October 4, 2011

Gandhi's view on village life

This weekend I was invited to give a short lecture on a commemoration of the 152th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. It was a gathering of Indian ambassadors and businessmen in Antwerp. I therefore took it as a great opportunity to criticize some of the present Indian economic policies that are, to say the least, often un-Gandhian. But before offering the assembled politicians and businessmen some humble Gandhian advises, I started with a little story of my own experiences in India...

One day, when I was driving in the bus together with Father Windey, the founder of the Village reconstruction organization in India, we passed some farming fields in the vicinity of Nellore. I thought they were normal rice fields, but I was mistaken. They used to be rice fields, but they were converted into basins for shrimp breeding.

That would not be a problem at all if it were not for some consequences of the intensive shrimp breeding business. First of all, to breed shrimps you need salt water, so they filled the rice paddies with sea-water. This silted the ground so badly that it became useless for other farming in the future. Second, shrimp breeding is a lot less labor intensive then rice growing. Where a whole community used to be involved in growing rice and all shared in the profits it yielded, the profits could now go to the few who happened to be able to claim the land and start the shrimp breeding. Many farmers therefore lost their jobs and became the new addition to the slums of the nearest big city.


One could say that it is awful of those few ‘luky ones’ who get into the shrimp business to leave behind the other people in their community. Yes. But let us not forget this: why is it that the shrimp business became successful? Because the rich of the West had an increasing demand for this type of seafood. And the ones playing into these demands, to say it bluntly, are most often the bigger corporations that either own the fields or that pressure farmers into certain decisions because of ruthless market mechanisms. So it certainly isn’t always the farmers themselves that decide what to do with their fields. They are at the lower end of the economic chain and therefore do not always have the option to decide about their own future.

And this is exactly why Gandhi had such an emphasis on the villages as the core-element in an honest economy. For it goes straight to that one aspect of Gandhian philosophy that we know all too well: non-violence.

“Non-violence” you might think a bit surprised, “But you were describing a story about the global economy and how the local Indian economy was linked to it”.

But yes, I do mean non-violence. For I will not bore the reader with an analysis about sarvodaya, swadeshi or the panchayat, but I will stay focused on the most essential element that was the basis of Gandhi’s thinking on rural economy.

Gandhi did not promote the village because of the village. He wasn’t simply inspired by a silly romantic idea of ‘back to the basics’ that made him propagate village life. No, he proposed the village as the economic nucleus because a village is capable of self-sufficiency. For Gandhi was convinced self-sufficiency could protect people from the oppression of market-economy.

According to Gandhi, self-sufficiency was a defensive force for the villagers since self-sufficiency protects them from the violence of an economy ruled by a few rich that extract the many poor. According to Gandhi, self-sufficiency was  a counter measure for the structural violence of a world-economy that is built on unbalanced extraction of resources and people. The reason behind this is simple: if you are self-sufficient, there is no dependency on someone ‘above’ you. If you are self-sufficient, they cannot force you to grow something you do not wish to grow. If you are self-sufficient, you can determine your own extent of economic interaction.

And since Gandhi was very aware that not every individual could be self-sufficient on his own, he simply proposed the village as the smallest possible group to reach this self-sufficiency.

To describe it symbolically: the industrial city with its compartimentalisation always enslaves. It makes people into small bits and pieces of a chain that serves the rich. But a rural village has the potential of self-sufficiency that serves all within the village.

Hence, the oppressive market system was the first type of violence Gandhi wished to break by means of empowerment of village life.

The second type of violence he wanted to counter is a closely related aspect: the violence of discrimination. Not discrimination because of race or religion, but the discrimination of labor.

Gandhi stated several times that “the life of manual labor is the life of value”. He emphasized it because in his time, the time of booming industrial states, manual labor was increasingly frowned upon and the disdain for a life of tilling the soil grew. And let’s be honest, this disdain has not ceased. On the contrary, our societies have increasingly been looking down upon farming-life.

The West and India are no different in this respect. Everyone aspires for supposedly ‘higher’ jobs. People wish to be engineers, politicians, lawyers, bankers or big traders – and if they can’t be like that themselves, then they hope their kids will be.

But those jobs are only ‘higher’ in financial terms and by no means in any moral terms.
Who produces the food that feeds the children of the politician? The farmer. Who creates the fabric of the clothes of the lawyer? The farmer.

So yes, Indian economy has grown immensely in the past two decades. The IT business and many others are at the basis of a surprising and laudable economic growth. And you can get very rich when you’re a part of it. But by all means tell me, who will grow rice if every Indian has become an engineer? Who will produce the raw material of our clothes if all Indians work in the IT-sector?

So yes, India knows a huge and impressive economic increase. Great. But we should truly ask: for how long and at what cost? We would do well to remember Gandhi’s words: “It does not matter at what speed we’re going, when we’re headed in the wrong direction.”

India taken as a whole, used to be able to be self-sufficient. Yet I have been told by experts, that that is no longer the case. Considering India’s rural potential, this is extremely worrying. Too many policies gave in far too much to an oppressive world-economy and too many politicians were led by a disdain of manual labor.
So why is an Indian mango, in the supermarket around the corner, so immensely cheap? Partly because there is too little resistance to the pressure of the economic system and partly because people at large seem to think that it’s normal for farmers to earn the least of all. Nonetheless there is nothing ‘normal’ about that at all. For it is above all their work that sustains our lives. In any case their work sustains our lives a lot more directly than the work of bankers, politicians or IT-engineers.

To conclude then, I would like to propose to you three possible Gandhian advises that in a very fast and direct way lead to less violence in our economy. Hopefully some of us might feel inspired by them:

First: the politicians and diplomats amongst us should actively strive to promote and support those policies that increase the self-sufficiency of villages.

Second: the business people amongst us should consider making a bit less profits so that they can give higher wages to those within their company that do the manual labor, simply as a token of honest respect and appreciation for their essential work.

Third: all of us can buy more fair trade products. For the concepts of the fair-trade business remain, in this society, a most evident form of civil disobedience to an oppressive economic system and the most direct appreciation of manual labor. I’m not a lobbyist for fair trade. Not at all. I’m just proposing it as a logical and undeniable consequence of Gandhian thinking. Since we are at the top of the economic chain, it makes a lot of sense for us to give up on some luxuries and spend some more on basic materials so that those at the lower end of the economic chain might benefit. For certainly in these times of financial crisis we should all keep in mind the words of the Mahatma: “There is enough on earth for everybody’s need but not for everybody’s greed.”

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