On 20th August, 2019 Indian Express e-paper carried an unusual advertisement by the Northern India Textiles Mills Association about Indian Spinning Industry facing a huge crisis. The spinning mills are incurring huge loses, they are not in a position to buy Indian cotton, livelihood of 10 crores people, directly or indirectly, dependent on textile industry and a larger number of farmers who produce cotton are in jeopardy. Another advertisement which appeared earlier on 1st August in The Economic Times on behalf of Indian Tea Association talks about tea industry in crisis. Because of increasing losses to Tea Gardens livelihood of over 10 lakhs workers is threatened. The 21st August edition of Outlook magazine reports that Parle Products Private Limited, the largest biscuit manufacturer in the country, may slash the jobs of 10 thousand employees if the government doesn’t reduce Goods and Services Tax.
On the other hand the government is on a hundred day spree, after the second time Narendra Modi has become Prime Minister with a thumping majority, named big-bang economic reforms as part of which public assets belonging to Public Sectors Units or even government departments like Ordnance Factories are either up for sale or corporatisation. The government has a target to mop up Rs. 90,000 crores through this process under the euphemism of ‘asset monetisation’. Last year it exceeded its target of Rs. 80,000 cr., a proof of how aggressively it is selling public assets to private or other government companies, to meet its fiscal deficit.
Are these healthy signs for a country’s economy? A crisis is looming large with the government pretending that everything is hunky-dory. The PM has a vision of making India a $5 trillion economy by 2025. In his last term as PM his high profile skill development programme meant for generating employment ended up with offering 10% reservation in jobs to economically weaker sections among the general category of population just before the elections.
Mahatma Gandhi had a completely different view of economy. He clarified that he was not opposed to machinery per se but the craze of machinery as labour saving contraptions. The culmination of labour saving process is in thousands becoming unemployed. Gandhi said he wanted to save time and labour not for a fraction of mankind but for all. He wanted concentration of wealth not in hands of few but in the hands of all. He believed that the real reason behind the labour saving argument is greed for more profit. Mahatma Gandhi kept human beings at the centre of his economic thinking. He believed that machines should not tend to atrophy the limbs of human beings.
According to his own admission he did make intelligent exceptions. For example, he thought that sewing machine was a useful device. Similarly, he was for a machine which could straighten crooked spindles, even though spindles themselves would be made by the blacksmiths in his scheme of things. When questioned as to where would he draw the line, he said where they would cease to help the individual and encroach upon the individuality. He didn’t believe that rapidity of motor cars was needed as it was not the primary wants of human beings.
Mahatma Gandhi compared machine to the human body which served its purpose only to the extent till it was helpful towards the growth of soul. He believed that machines, like human body, were inevitable. But human body, according to him, a fantastic piece of mechanism is nevertheless a hindrance to liberation of the soul.
Gandhi thought that machinery had impoverished India and was symbolic of sin because the workers had become slaves and mill owners had become rich immorally at the expense of workers. He had the conviction that poor could fight British but the rich would always support them. When asked whether the mills should be closed down he said that would be a difficult decision but they should definitely not expand. It is interesting to note that in the abovementioned present crisis faced by tea industry the Indian Tea Association has urged the government to ban expansion of tea areas to contain oversupply for 5 years.
In the context of the question about what we should do with all the industrial products around us, Mahatma Gandhi advised to follow the policy of Swadeshi and use of articles that were used before modern products arrived in the market. He admits that it may not be possible for all human beings to give up all machine made things at once but they could find out what they could give up and gradually cease to use it. He also advocated that we should not wait for others to give up and should take the initiative. A good recent example is that of Greta Thunberg, the child climate change activist from Sweden who spearheads an ongoing movement called Flight Shame and Train Bragging where she, her mother opera singer Malena Ernman and number of other European citizens have stopped flying and started travelling by trains as there is less carbon emission in latter compared to the former. There is a significant spike in rail travel and drop in air travel in Sweden because of this movement. Similarly, a Lucknow based health activist Bobby Ramakant has given up ownership and driving of car, preferring to walk, cycle and use of public transport. Bengaluru based activist Gurumoorthy Mathrubootham has given up domestic flying and uses trains instead. We could find examples like these individuals around us who have taken an initiative to reduce their dependence on machines.
It appears that the ultimate challenge to the modern paradigm of development based on industrialisation will come from the climate change crisis.
But the most astonishing validation of Gandhian thinking was when National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was introduced in this country in 2006, which was later renamed as MNREGA prefixing Mahatma Gandhi’s name to it, which banned machines and contractors, both anathema to Gandhi, in the interest of workers. The basic argument of this scheme, conceptualised by famous Belgian origin Indian economist Jean Dreze, was that if providing employment to masses was the objective then machines would have to be kept out of the work to be offered under MNREGA.
Sandeep Pandey is a social activist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org