Today, the world is passing through a chaotic phase. With the global community facing multiple challenges ranging from terrorism to poverty, it is necessary to find solutions for pertaining problems. It was expected that the scientific progress and innovative technologies would ease the hardships and make the world a better place to live in. But, on the contrary, technology couldn’t ensure favourable results by improving the living standards of all but further deepened the segregation among us. As per the estimates of the United Nations, 1.3 billion people around the world suffer from multidimensional poverty, i.e. one person in every 6 people (Alkire & Barham, 2019, p. 5).
Due to civil wars and armed conflicts, millions leave their homes and migrate to western countries. With increased emission of greenhouse gases global temperature is on the rise, flora and fauna of many regions have been destroyed and there are threats looming over some of the metropolitan cities getting submerged underwater due to rising sea level. As classical economist, Adam Smith stated ‘human wants are unlimited’ (Smith, 2007, p. 45). But with limited natural recourses, how can human ‘wants’ be satisfied? What will be the future of earth if its exploitation continues on this pace? With multiple problems posing serious questions on our own survival on the blue planet, it is high time to return back to the prophet who had foreseen impending crisis of technological advancement. It is the moment to revisit the works of Mahatma Gandhi in order to understand his perspectives on development and to formulate a model that ensures a sustainable society transcending national boundaries and contemplating humanity as a single block.
A sustainable society is the one where consumption is in equilibrium with the resources available in nature. Such societies consider present and future well-being of their people. Resources are used in such a dedicated manner that future generations could also avail them. With nations’ focus shifting to rapid economic growth, natural resources are used in abundance to produce more and increase the size of their economies. The world started to think seriously about sustainable development after the ‘Brundtland report’ of 1987. The report raised awareness about the environmental risks and challenges faced by earth and called for international cooperation for collectively solving those problems. Three decades have passed since the publishing of the report but the steps taken for conserving the environment were not enough to make the goal of sustainable societies a reality. The global community needs to understand that merely cutting carbon emission cannot save the earth, it requires a philosophical approach which can lead us towards the path of sustainability and it can be the Gandhian way.
For Gandhi, the ultimate aim was the development of individuals and society. He believed in an egalitarian society deeply rooted in values. Creation of a non-violent society forms the crust of Gandhian thoughts. The idea of ‘Sarvodaya’ (development of all in all facets of life) is hence important. Interestingly, the 17 point Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) put forward by the United Nations in 2015 were all touched upon by Gandhi during his lifetime, through his writings, and socio-political involvement. People questioning the relevance of Gandhian thoughts today tend to forget that as long as people suffer in any forbidden corners of the world, Gandhi remains relevant and he had thought of the solutions for the problems arising decades after his demise.
There is an academic construction of Gandhi as anti-capitalist and a staunch opponent of industrialisation. But it was Gandhi who advised Purushotham Das Thakkurdas and GD Birla to establish the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FICCI) in 1927 (Hussain, 2017). In reality, Gandhi was only opposed to large scale industrialisation which according to him was “making man as a part of mechanized work”. Gandhi’s opposition against industrialisation should be clubbed with his fight against the British imperial rule. He wrote in Young India that “Industrialism is, I am afraid, going to be a curse for mankind. Exploitation of one nation by another cannot go on for all time. Industrialism depends entirely on your capacity to exploit, on foreign markets being open to you, and on the absence of competitors.” He even ridiculed Soviet Union for practicing large scale industrialisation but not improving standards of its people. Gandhi’s alternative to industrialisation was the development of cottage industries which were the bloodline of villages. Clubbing the present-day crisis of large scale automation and its related loss of jobs, Gandhi’s idea of rejuvenation of cottage industries has its hold even in the 21st century.
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed” elucidated Gandhi. Gandhian thoughts were centred over the principles of ‘Ahimsa’ (non-violence), ‘Satya’ (truth) and ‘Aparigraha’ (non-possession of wealth). He considered the exploitation of natural resources itself as a form of ‘himsa’. Eminent historian Ramachandra Guha calls Gandhi “the first environmentalist” because Gandhi raised his concerns about the environment at a time when there were no serious debates on ecological conservation. Gandhi considered the earth as a living organism. His further expressed it in two basic laws: 1) the cosmic law and 2) the law of species. Cosmic law treats the entire universe as a single entity and is itself a grand system consisting of both living and non-living things. Regarding the law of species, Gandhi believed that without the cooperation of both humans and non-humans’ evolution is not possible (Dayananda, 2017).
The Gandhian idea of satyagraha and simple living is itself a manifestation of the care for the environment that Gandhi had. He clubbed non-violence with strict vegetarianism (Dayananda, 2017). Thus the idea of ahimsa which got extended to animals is also a form of environmental protection. Many popular protests in post-Independent India for the conservation of nature including Chipko movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan, etc. were inspired by the model of Gandhian satyagraha. Gandhi’s opposition to large scale industrialisation can be also viewed in the context of environmental protection. Pollution caused by giant industrial plants is hazardous to the entire ecosystem. Industrialisation process paved ways to the establishment of Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) extracting natural resources from third world countries (Kapra, 1984). Net income of some of these MNCs is much bigger than the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of some of these nations, further reaffirming Gandhi’s notion that industrialisation ultimately leads to exploitation of both raw materials and human capital.
The rapid pace of urbanisation that we see today has resulted in environmental problems and also it is the village which suffers the most due to its negligence from the government since the state is more keep to make cities rather than financing villages “I have found that the town-dweller has generally exploited the villager, in fact he has lived on the poor villager’s subsistence” wrote Gandhi in 1936. Urbanisation eventually results in large scale migration from villages to the cities which eventually results in scarcity of human necessities like water and shelter. Overcrowded cities have high chances of getting affected with contentious diseases. The effective rise in pollution, problems in waste management, unemployment and rising number of slums challenge the sustainability of the society. The trend of the urban population in India from 1901 to 2001 indicates that the urban population has increased by 10 times whereas India’s total population had grown by little less than 5 times. Hence, Gandhi’s vision of empowering villages makes real sense now.
Gandhi believed that India lived in its 7 lakh villages and the progress of a nation can only be reached by developing its villages and giving more political autonomy to it. In the 19th century, the self-sufficient village units were destructed by British authorities to make India a single large market. The handloom industry was made to collapse hence government beginning to import dress materials from Manchester which were relatively cheap since they were factory-made. Introduction of railways ended the isolation of villages and integrated villages to one another (Marx, 1853). According to Gandhi, villages were self-sufficient republics. Calling for decentralisation, Gandhi wrote “Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus, every village will be a republic or panchayat having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world. It will be trained and prepared to perish in the attempt to defend itself against any onslaught from without”.
This idea of the federal structure was referred to as ‘the principle of oceanic circles’ which placed individually at the centre. Within the village, there are three concentric circles i.e. the individual, his family and the village itself. Further expanding this, the next concentric circle has Gram Sabha as the centre and neighbouring villages or Gram samuha. A few Gram samuha makes Prakhand Samuhas, a few Prakhand Samuhas make a Taluk, a few Taluks make Zilla and so on. Each outer wave derives its authority from the immediately preceding inner waves (Gandhi K. M., 2005). Gandhi believed that every village should be given legislative, executive and judicial powers to manage its own affairs and without any form of interference by other governmental bodies. This acceptance of panchayati raj system made Gandhi denounce a parliamentary form of democracy by calling it “the tyranny of the Majority” (Shankaran, 2019). Hence it can be said that the Gandhian notion of Swaraj or self-rule was village centric.
After returning to India itself Gandhi nurtured his idea of empowering villages by making use of his experiences during his stay in South Africa. He was of the opinion that “If the villages perish, India will perish too. It will be no more India. Her own mission in the world will get lost.” The colonial administration had interfered with the functioning of villages and disturbed the equilibrium that it processed. Gandhi felt that the nation can be rebuilt only by rebuilding villages from its very basics. He himself started efforts to make self-sufficient villages in Champaran (1917), Sevagram (1920) and Wardha (1938) (Joshi, 2002). Gandhi further stated the importance of villages as “We are inheritors of a rural civilization. The vastness of our country, the vastness of the population, the situation and the climate of the country has, in my opinion, destined it for a rural civilization… To uproot it and substitute for it an urban civilization seems to me an impossibility.” In multiple letters written to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi had advised him to give more importance to villages once India attains independence.
The term ‘Gandhian economics’ was first coined by his close supporter J.C Kumarappah. Gandhi had never formulated economic theories on his own. What later came to be known as ‘Gandhian economics’ was a study of the economic concepts enshrined in his way of life and his writings. Gandhi stressed on the importance of ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants’. According to him, western economics was based on ‘multiplication on wants’ and he considered it unsustainable and inhumane. Gandhi also rejected the idea of materialism and the notion of class struggle proposed by Marxian thinkers. For him, ethics was more important than economic growth. He was of the opinion that economics without ethics was sinful and caused greater damage to mankind (Kumarappah, 1951).
Gandhi was highly moved by the Jain principle of Aparigraha (non-possession of wealth) which ultimately lead to the idea of trusteeship. ‘Unto the last’ written by John Ruskin and ‘The kingdom of god is within man’ by Leo Tolstoy highly impressed him with the thoughts of an egalitarian society. Gandhi summarised the teachings of ‘Unto the last’ in 3 basic truths: 1) The good of the individual is contained in the good of all (Sarvodaya).
2) Each person has the right to earn livelihood from his work and there is dignity of labor, meaning thereby that there is nothing called high and low labor (Bread labor). 3) The life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsmen is the life worth living (Village industries and Swadeshi) (Gandhi M. , 1954).
In order to test the practicality of his own thoughts, Gandhi established various ashrams. Ashrams were his experiments of ideal villages. The inhabitants produced their own necessary items, constructed shelter for themselves and showed a greater example of co-loving. Gandhi was particular on the principle of ‘bread labour’. Here bread means labour. He often quoted from Bhagavad Gita that “one who eats without labor eats stolen food” in order to prove the spiritual validity of his idea (Kumarappah, 1951). The seven social sins of Gandhi constituted the key elements of Gandhi’s political and economic thought. They are: politics without principles, wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity and worship without sacrifice. So, in totality it can be argued that Gandhian economics doesn’t deal with the material growth of the economy, but ethical growth of the individual which according to him was the real asset or the value of society. Also, Gandhian economics lay emphasis on spiritual satisfaction. Spiritualism holds sway over consumerism. Gandhi emphasized on minimizing wants and keeping away from luxuries (Nandela, 2010).
Gandhian development model followed an entirely different paradigm from the west. This mode was not a quest for material as the west did. It had ensured effective participation of each and every individual and their inner selves. Gandhi envisioned a decentralised system and considered villages as self-sufficient independent administrative units. Hence the developmental ideas of Gandhi were entirely focused on villages. In 194, Gandhi penned down his 18 points constructive program for the rejuvenation of villages. He himself called this the ‘construction of poorna swaraj’ (Gandhi M. , 1945). Once he even went to say that “I was born for the constructive program. It is part of my soul. Politics is a kind of botheration for me.” These points covered entire aspects of the village for its society to be sustainable.
Gandhi’s 18 points started with communal harmony. He believed that the villagers can co-exist only with mutual love and trust hence there was no space for religious hatred in his ideal village. His list also included prohibition, village sanitation, khadi, basic education, adult education, education in health and hygiene, economic equality, kisan, students and so on. It needs to be noted that Gandhi speaks only about basic things and he was of the conviction that the society can build up only when these small things fall to its place. He gives special references to education at multiple levels and it is also extended to cleanliness which is widely regarded as godliness.
The spinning wheel or Charkha was a symbol of swadeshi movement and non-violence for Gandhi. He once said “The music of the wheel will be as balm to your soul. I believe that the yarn we spin is capable of mending the broken warp and woof of our life. The Charkha is the symbol of non-violence on which all life if it is to be real life, must be based” Khadi has a very important role to play in the village economy that he envisioned. After the period of industrial revolution products from Manchester, which was much cheaper than the khadi dresses flooded the Indian market. These cloth materials came at a cheaper price because the cost of production and travelling was not borne by the capitalist but the poor Indian taxpayer and farmer. Gandhi found dishonesty in it (Kumarappah, 1951).
According to Gandhi, the cottage industry was supposed to be given utmost care. With a large number of people residing in rural areas, it was necessary for them to find a livelihood to earn their bread which he termed as ‘bread labour’. It was the cottage industry which could provide large scale employment. According to Gandhi large scare employment of machines result in job loss. But, he was welcomed to the idea of having those machines which could help people to simplify their work. He usually mentioned the example of singer sewing machine in this regard and even called it “one of the few useful things ever invented” (Latson, 2015).
Gandhi, in his 18 points constructive program, gave a great deal of importance to education. He even derived a new method of learning and titled as ‘Nai Talim’. It is an approach to the total personality development of body, mind and spirit and was based on four basic principles:
1) Education or learning in the mother tongue along with handicraft work,
2) Work should be linked with the most useful vocational needs of the locality,
3) Learning should be linked with vocational work, and
4) Work should be socially useful and productive needed for living (Panse, 2007). It was crafted as a mass education approach due to its centrality of socially useful work, and was expected to create a National System of Education (Takwale & Sawant, 2012). Gandhi himself wrote once that “I hold that the highest development of the mind and the soul is possible under such a system of education. Only every handicraft has to be taught not merely mechanically as is done today, but scientifically i.e. the child should know the why and wherefore of every process….I have myself taught sandal- making and even spinning on these lines with good results”
Gandhi’s belief in humanity resonates from his principle of ‘trusteeship’. Trusteeship is Gandhi’s unique conceptualization of a bridge between labour and capital despite being contradictory to each other (Chakrabarthy, 2017). It was rather an attempt to find a solution to economic inequality that prevailed in the society. Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship was rather theological. He considered God as the ultimate owner of all resources and humans were mere ‘trustees’. Therefore, it was important for those trustees to give an excess amount to the society which could be used for the development of all. Gandhi called trusteeship as “India’s gift to the world”.
Gandhi can only be understood in a multi-dimensional manner. His way of life was itself a manifestation of sustainability. Gandhi was always keen on ‘swatchata’ (cleanliness) of both body and mind. After six decades of independence, the Government of India had to bring a scheme called ‘Swatch Bharat Abhiyan’ to keep India clean. India’s national capital is notorious for air pollution and still air quality is depreciating day by day (Padmanabhan & Srivastava, 2019). Today, in all cities and towns in India, there are garbage heaps resulting in the spread of diseases. There are rivers flowing like drainage, massive destruction to aquatic animals and leaving a large section of people inaccessible to safe drinking water (Rai, 2017). Crimes against women, children and marginalised sections are increasing to alarming levels. Economic aspirations and animalistic ‘wants’ have polluted the minds of people where the inner-goodness of individuals are declining and greed is on the rise. Gandhian purity and tolerance are what the modern times lack.
Through his economic principles, Gandhi could create an alternative to the never-ending debate between capitalists and socialists. Both these ideologies failed to recognise the values embedded in human beings. With countries’ ‘wants’ taking the Frankenstein monster shape, two world wars were fought killings millions of people and damaging natural resources which cannot be valued. The fight for political superiority between the Soviet Union and America resulted in a prolonged cold war. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent rise of China as a global player, the power dynamics still plays a larger role in the international sphere (Nolan, 2008). According to Gandhi, the quest for power corrupts people. He could have become the first President or the Prime Minister of the Republic of India if he had wished. But, he instead chose to be with riots victims in Bengal at the eve of Indian independence. All his life, he struggled for the emancipation of people and not for power. That is why people like Martin Luther King jr and Nelson Mandela considered Gandhi as their inspiration and role model in their struggle against injustice.
Even if we check the policies of Indian governments (both at centre and states), one can find footprints of Gandhi on it. Flagship schemes like Mudra loans, MG National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and Swatch Bharat are all based on the ideas of Gandhi. The Gandhian idea of ‘Nai Talim’ is remodelled to suit today’s condition as ‘Skill India’. Kudumbasree mission, the most popular self-help group is based on the teachings of Gandhi. This has changed the lives of thousands of women in Kerala. There are constant debates on various economic ‘isms’ in the public domain, but silently Gandhian economic thoughts are still in working through various schemes at government level.
Gandhian ideas like ahimsa, satya, astheya, trusteeship, bread labour, sarvodaya, swarajya and charka can constitute the foundation stones for a sustainable society. The proposed society can only be found on mutual love, respect, sacrifice and commitment. It needs to be noted that Gandhi trusted the inherent goodness of human beings and all human beings are at the centre of all his principles. The moment we renounce our ‘wants’ and embrace ‘needs’, the first step towards sustainable development has been taken. Let the global community come together for creating a blueprint to secure own future and let them heavily borrow heavily from Mahatma Gandhi’s wisdom to make sure that our tomorrows are better than our yesterdays.
 Young India, 12-11-1931, P. 355
 Harijan, 28-01-1939, P. 438
 Ramachandra Guha, “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.
 Harijan, 04-04-1936, p. 63-64
 Census report 2001
 Harijan, 04-08-1940, P. 205
 Young India, 7-11-1929; 42:108.
 Speech at Gandhi Seva Sangh, 2-21-40
 Harijan, 27-04-1947, p. 122
 Harijan, 31-07-1937
 Harijan, 23 -02- 1947, p. 96