Environmentalism through Gandhian lens
Looking at Mahatma Gandhi's perspective on development and environment Image source: The Bridge Chronicle

Environmentalism through Gandhian lens

We all know his as the father of the nation. We know of his struggle in helping India achieve freedom, and we also know him as a philosopher. But Mahatma Gandhi was also an environmentalist.

Once when asked for a message to humanity, Gandhiji said, "My life is my message". Today is the 73rd death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, and following Gandhiji's path to achieving the changes, he wanted to see in the society would be the real tribute to him.

We all know his as the father of the nation. We know of his struggle in helping India achieve freedom, and we also know him as a philosopher. But apart from this, the environmental concerns, as we understand today, were not as apparent when Gandhiji was alive. Despite this, his views on Gram Swaraj, development and self-sufficiency, indicate his environmental concern. Adopting some of his ideas will be the first step in saving the environment.

Different streams of environmental philosophy have paid their tributes to Gandhiji. The inventor of the concept of deep ecology Arne Naess and others like E F Schumacher shared common ideals with Gandhiji. It included the understanding that science and technology have their limitations, and that even intuition could be a source of knowledge that fills the missing gap. It is the fact that environmental concerns were minimal in Gandhiji's time, but eminent environmental writers like Ramachandra Guha consider him an early Environmentalist. (1)

What affects our environment?

Idustrialization has given society material pleasure and prosperity. However, at the same time, it has also inflicted tremendous ecological damage. The subsequent result of our ignorance towards our ecology is depletion of the ozone layer, occurrence of acid rains and the warming up of the earth due to the greenhouse effect. Deforestation and increasing emission of smoke and injurious gases, are not only polluting the atmosphere, but also adversely affecting climatic conditions. It is a matter of concern for all socially committed individuals, international organizations and governments of all the countries. Global Warming, Climate Change, Pollution and access to clean water are some of the gravest challenges in front of us today. However, steps are being initiated at various levels to increase awareness regarding the same.

Our research and knowledge can help us discover the means to solve these problems. We have to undertake the necessary measures. However, our misplaced beliefs in self-interest, and the notions like 'survival of the fittest,' obstructs our pursuit towards a better world. We aren't aware of our greediness as our subconscious is hiding it behind the thought of 'Development'.

Various environmental movements began in the early 1960s to protect the environment. Unlike the West, almost all the Indian environmental movements also facilitated sustainable development through Gandhian lens. Chipko Movement is one such movement based on the value of non-violence. These movements reflect concerns and apprehensions regarding the ecosystem.

Concerns of people who shared an existential and spiritual bond with nature like tribals, fisherfolk became important catalysts in these movements. Ecological vitals like forest or river preservation became synonyms with safeguarding local, ethnic and marginal identities. But today, cities are becoming corrupted and polluted, both morally as well as ecologically.

In its extreme form, this may lead to some antagonism. The kind between, ecological sustainability activists and proponents of development, or cities and village.

Gandhiji emphasized non-violence, with nature as well. According to him, it must be approached with a sense of respect. For him, non-violence meant not only non-injury to human life but towards all living things. He suggested that this was important because it was a pathway towards Satya (Truth). Our false perception that industrialization has ushered in the greatest happiness has always led towards environmental destruction. It has also led us towards unhappiness, depression, crime, obesity, suicide and so on. As a visionary leader of the Indian National movement and an architect of society, Gandhiji rejected the western model of civilization based on that Scientific-technological culture. However, he has also accepted many virtues of modernity like freedom, equality, justice etc.

For Gandhiji, civilization in the real sense of the term consists not in the multiplication, but the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants. The concept of modern civilization is as unsatisfactory as an unending pursuit of material pleasure based on greed. He suggests that the concept of modern civilization ultimately won't lead the world towards development. It is only ecologically, not sustainable. Gandhiji realized that modern civilization tends to multiply the wants (not needs) of common people. Gandhiji also valued bodily labour saying, "the rains come not through intellectual feats, but sheer bodily labour. It is a well-established observation that where forests remain denuded of trees, rains are attracted, and therefore the volume of water received increases with the increase of vegetation".(2)

The main reason behind Gandhiji's rejection of modern civilization was based on his deep conviction to uphold higher ethical principles, doubting whether it was sustainable in the long run. While discussing this topic, some of my friends said, "We can't practice Gandhian environmental thoughts in today's world, especially his views on development. Everyone wants development, and no one will be able to place the environment above their 'basic needs' ".

In my opinion, we need to redefine the concepts of 'basic needs' and 'development'.

Following Gandhiji's views on modern civilization as it has the degraded environment to the hilt, and has led human nature towards egoist hedonism. As a result, human relations have become transactional and artificial. Gandhiji's thoughts are unavoidable in our pursuit of ecological justice. They ought to be readapted in the contemporary context. This will nevertheless require a 'systemic revolution'. However, unlike Marxist ideas, it ought to be non-violent.

To prevent environmental degradation, along with plantation, water conservation, recycling, we can start working from ground level through panchayat raj institutions. We cannot develop our villages by ignoring environmental issues. Forests, water, farms, rural industries are all associated with environmental concern. Limitation of wants is another important aspect of Gandhian economics. Gandhiji urged us to attenuate ours wants to attenuate the burden on nature by avoiding hazardous wastes. Promotion of Khadi maintains a balance between environment and employment. By manufacturing such eco-friendly products, webcam creates newer markets for the village economy. Other areas to be explored include watershed management and organic farming. For this, we'll have to define and find out 'new' education by amalgamating scientific materialism into scientific idealism.

Gandhiji's idea on sustainable development through 'Sarvodaya' wanted to safeguard the rights of future generations, through the welfare of all. Amidst all our brouhaha of development through the exploitation of resources, Gandhiji quietly reminds us: "It took Britain half the resources of our planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require?" This is where Gandhiji is apt when he points out that, "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed."

Citations :

1. Ramachandra Gunha, "Mahatma Gandhi and Environmental Movement in India" in Arne Kalland and Gerard Persoon (ed), Environmental Movements in Asia (London: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies & Routledge, 1998), p.67

2. Young India, October 15, 1925

References :

1. Siby K. Joseph & Bharat Mahodaya (eds.) Gandhi, environment and sustainable future (institute of Gandhian Thoughts, Wardha, 2013)

2. M.K.Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule (Navajivan pub. House, Ahmedabad,1989)


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