Reading Gandhi on the occasion of the World Environment Day 


The World Environment Day (henceforth WED) was initially started by the UN General Assembly in 1972, on the first day of the Stockholm Conference. The objective of this conference was primarily based on, to connect the human with nature and promote the interactions, so that harmony between environment and human could be realized. The WED is being celebrated on 5th June every year since 1987. In each meeting, themes have been generally decided in advance and name of the host country and place also announced annually. This time, the theme of the conference is on the ‘biodiversity’ and the meeting is being hosted by Colombia in collaboration with Germany. The biodiversity broadly refers to the diversity of plants, animals’ life, and natural habitat in the non-human world. Currently, it has now become a more significant issue due to the threat posed by the corona pandemic across the globe. To avoid further danger and pitfalls, the world community in general and public intellectuals in particular, are now debating what kind of development model (whether socialism or capitalism with some welfare measures) should be adopted in times to come especially after the failure of neo-liberalism as economic policy.

As for as addressing the environmental issues is concerned, since its inception the United Nations (UN) and its various committees/commissions have had remained active to spread out awareness and suggested remedial measures and took initiatives (for instance, to stop environmental and biodiversity catastrophe, respective nation-state must put strict norms for not allowing anybody to use excessive fossil fuels and burning forests for the sake of development)  to protect the environment, biodiversity and climate change etc., to reduce the exploitation of limited natural resources and avoid the larger threat of natural catastrophe or pandemics. To note that first time meeting of the WED was held in 1974 in which environmental issues like marine pollutions, overpopulation, global warming, climate change, biodiversity, sustainable consumption and the problems of wildlife had been raised and discussed at the various UN platforms. The WED has developed as a global platform for the public at large in which around 143 countries participating every year. Each year, on the occasion of the WED, new themes often put forth in meetings in which various national and international organizations like NGOs (Non-governmental organization), concerned governments and noted celebrities across the world are participating and running a campaign for protection and conservation of the environment and natural resources across the world.

The  most important meeting was held in the Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (under the platform of the United Nation conference on environment and development, UNCED), also known as the Earth summit. The range of issues and problems related to the protection of environment, nature, biological diversity, forest issues and calamite change had been discussed in this historic summit which had made later huge impacts on the respective national governments. Since 1992, environmental activists had launched a wide range of campaign to spread awareness about environmental problems in the civil society and pressurized national governments to take special remedial measures to address the increasing environmental problems in their own countries.

Besides environmental problems, in the Earth Summit, the idea had been put forward by the world community to rethink the economic growth model of development and advanced the agenda of social equity and the goal of sustainable development (SD). Again in 2012, UNCED was held in Rio (known as Rio-Earth Summit). In this summit, several issues like use of public transport, an alternative source of energy and stop increasing the use of fossil fuels, production of toxic components, and excessive use of water etc., had been discussed and deliberated along with  concrete agenda had been also foregrounded to overcome these challenges. After the Rio summit in 1992, and 2012, the awareness around environment-related problems has been increased drastically across the world. As a result of these initiative taken by the UN and global community, in a country like India, several environmental activists had filed lots of petitions in the High and Supreme Court of India for taking immediate legal cognizance on the increasing threat of environmental problems like air, water pollutions and exploitations of natural resources for commercial purpose mainly by the MNCs (Multinational companies) and corporate houses. As a result of environmental movements and sustained campaign launched by Gandhian and social activists, the Central government (then the UPA) had passed an Act known as the ‘National Green Tribunal Act-2010’ to address increasing environmental problems.  In this respect, the NGT Act-2010 had mentioned following points:

“An Act to provide for the establishment of a National Green Tribunal for the effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources including enforcement of any legal right relating to environment and giving relief and compensation for damages to persons and property and for matters connected therewith”.

However, after passing this Act-2010 still, problems related to the environment, nature and conservation of forests resources, as motioned earlier has not been reduced significantly. Instead, these problems continue unabated because of the increasing use of plastics, industrial garbage and waste materials that led to the pollutions of big rivers like Ganga and Yamuna at several places, especially in megacities. Delhi’s Yamuna river pollution can be cited as a case in point. Besides, due to uncontrolled industrialization, several times huge manmade disasters took place since the implementation of neoliberal economic policy (1991) and as a result of ill-effects of poisonous gases had been leaked that led to the loss of several thousand lives and still, present generations are suffering from the inhuman incident. The infamous ‘Bhopal Gas’  tragedy took place in 1984 in which more than 3500 hundred people had lost their lives when  poisonous gas methyl isocyanate was leaked and spread out in large quantities.

In spite of having effective legislation and constitutional-legal provision to deal with environment-related issues, however, due to the lack of awareness among masses inability of respective government at Center-state levels, people are still suffering from manmade disasters and environmental problems. Instead of overcoming these stated problems, the ruling political dispensation has paid more attention so far, to achieve economic growth (sans equity and justice) by following the path of rapid industrializations and urbanizations rather than addressing the environmental problems, as reminded by the UN  and mentioned in the NGT Act-2010. That is why India’s rank in the human development indicators (such as health, education and happiness) including on environmental index, is not worthy to celibate and every year the rank of our country in said social indicators is declining. To note that India’s rank is 177 out of 180 countries in the environmental performance Index during 2018.

 However, since the lockdown has been announced across the world including in the case of India from March 24th, 2020, the level of air, water pollutions and emissions of poisonous gases like carbon dioxide, generated by excessive use of fossil fuels and forest burnings have been decreased to a large extent. As a result of reduction of the poisonous gases and greenhouse effects, the problems related to the depletion of ozone, layers have been reduced largely due to shut down of industries in most part of the world after the announcement of the Covid-19 lockdown. In short, the fact cannot be denied that even though human beings mainly vulnerable and migrant populations have suffered a lot and still suffering after the announcement of stringent lockdown because they have lost their jobs who were earlier working in informal sectors of the economy and now they are trying hard to get proper food intake and timely public health facilities. However, because of weak PDS and lack of robust social welfare measures, provided by the Central and state governments respectively, as reminded by the economists, migrant workers are not able to get the proper care. Yet, it will be wrong to assume that environmental degradations and the threat to biodiversity, calamite change and ecological imbalances etc., is completely over. And hence, there is no need to worry about it in the post-COVID-19 world. It would be a great foolishness and mistakes to think on these lines. Keeping the looming danger in mind, it is high time now to learn a lesson from the Covid-19 pandemic that has invited several problems.

In this respect, Prof. Frank M. Snowden in his book, ‘Epidemic and Society: From Black Death to the Present’ (2019) has demonstrated that most of pandemics like tuberculosis, influenza, cholera, smallpox, and others took place in the 19th and the 20th century. These epidemics for Snowden had been the ill-effects of unrestraint industrialization, capitalism/imperialism adopted by the industrialized developed countries for material advancement. In similar vein, he underlined that the Covid-19 has emerged as a huge threat to humanity as a whole is also must be seen as the product of the current pattern of globalization. In other words, if we study and analyzed developmental models so far scientifically, as done by Prof. Snowden in his writings, we will find that human being (so-called the great species on the Earth as declared often by males) and kind of socio-economic capitalists order which has been adopted by them for excessive accumulation of wealth and property has had in fact provided  breeding grounds for the rise and growth of epidemics rather than created suddenly in vacuum or produced by ‘divine forces’, as a section of conservative used to put forward to explain the rise of epidemics as listed above.

In this, the piece, I would like to argue that environmental problems and exploitations of natural resources that prepared the ground for the growth of epidemics is deeply linked to what kind of development models (for instance, capitalist, humanist and version of socialism will be adopted by nation-state), we as human beings and consecutive governments have had adopted in the distance past. In addition to that, I have also argued that if the world community continue to blindly follow the global capitalism and neo-liberalism as a model of the economic policy, it would be difficult to address the problems of both human and non-human world, as hinted earlier.

On the occasion of the WED, it is here argued that Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of human-based and environment-friendly development model would possibly provide us better alternative options in the long run in comparisons to the unfettered model of ‘crony capitalism’ currently adopted by most of the countries including by the current ruling establishment in the context of India. Before coming to the present problems, let me turn to discuss Gandhi’s idea of development and environment along with his criticism of modern civilizations and unrestraint industrial model of development often devoid of human equality and dignity of labour.

Long back while writing his most widely cited book Hindu Swaraj (the Self-rule), Mahatma Gandhi had vehemently criticized the modern and western civilization based on the unrestraint industrial model of development. In other words, Gandhi was critical of the western model of development simply because it was based on the dehumanization of the labour and making them slaves before machines and technology. Having noted the limitations of the western model of development, during the course of anti-colonial struggle, Gandhi had put forward an alternative model of development which was rooted in the ‘indigenous knowledge’ system (it refers to by applying the traditional knowledge system often inherited and learned from traditional sources of knowledge, the local community have had often creatively produced useful products which appear to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable in nature) and based on the cottage, small scale industry, and handicrafts. Unlike most of the nationalist leaders, Gandhi was in favor of making the village community, as a self-reliant economic center rather than remain dependent upon modern civilizations and the colonial exploitative economic systems. However, most of Gandhi’s contemporary like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and others had not been taken seriously his model of development and eventually adopted development from above based on centralizations and relied on modern technology, machines, and big industry. During the formative years of the nation-building, India had adopted the mixed economy model and hence, it was neither entirely based on capitalism nor the Soviet kind of socialism in nature. However, the Nehruvian approach of development was based on trickle-down theory (development from above) within the framework of the planned economy. That was the reason why Nehru had given priority to development and constructions of  giant ‘Dams’ and major industrial plants, constructed in big cities, as advised by the industrial class during the Bombay Plan around 1944.

It should be noted that Nehru was personally influenced by ‘Fabian socialism’. That was the reason he focused on planning and development which was somehow influenced by the Soviet model of development. In spite of that, a section of the left and progressive intellectuals have had commented that under the pretext of democracy, Nehruvian’s model of development had eventually benefited to rich and indusial bourgeoisie rather than the subaltern masses and working-class at large. Besides, Nehruvian’s path of development was not entirely environmentally friendly simply because the Nehruvian state had focused more on the constructions of big dams and plants in megacities as said earlier.

However, my aim in this piece is not entering into debates around Nehru vs Gandhi model of development, and whose idea is now more relevant for entire Indian society which is so diverse in terms of caste, class, gender, religion, and regional variations. Hence, it would be unscientific and imprudent to think about one model which can be applied uncritically at the pan-India level. In this piece, on the occasion of the WED, I shall try to look at Gandhi’s ideas of development based de-centralization and his views on nature and the environment.

Currently entire world is celebrating the WED and theme of this time is ‘biodiversity’, as stated earlier. My rationale of engaging with Gandhi’s philosophy of development here is that for the first time after the threat of deadly coronavirus that followed by stringent lockdown in most of the countries including India, the scenario of the entire world has been radically changed. Keeping the current crisis and challenges which have been created in health and economic sectors in mind, a section of the left and progressive economist has made arguments that the current capitalist global order will no longer sustain further. We have to search for an alternative to the present bourgeoisie economic world order in the post-COVID-19 world.

However, I will restrict my discussion around the environment, nature and climate change and how the Gandhian philosophy will help us and provide some insights, to address the problems and crises faced by both human and non-human the world in the post-COVID-19. Secondly, while engaging with his various writings mainly discussed in the Hind Swaraj, what we can learn and draw insights from Gandhi’s moral philosophy to overcome the present challenge and crisis posed by the deadly coronavirus before the global community in general and Indian society in particular. In so doing, it is crucial to search for an alternative to capitalism and bourgeoisie economic world order. Keeping these questions in mind, I have argued that on the said occasion fresh reading of Gandhi’s views on the range of issues as stated above is required.

It is to be noted that Gandhi had offered several economic and social constructive programmes (like weaving and running charkha and other similar constructive works practiced in the Ashram,) which is in complete harmony with nature and the environment because of his economic philosophy was deeply rooted in the indigenous based model of development rather than blindly put forward the rapid industrializations and urbanizations which had been largely responsible for increasing environmental degradations, destruction of nature, and ecology.

To conclude here,  the role of environmental activists, Gandhians including the Ecofeminists (they focused on a  kind of development that combine green movements and feminists concerns like suppression and oppression of women together and try to maintain a harmonious relationship between, nature and the environment on the one hand and active role of women in development and  protecting the environment on the other) in the context of Indian cannot be denied solely because they have had once again pointed out the relevance of Gandhi’s philosophy while debating on the idea of the SD.  Broadly speaking, the SD refers to a modicum of development to fulfill the basic needs of present generations’ not undesirable human greed at the cost of future generations and the environment too. Due to efforts made by Gandhian leaning activists and scholars, the United Nations (UN) and the global community have had also recognized the importance of Gandhian philosophy on the range of issues such as environment, climate change, ecology, and biodiversity. Gandhi’s concept of peaceful non-violent the approach of the SD has been now widely recognized by the UN itself and several other international organizations working on environment and development. Instead of following the Gandhian model of development and the SD approach, the present government has adopted uncritically the neo-liberalism and so far has given more primacy to economic growth without equity and social justice at the cost of the environment and nature. Given the challenges in health and economic sectors in the post-COVID-19 world, we need to conceptualize an alternative model of development that is committed to maintaining a proper balance between environment and development.  Keeping the current scenario in mind, I think it would be a wealthy exercise to read carefully Gandhi’s views on the range of issues on the occasion of WED freshly.  Let me end this essay by a famous phrase written by Thomas L Friedman which succinctly captures the current crisis. As he rightly says, “COVID-19 is a black elephant. It is the logical outcome of our increasingly destructive wars against nature”. (This sentence is cited by D. Raja, ‘Reading Marx in times of COVID-19’ in The Indian Express, dated 4 May 2020). 

The author is a Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.



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