Sustainable Development or Sustainable Lifestyle? – by M.R. Rajgopalan

It is now six decades since India became independent. When we start reflecting on our achievements, the scenario is somewhat odd: We have nuclear bombs and missiles and rockets and satellites side by side with bullock carts and hand pulled rickshaws. We have five star hotels with luxuries and comforts matching the best in the world. Right outside the hotels within a walkable distance one can see the poor living on foot-paths. Five to ten percent of our population is leading a luxurious life indulging in hyper consumerism. At the bottom, thirty to forty percent of the population barely manages to get a square meal per day – they often do not have proper shelter or clothing and sleep on empty stomachs. The remaining thirty to forty percent lead lives with various inadequacies and discomforts.

What has gone wrong? We have passed through ten five year plans for industrialising the nation, creating infrastructure facilities and village development. In villages, some roads, some hospitals some school buildings did appear. There was an improvement in farming techniques. Yet only the well-todo section of the villages got the benefits. The landless poor did not benefit from these schemes.


Development of any kind – be it urban or rural including sustainable development is problematic. The process of development means setting up of industries and creating job opportunities. There are the problems of environmental pollution, soil degradation, exhaustion of earth’s resources etc. Since the time of the Industrial Revolution development has been proportional to exploitation of the earth’s resources such as cutting down whole forests for charcoal, construction materials, firewood, furniture etc. The smoke emitted by the factories created atmospheric pollution. The use of petroleum fuels – Petrol, Diesel and Kerosene – as energy sources started in the first half of the 20th century and has reached maximum levels now. All of us know that petroleum is nonrenewable and the cars, power stations and factories, even as they play a vital role in development, are the main cause for earth’s pollution to dangerous levels. To quote Ranjit Chaudhuri:

“There is a fear that global famine of resources is impending. It is true that the industrial progress has brought many comforts and made some nations affluent. But it has made the world as a whole poor. Industrialisation has made the earth poor in respect of natural resources, fossil fuel, mineral resources, greenery, maritime resources, sanitation, health and ecology.”

Factories have rendered forests and greenery into deserts. The gulf between the rich and the poor has widened. Peace in the society and health of the people are deteriorating, violence and diseases are flourishing. Viewed in this background even ‘sustainable development’ would be a difficult proposition. That is the reason for the title of this paper. Sustainable lifestyle should be viewed in the perspective of the culture of the nation.

In ancient India, millennia ago, sages and saints lived in forests. The Upanishads containing the essence of Indian Philosophy were created in the forests. The ashrams, which were the places of learning, were located in the forests. Our sages lived in harmony with the plants and animals of the forests. “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (The whole earth is a family) concept was born in our jungles. Our forefathers perceived gods in the forces of nature. Air was Vayu Bhagawan, thunder and lightning – Indira, water was Varuna, earth was Prithvi, sun was Sungod, Fire was Agni and so on. In our contemporary world, these gods denote the earth and atmosphere and space. Life on earth is possible because of these forces. Mother earth sustains all life on the earth.

“From the centre of this world, the Sun radiates energy to the whole world – let us worship it” says Rig Veda.

The message from Yajur Veda is “Let there be Peace in space, Peace on this earth, Peace in the atmosphere and may the waterways and all things living prosper”.

Singing these lines if we pray to God will bring peace and happiness in the minds of those who sing and listen. Apart from the Vedas and Upanishads our Puranas and Itihasas like Ramayana and Mahabharata also contain such noble ideas. All these great works were created in verdant forests by great sages who lived in harmony with their surroundings. It is doubtful whether such noble ideas could evolve in multistoried buildings under ceiling fans and air conditioners. In truth, such a phenomenon has not occurred in this world. Gandhiji travelled through the whole of India in bullock carts and in third class compartments of trains. He lived in hutments of the Harijan busties. But for such a way of life he would not have become Mahatma.

Kumarappa, the Gandhian economist, guides us towards a sustainable life style. In his famous work Economy of Permanence he describes five types of economies in nature:

  1. Parasitic economy: Some plants which take nourishment from other plants are called parasites. The host plant which provides the nourishment often dies. While the sheep and cattle live on grass nonviolently, the tiger which eats them is violent and is a parasite. A parasitic economy is both destructive and violent.
  2. Predatory economy: The monkey which feasts on mangoes gets the benefit of its food without contributing to the growth of the trees. That way monkey is a predator. This economy is less violent but destructive.
  3. Economy of enterprise: The honey bee visiting a flower gets pollen and nectar as food. The honey-bee in turn facilitates pollination among flowers leading to the formation of seeds and propagation of plants. This is economy of enterprise – constructive and mutually beneficial.
  4. Economy of aggregation: Continuing with the honey bees, Kumarappa describes how the bees live in colonies and each bee contributes to the welfare of the colony. They have overcome self-interest and act for group interest.
  5. Economy of service: Kumarappa rates this type of economy as the best. He describes how the mother bird makes all efforts to feed young ones and risks its life when faced with enemies.

Sustainable life style could be achieved by adopting the following steps:

  1. Sustainable agriculture: We should give up chemical fertilizers and pesticides and substitute them with bio-manures and bio-pesticides. Vermi culture and vermi compost is a must for restoring the health of the soil.
  2. Khadi & Village Industries are eco friendly. They create employment and help in poverty alleviation. We have to encourage and promote Khadi and products of Village Industries.
  3. Appropriate technologies: We should adopt technologies which are simple and which our villagers are able to comprehend and operate themselves. Use of electricity should be avoided or kept to the minimum extent.
  4. Use of renewable energy sources: Coal and petroleum are nonrenewable energy sources and are getting exhausted very fast. Solar energy is limitless and inexhaustible. We can harness solar energy for heating and lighting. Water and wind energies can also be harnessed for producing electricity.
  5. Sylviculture – or growing trees: Cutting down of trees for fuel and construction of houses is inevitable. Our policy should be to plant two trees for every tree we cut. Trees as a source of energy is non-renewable if we only cut them and do not grow them.

Lewis Thomas has something to say about our attitude towards the earth:

“Except for us, the life of the planet conducts itself as though it were an immense, coherent body of connected life, an intricate system, an organism. Our deepest folly is the notion that we are in charge of the place, that we own it and can somehow run it. We are living part of Earth’s life, owned and operated by the Earth probably specialised for functions on its behalf that we have not yet glimpsed”.

At this juncture I cannot help referring to Gandhiji’s famous saying:

“The earth has enough resources for our needs – not for our greed”.

If we follow Kumarappa’s advice – especially the economy of cooperation of the honey bees and that of service of the birds, keeping Gandhiji’s ideals in mind we can surely achieve a sustainable lifestyle.

Rajagopalan is Secretary of the Gandhigram Trust, Tamil Nadu

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Categories: Gandhian Economics, Living & Environment, South Asia


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2 Comments on “Sustainable Development or Sustainable Lifestyle? – by M.R. Rajgopalan”

  1. Rashmita
    July 27, 2009 at 10:58 am #

    I came across a very interesting website which talks about an orgaization Experimental Station for Appropriate Technology (EETA)-Dominican Republic and how it is working directly with local farmers to help them develop technologies which are low cost and can be made from local materials- an example of sustainable development. Very similar to Gandhian philosophy of sustainable lifestyle. check out the podcast also on Gandhian Economics


  2. Rashmita
    July 27, 2009 at 11:13 am #

    I went through a very interesting website which talked about an organization Experimental Station for Appropriate Technology (EETA) in Dominican Republic, working directly with local farmers to develop technologies from locally available materials which are low in cost – very similar to Gandhi’s philosophy towards sustainable lifestyle. Worth knowing how it is being implemented aroung the world.
    You can also go through podcast on Gandhian Economics


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