Gandhi, The Economist

The name ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ brings to mind the image of a great soul who was many things: an anti-colonial activist, an astute lawyer, a nationalist politician, a philosophical writer, and a crusader for nonviolent resistance. He was a man who donned many hats with seamless grace. But there is yet another persona of Gandhi that bears its own profundity and carries its own richness- and that is of Gandhi, the economist.

Perhaps the reason why such an impression of Gandhi is not as readily relatable as his other roles is that the economic school of thought that he propagated was never completely accepted by (nor incorporated in) the Indian economic model, post-Independence. Another possible reason why the impact of Gandhi’s economics is not thought of being as deep as his impact on, say, polity, culture, morality, or casteist relationships, is because he was not what one might consider to be a ‘pure economist.’ In other words, his key economic ideas seem to be direct extensions or reflections of his philosophy of life, rather than being part of a distinct doctrine of pure, focused economic thought. However, it appears that it is precisely this derivative, eclectic, and multifaceted nature of Gandhi’s key economic beliefs that make these beliefs so interesting and deserving of deep understanding. By understanding the underlying motives of his economic doctrine, one comes several steps closer to unriddling the fascinating psyche of the great Mahatma himself.

Gandhi was deeply concerned about India’s teeming levels of poverty and its overwhelming backwardness. At that time, about 80 percent of India was poor and languished in villages. As someone who had always been painfully sensitive to injustice and indignity in the world, especially that suffered by his countrymen, his economic thought sought to foremostly address India’s disturbingly overwhelming poverty and exploitation. He laid this socio-economic blight at the feet of rampant consumption in the country of foreign goods of industrialisation- especially European made cloth- that stripped Indians of employment, centralisation (or concentration) of production in a handful of large-scale units, and a tyrannical taxation system and other policies that oppressed farmers into perpetual poverty.

Gandhi believed that this evil of large scale industrialisation could be countered by a set of effective economic strategies.

Firstly, the Sarvodaya system of economy had to be established. ‘Sarvodaya’ is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘progress of all.’ This implied the decentralisation of production so that all production will be done locally, utilising local materials to satisfy local requirements. In parallel, large-scale industries could be delocalised so that rural/cottage industries could be developed. Simultaneously, agriculture could be scientifically improved and integrated with the cottage industry model so that not only would the farmers earn greater income but the village would also not be vulnerable to starvation. Thus, the basic necessities of the village including food, clothing, etc. could be met by the labour of all the members of the village, right in their houses, thus making a plethora of employment opportunities available all over India. Equality of labour and dignity of labour were two doctrines that Gandhi espoused. There is a third idea that Gandhi espoused that Sarvodaya would help in achieving- the ‘law of bread labour’ (originally proposed by T.M Bondaref). This law states that every man is entitled to his bread only after labouring for it- indeed, Gandhi unabashedly proclaimed that even the rich ought to do physical labour to earn their bread!

Such cottage industries in villages would not even incur the same costs as standard production units would- this is because firstly, the ‘production unit’ would be in people’s homes and wouldn’t require any expensive establishment like a factory; secondly, as production would occur exactly in sync with consumption, there would be no surplus in production and thus, no storage costs; and thirdly, the transportation costs would be next to zero. Thus, the village as a whole would become capable of staving off poverty, deprivation and industrialisation-induced exploitation, transforming into an economically self-sufficient unit. Such self-reliant units remind one of Gandhi’s ashrams that functioned on similar lines- this is another evidence of Gandhi’s economics being a representation of his broader philosophical meditations on the ideal existence of man and society. Gandhi envisioned that the Sarvodaya development model would someday be brought to all the villages of India, and this would give a robust, even unprecedented boost to the rural economy, thus strengthening the overall national economy.

As for resolving the misery of tyrannical taxation and other policies that trapped farmers in prisons of poverty, Gandhi sought to- at first- amend the zamindari system. Later, after coming under pressure from zealous and agonised farmers, he ended up amending his stance on the subject and led the farmers of Champaran and Kheda in a rebellion against the British-backed zamindars (or landlords), who eventually buckled and ceded some ground. An interesting quality in the non-violent protest of Champaran was that Gandhi, from the start, aimed at shooting two birds with one arrow. Primarily, of course, was the issue of eliminating exorbitant taxes that burdened farmers and peasants; but interestingly, Gandhi used the farmers’ faith in him advantageously by influencing them to promise to end discrimination on the basis of caste as well as the oppression of women. This is because he believed that complete independence meant not only the political independence of India from colonialism or the freedom of Indians from poverty- for him, complete freedom and democracy meant that every citizen, irrespective of caste, sex or religion would have an equal opportunity of living with dignity, respect and political autonomy, ruled only by his or her own self. In Champaran, he also ensured that systems of education and healthcare were set in place that would enable the community to achieve self-sufficiency (by producing food, clothing, etc.) and Swaraj in the truest sense of the word. Thus, Gandhi’s politics was perpetually intertwined with his economic doctrine at every step of the way.

Gandhi was known for frowning down upon industrialisation – and by extension, capitalism. This is how he was at variance with classical economic thinking- and indeed, even modern economic theory. He believed that capitalism glorified a solely materialistic view of man, a view that to him was nothing short of pernicious, even catastrophic when viewed on a societal scale. It was a view of man that effectively reduced man to blind lust; it was the ultimate degradation of the human spirit and the objectification of a spiritual being worthy of dignity and respect. If capitalism came into full effect, Gandhi believed that man would tumble into a bottomless pit of deadening appetite, no different from an opiate addict. He felt that capitalism elevated money over man, standard of living over standard of life, and economic well-being over spiritual well-being. Industrialisation, the demonic offspring of capitalism, was responsible for leaving millions of Gandhi’s countrymen unemployed and starving. It was also at the crux of an insidious system of soulless exploitation that Gandhi had witnessed a traumatic number of times- this was also why he continually campaigned for provisions of lesser work and more leisure for factory workers whom he knew to be treated as no more than beasts. Gandhi opposed industrialisation because it rendered men and women who could be craftspersons and workers- earning bread, clothes and housing for their families and deriving both community and meaning from their corresponding vocations- ill, miserable and starving. He was weary of machines because he felt they were labour-displacing despots. He was only accepting of those machines that were labour-intensive (requiring a large number of workers) and labour-saving (reducing the monotony, drudgery and tedium of work). Examples of machines included the toothpick, the sewing machine and even the spinning wheel.

As a befitting response to European clothing introduced to the Indian market by the British colonialists, Gandhi introduced the Khadi industry, encouraging everyone to wear clothing that they spin themselves. This formed the crux of the Swadeshi movement.

Gandhi also believed in the Trusteeship Doctrine. While he believed everyone should be allowed to earn as much as they wish through just means, he also believed that the wealth and property of rich individuals that exceeded their requirements should be held as a trust for the welfare for all- this will be true Sarvodaya. This trust will be targeted primarily as the development of the poorest, hungriest and unhealthiest socio-economic class in Indian society.

Gandhi approached both capitalism and socialism with caution and skepticism. Capitalism was a threat as it propagated materialism at the cost of man’s culture, spirituality, morality and community. Socialism, on the other hand, empowered the state with massive powers of exacting violence.

Thus, Gandhi, the economist, was a man simultaneously ahead and behind his time in a deeply compelling combination. He was behind because he wished to resurrect the exchange economy as well as the ancient village economies. He was ahead because he predicted that mechanisation and industrialisation would usurp the jobs of millions of people.

-Adarsh Raj Bhatt (One of the Prize Winners of Article Writing Competition 2020 in the 13-24 Years Age Group)

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