up throughout the week, with teams taking turns to help prepare meals and keep communal spaces clean. The kitchen is usually the focal point, where children’s (and adult’s!) baking and craft takes place, as well as some of the most interesting discussions about the year’s theme.

After a help-yourself breakfast, the morning session begins with a brief meditation and sharing of information, then continues into the main discussion topic for the day. There is normally a short introductory presentation followed by discussion in small groups and then feedback. This leads into Shramdana, meaning ‘sharing of one’s time, thought and energy for the welfare of all’ in accordance with the way Gandhi’s ashrams were run. Lunch is eaten and, after a digestion break, craft activities begin later in the afternoon. It was Gandhi’s belief that time should be spent on useful tasks, and this period is used to follow his guidance. Crafts available this year were varied, including collage making, art using dried flowers, crochet and watercolour painting. One particularly interesting activity was spinning thread from a sheep’s fleece: we set up a production line including carding the wool, using the spinning wheel to turn the wool into thread and winding the finished wool into balls (and untangling it!). The spinning wheel was a bit trickier to use than I expected and unfortunately my wool alternated between being much too thick and snapping because it was too thin! After supper Gatherers are invited to contribute to the evening’s entertainment which included animal noises, poetry readings, slideshows and circle dancing. Then meditation and time for sleep before it all begins again in the morning!

The topic for this year’s Gathering was “A World of Limited Resources: Inspirations and Challenges in Sharing the Planet” which attracted many external speakers as well as new participants. This meant that there was often a talk in the afternoon in addition to the morning session. The first of these was given by an architect, Sandra Piesik, who is running a project reviewing renewable resources as construction materials, involving over 120 scientists and professionals. Her talk mainly focussed on developing architecture using palm leaves in the United Arab Emirates, and her efforts to rescue indigenous technology from the extinction imposed by the advent of globalisation and modern building practices. She highlighted the fact that concrete is not always the most suitable building material in every environment on Earth, and that there is a huge untapped source of building materials from the palm leaves from plants used for date production, which are currently wasted in the UAE.


The theme of the first morning session (Sunday) was Sarvodaya. This is a term coined by Gandhi to mean ‘universal uplift’ or ‘progress of all’ and was a fundamental principle of his political philosophy. We discussed some of Gandhi’s other main principles: Swaraj, self-rule;  Swadeshi, self-sufficiency; and Satyagraha, “truth force”, Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance strategy.

Monday’s theme was resource depletion: examining the effects of diminishing stocks of non-renewable gas, oil, coal and minerals on the world. We discussed particular industries’ impacts on the earth and its people, and possible substitutes.

Tuesday focussed on climate change and population from a biological perspective, as the talk was given by an ecologist. Human culture has gradually evolved from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle through small scale agriculture to the globalised economy we see today. However, this has occurred in a period of relatively stable climatic conditions for the past 5000 years, which has lulled us into a sense of false security. We were divided into three groups and attempted to answer three questions. The question for my group was: What attributes from our hunter gatherer and agricultural ancestors should we cultivate and which should we reject? We were also asked to talk about steps we could take to reduce our energy usage both on a personal and national/global scale. 
Ruth gave a presentation originally aimed at actuaries to show that in the economic world it is vital to take into account risks of climate change and resource depletion.

The World Economic System was Wednesday’s subject. Alan Sloan presented us with a thought-provoking presentation on a potential new economic system based on ecological footprints. Conventional money is not directly related to the material world, and he suggested that if the new currency were based on the resources available from the earth then this would help to solve the resource depletion crises we are currently facing, as well as relieving poverty in the developing world.


Four participants gave presentations on four ‘prophets’ on Thursday. John Muir was an American naturalist whose activism helped to preserve national parks such as Sequoia National Park and the Yosemite Valley. Ishpriya is a Catholic nun who founded the International Satsang Organisation. The Reverend Horace Dammers was the founder of the Lifestyle Movement. Frances Moore Lappé is the author of the bestseller Diet for a Small Planet, which advocated a plant-based diet as being much more conducive to food security.

On Friday we welcomed another guest speaker, a representative of Traidcraft. He gave a presentation on the organisation and their efforts to ensure that workers are paid a fair price for their products.

On the last evening we held a party, which was a sort of variety show with everyone offering their best party pieces. We had old home videos, games, singing, jokes, poetry, a small flute recital and some improvised circle dancing. The evening ended with a small tribute to the victims of the atom bomb in 1945, as it was Nagasaki Day. We went out into the garden and floated tea lights in little paper boats in a large baking tray filled with water, as incense smoke floated up into the night sky. It was a lovely way to end the week, which has been one of the most thought-provoking I have attended.

What Would a Gandhian Society Look Like? – by George Paxton

Kasturba with Gandhi

Much of Gandhi’s constructive programme was based on village India where the majority of Indians lived (and I believe still do). However, in the West, and increasingly throughout the world, most people live in urban centres. This, along with changes in society brought about by rapid technological developments perhaps require some adaptation of Gandhi’s ideas. Gandhi at times severely criticised modern civilisation, most especially in Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) written in 1909, but at other times he was more accepting of technological developments. If Gandhi’s broad principles were applied to modern society what would it look like ?

Among the liberal democracies a tolerance of the diverse religious and ideological traditions has taken root, indeed increasingly going beyond tolerance to embracing a real interest in both the different and the common elements of traditions other than ones own. Gandhi, although calling himself a Hindu, went further and adopted elements from Jainsim, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Humanism. British society has gone some way to catching up with Gandhi in this respect. While some intolerance persists, and indeed in some quarters has increased, an acceptance of a pluralistic society is widespread.

How different is the picture when we turn to the political and economic sphere, especially the latter. A basically free market system operates which admittedly has its worse features mitigated by social security in the developed states. But even in these communities there is gross inequality with outrageously high incomes for a small minority who are so oblivious to the injustice that they take their millions without embarrassment (and even when they have done their job badly). Gandhi was a great egalitarian, something which we badly need both between nations and within them (Wilkinson and Pickett have demonstrated this in The Spirit Level).

One of Gandhi’s major ideas, however, has, I believed, not proven a practical way forward and that is Trusteeship – that the wealthy should retain their wealth but not for their own use. Such is human nature that few will use their wealth only for the good of others. A more realistic way forward is to have common ownership of companies by those who work in them with decisions taken collectively. Private ownership, except for very small businesses, should disappear so that profits do not accrue to one individual or a small elite. This would also mean a healthy empowerment of the workers in the company. But if Trusteeship is interpreted in a wider sense, that is that everyone has a responsibility to use their income and wealth wisely, then there is value in the concept.

Another aspect of our economic world is the vast size of multi-national companies, some exceeding the wealth of smaller countries. The power yielded by the few who control these corporations is anti-democratic and sometimes dangerous. International agreements to limit the size and sphere of operations of these giants is desirable. Gandhi’s preference was always for small scale, whether in political or economic structures. Another relevant aspect is what Gandhi called swadeshi – a preference for local products, whether in agricultural products or in manufactured goods. This ties in with small scale activities and is also highly relevant to reducing impact on the environment. Trade where price only matters results in goods being transported from one side of the world to the other without consideration of wider impacts. Where international trade does take place it is important that it should be done on a fair trade basis. As individuals we can make purchasing decisions that have an impact and if we are not on very low incomes we have options. Today there is also too much travel by too many people who are using up limited oil reserves and polluting the atmosphere. Gandhi travelled a good deal (although he was never on an aeroplane) but that was at a time when world population was much smaller than today and many fewer people travelled.

A fundamental principle of current economic ideology is that one must have growth – something that runs counter to our knowledge of the finite resources of the planet. Gandhi’s advocacy of restraint and a more static society fits the facts in a way that conventional economics doesn’t. It is important, Gandhi believed, that everyone who is fit to work should – there is an obligation on the individual to seek work, but the corollary is that the state has an obligation to provide employment if necessary.

European culture’s distinction between animals we keep as pets or companions and those we eat is not one Gandhi would recognise. A population that was vegetarian in diet, or vegan even more so, would be more consistent ethically. Furthermore the greatly reduced animal population that would result would help reduce global warming through reduced methane and carbon dioxide emissions. It would also save large areas of land which could be used for edible vegetation or trees, and savings in water usage, something which is appearing in many parts of the world. On economic, ecological and humane grounds a widespread move away from a flesh diet towards ahimsa would be an advantage.

Gandhi had a great belief in ‘nature cure’ to deal with health problems as well as advocating a health style conducive to good health. The latter is readily accepted in the West – in principle, although in a rather indulgent culture the practice often does not match up. Most people however would doubt the efficacy of natural cures when it comes to many illnesses. Gandhi himself was deeply grateful to have an appendectomy by a British army surgeon when in prison in 1924 so his belief in nature cure was qualified.

One area where Western culture has more than caught up with Gandhi is gender equality. Gandhi showed support for women wanting to enter careers when he encouraged his secretary in South Africa, Sonja Schlesin, to apply for training as an advocate. The application in 1909 was rejected as no woman had been envisaged in such a role. In India many of his staunchest colleagues were women and many women participated in satyagraha campaigns.

Perhaps the least useful idea and the least likely to be accepted in general in the desirability of celibacy. It is an issue difficult to ignore because it was so important to Gandhi, but he also universalised it and thought that everyone should follow the path of restraint or brahmacharya. This is also how excessive population size was to be avoided. He believed his control of the sex drive enabled him to achieve what he could not otherwise achieve. Gandhi was generally ascetic and while few would follow him all the way a less hedonistic lifestyle than we have today has something to be said for it.

Last, but no means least, is the issue of war and peace, violence and nonviolence. While Gandhi admired courage (as a child he had been timid) which might be displayed by a soldier, better still was the courage of a nonviolent soldier or satyagrahi. He believed it was possible to defend a country, or community or an individual, by nonviolent means and it is necessary to develop methods for this. Alas, many states are more heavily armed than ever before, including India. Most politicians still have a misguided faith in the efficacy of the threat of destruction and death. It should be obvious that a world that had destroyed its nuclear weapons, abolished trade in weapons, and greatly reduced armaments in general would be a safer world, and in fact the countries of the world have agreed that general disarmament should be an achievable goal. It would also release vast resources for life-enhancing purposes. As inequalities between and within states diminish conflicts would too. Conflicts would still occur but they would be amenable to nonviolent solutions including those pioneered by Gandhi.

A Gandhian society would exhibit a tolerance of diversity, a fairer economic system, a change in diet, a greater awareness of impacts on the environment, and a new concept of defence. To reach such a society we require a new attitude of mind and there will be vested interests to overcome but, I suggest, none of theses things are impossible.

George Paxton is Editor of The Gandhi Way

Book Review – Mahatma Gandhi and the Environment

Mahatma Gandhi and the Environment: Analysing Gandhian Environmental Thought
T N Khoshoo and John S Moolakkattu
The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI Press) 2009
ISBN 978 81 7993 223 0, pp152

Few books on Gandhi and the environmental implications of his thought have so far appeared. It is only in recent decades that we have become aware of the huge impact that human activities are having on our environment and although Gandhi did not say a great deal specifically about the environment his general outlook is very relevant to caring for our planet.

This book is based on one by the late Dr T N Khoshoo and is written by John S Moolakkatu who holds the Chair of Peace Studies at the University of Kwazulu Natal and is also Editor of Gandhi Marg.

Gandhi absorbed from his Indian background the idea of the unity of all things in the universe and this can lead naturally to a respect for all human beings, for animals and plants, and even for the inanimate. This is significantly different from the idea of exploiting nature for human benefit, which has been for some centuries the approach in the West. Gandhi’s orientation is therefore cosmocentric rather than anthropocentric.

With Gandhi’s life being his message his “personal lifestyle was the most sustainable one – simple, austere, clean, need-based, adequate worldly possessions, and reasonably comfortable” (p10) This however runs counter to the economic system we have all been exposed to and which is still the dominant one in the West and is rapidly embracing all countries. In these circumstances Gandhi’s approach is truly a revolutionary one. It is also, however, common sense. Unrestrained economic growth is simply impossible in a world which will probably have 10 billion people before long.

Amazingly Gandhi saw this in his own time: asked if he would like to see the same standard of living for Indians as for the English, he replied:

“It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require!”

Some of Gandhi’s specific practices would make a big difference if adopted. Significantly reducing the quantity of imported goods and using as much local produce as possible (swadeshi) is something we could move towards. Adopting a vegetarian diet is another – but why does the author call veganism ‘puritanical vegetarianism’ when there are strong evidence-based reasons for it? Trusteeship of one’s wealth and possessions, meaning that they should be used for the wider good, not oneself alone; this would mean greatly reducing luxury items and thus reducing wasteful production.

While new technology will be of some help in reducing environmental impact in the hazardous decades ahead, changes in lifestyle will be more important and this puts Gandhian ideas centre-stage. The book contains a very useful appendix of some of Gandhi’s sayings relevant to the issue, although it is surprising that the references for the many quotations in the book are not given – nor is there an index.

Nevertheless it is an excellent presentation of a subject that is of the highest importance and demonstrates how Gandhi can challenge us all six decades after his death.

George Paxton

Book Review – Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun and Modern India

Clothing Gandhi’s Nation: Homespun and Modern India
Lida Trivedi
Indiana University Press 2007 pp205

Lida Trivedi teaches at Hamilton College in USA. On a study tour of India she travelled with, among others, an uncle who was a former freedom fighter and labour leader. Travelling for four months across northern and western India she had the opportunity to meet many who had taken part in the struggle. In addition the oldest sister of her father taught her to spin on the charka. So she learned about khadi and swadeshi as the material facts of India’s national politics.

Her study is about khadi – the self-made cotton for daily use and the role it played in the national struggle for independence. For many people outside India – and I was certainly one of them – the making and selling of khadi is an economic process. Khadi had to replace the imported cloth from Britain to re-establish the former Indian textile industry.

The movement which supported the idea was named swadeshi, the approach to economic self-reliance. One of the eleven Gandhian virtues, swadeshi meant belonging to or being made in one’s own country. This policy of self-reliance meant in practice using only Indian-made cloth. In a wider sense it meant establishing India’s economic autonomy as the basis for future self-government.

Thus khadi meant three different but related things: as a material artifact of the nation; part of a national economic policy; a visual symbol of the Indian people. In doing so it challenged the political boundaries of both traditional Indian society and the British colonial regime. The swadeshi movement found popular support and after some time the Indian National Congress through the Congress Working Committee created the All India Khaddar Board, comprising technical instruction, production and sales. It established in 1922 a new school to train swadeshi workers – the Akila Khadi Vidyalaya, which was in many ways the heart of Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement.

Within the Congress however there was controversy. One of the issues was with regard to members of Congress wearing khadi at Party functions. In keeping with the principles of mass participation the Congress Working Committee decided in 1924 that a revised franchise required that Congress membership had to be earned, not just paid. Hand-spun thread had to be donated to Congress’s Khadi Board and this had to become part of Congress membership. This decision however was not popular with many and within nine months the spinning franchise was repealed. There remained a diluted commitment to swadeshi politics and khadi.

This meant a defeat for Gandhi’s form of swadeshi but khadi was brought to the general public with great success. Gandhi formed the All-India Spinners Association in 1925 which oversaw the development of the swadeshi movement from Satyagraha Ashram. The assets of the defunct Khadi Board were transfered to this new organisation and there was support from some industrialists. Swadeshi now included other hand-produced goods.

India had known a century-long tradition of weaving and textile production including colourful clothing which was an obstacle to undyed khadi becoming popular. To counter this, promoters used exhibitions, showing of lantern-slides, the use of the Gandhi-cap, and the charka flag.

The swadeshi movement achieved three things:

  • khadi became more than a boycott of foreign goods – it became a moral system of labour and consumption for the nation. It emphasised the distinction between indigenous and foreign production.
  • it provided a heterogeneous population with a sense of a united India, relocating rural and urban India within a market-place shaped by common taste and defined by common values.
  • the habitual khadi-wearer celebrated the principle of universal labour and self-sufficiency as the basis of political community and made him or her visible as an individual.

The Gandhi cap or topi emerged as a symbol of political dissent and as a signal of one’s obligations, thus khadi became more than an economic issue. One more product of the khadi movement is worth mentioning, that is the flag of India. It no longer bears the symbol of the charka, the swadeshi movement emblem, but the Ashoka chakra wheel or dharma wheel, but it still represents the hopes and aspirations of the people of India. The flag still has to be made of hand-spun and hand-woven wool, cotton or silk.

Lisa Trivedi has written a penetrating and comprehensive study of khadi in a lively style and is a pleasure to read.

Piet Dijkstra


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