ARTICLES : Gandhian view on Environment

Read articles written by very well-known personalities and eminent authors about Gandhian view on Environment and it's relevance today.

Development and Environment Issues with Special Reference to Gandhian Perspective

By Dr. Kavita Y. Suchak. (Ph. D)

Many grandiose visions have been developed to depict how humans have shaped destiny in the new century that is fast approaching. These visions are based on scenario involving highly sophisticated breakthrough with vast potentials – colonies in space, robot operated plants, computers that match human intelligence and so on. Major question is whether such scientific and technological advancements are based on a position where man and machine co-operate with each other or has machine overpowered man? The unprecedented growth in world consumption and production is leading to environmental stress through impacts that are both global and local. Some kinds of environmental degradation are truly of global concern, such as global warming and depletion of the ozone layer. Others are international – acid raid, the state of ocean, in several countries. Others are more localized,- air pollution, water pollution, soil degradation, desertification and so on.
The emergence of environmental concerns during the past two decades has led several people to question whether growth of the cost imposed on the environment through depletion of non-renewable natural resources. A question also arises whether poverty and environmental degradation are inter related? What is the relation between environment and economic growth. The inter relationship between poverty, environment and development has also been recognised.
The inter relationship between poverty and environment has been recognised by the World Commission on Environment and Development Report as “poverty is a major cause and effect of global environmental problem.”2
The interrelationship between the exploitation and degradation of environment and natural resources, on the one hand, and development and poverty, on the other, is particularly relevant in the rural areas of developing countries.3 The linkage between poverty and environment defines a particular characteristic of environmental disruption. In rural areas, these linkage materialise through the over exploitation of resources.
At the international and national levels, 1992 was a vibrant year as environmental concern, the conservation strategy and policy statement on environment and development were presented to parliament during his period.4 One of the more positive approaches was the radical concept of economic development. “...sustainable development as an approach to environment implies meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their needs.”5 Poor people are pushed towards the exploitation of marginal areas of low productivity, tend to over exploit the natural resources resulting in a consequent decline in productivity. Cyclical relationship between poverty and environmental degradation takes place. As poverty increases, natural environment degrades, the prospects for further livelihood decline. Environmental degradation generates more poverty. At least 500 million of the world's poorest people live in ecologically marginal areas.
Another reason for environmental pollution and degradation is over utilisation of renewable resources. The use of firewood – the use of most renewable resource is driven by expanding population. Within 40 years the amount of cropland available per person is projected to fall by half from today’s already meagre 0.27 hectare. Soil degradation has reduced the availability of agricultural land per capita. By 2050 more than 2 billion people will live in regions facing land scarcity, with extensive and increasing desertification and land degradation, particularly in parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, about a third of the earth’s original forest have disappeared. Two-fifths of the worlds people depend on water absorbed by the mountain ranges. But when the trees have been felled, rain water sheet off the land, causing floods and droughts. Tens of millions of hectares in India have become more vulnerable to flooding as a result of deforestation.
The overuse of fertiliser causes great water pollution problems. Heavy use of phosphatic fertiliser have appeared in ground water in six districts in West Bengal, killing some of those drinking water. If this trend continues, world may see a five fold increase in waste generation ozone layer has thinned by 10% over temperate region. The ultraviolet light is also a major cause of cataracts, which cause more than half the blindness in the world and claim sight of 17 million people every year. It penetrates surface of the sea, killing the plankton which is vital in the food chain.
Rapid industrialization in many countries has greatly increased pollution. Vehicle exhaust, coal burning and smoke from factories form small particles in the air that cause serious health damage. Air pollution from industrial emission, car exhaust and burning of fuels kills more than 2.7 million people every year from respiratory damage, heart and lung damage and cancer. Besides harming human health, air pollution causes direct economic losses. Germany loses an estimated $4.7 billion in agricultural production every year as a result of air pollution; Poland $2 billion, Italy $1.8 billion and Sweden $41.5 billion. Polluted air drifts across national frontiers, with emission of sulphur dioxide in one country raining acid on another. Acid deposition are particularly high in industrial areas such as south-east china, North-East India, and Thailand. The effects are felt in agricultural. In India wheat yields have been cut in half in areas close to large sources of sulphur dioxide emission.
Global warming is one of the most serious of all the environmental challenges. It threatens to disrupt the remarkably stable climate the world has enjoyed since last 10,000 years. And in is likely to cause widespread economic, social and environmental destruction over the next century. By the estimates, the world's harvest will be slightly reduced in next century. A recent study predicts that harvest will decline by more than 30% in India and Pakistan. Rising seas may threaten the lives of millions in developing countries. With a one meter rise in sea level, due in part to global warming, Bangladesh could see its land area shrink by 17%, through it produces only 0.3% of global emission. Egypt could see 12% of its territory disappear under the waves.
A conservative estimate of environmental damage in India puts the figure at more than $10 billion a year or 4.5% of GDP in 1992. That is, urban air pollution costs India $1.3 billion a year. Water degradation leads to health costs amounting to $5.7b every year, nearly three fifths of the total environmental costs. Soil erosion affects 83-163 million hectares of land every year. Deforestation, which proceeded at the rate of 0.6% a year between 1981 and 1990, leads to annual costs of $214 million.
It should be noted that renewable sources of energy, evils of large scale industrialisation and dangers of environmental pollution were recognised by Gandhiji eight decades ago, as he put more emphasis on non-violent upliftment of village economy and the utilisation of labour-intensive technique of production.
In modern terminology, Gandhiji’s strategy is modified in terms of pattern of growth, which preliminary uses renewable resources and a minimum utilisation of non-renewable resources. Though concern for the environment was not the focus of such prescriptions, yet such strategy helped to minimize the degradation of environment. The environment-friendly nature of Gandhian economic is further revealed when one notes the emphasis on the ‘last man’ In such policy, poverty has been described as the most severe polluter. The Gandhian prescription of ‘simple living’ also attempts to put a check on unlimited consumption and unending exploitation of natural resources.
The eminent Gandhian thinker and economist, J.C. Kumarappa drew attention towards these critical matters of environmental pollution and preservation of natural resources about half a century ago and exhorted that mankind should strive for establishing ‘Economy of permanence,’ rather than reckless destruction of natural resources. This could be achieved by a judicious minimum use of the non-renewable resource, thereby saving them for future generation and adopting a productive system in which whatever is drained out of nature is restored back through the natural process. “Work in nature consists in the effort to put forth by the various factors – insentient and sentient – which co-operate to complete this cycle of life. If this cycle is broken, at any stage, at any time, consciously or unconsciously, violence results as a consequence of such a break. When violence intervenes in this way, growth or progress is stopped, ending finally in destruction and waste... Self-interest and self preservation demand complete non-violence, co-operation and submission, to the ways of nature if we are to maintain permanency by non-interference with and by not short-circuiting the cycle of life.6 Whatever is drawn out of nature is to be recycled through the natural process.
Local raw material should be processed locally. What could not be producted in a decentralized system could be producted by centralised or capital-intensive method of production. While clarifying his views, he had previously asserted that “..... I do visualise electricity, ship-building, machine-making and the like existing side by side village craft ..... they should not be used as a means of exploitation of others.”7 He also noted that “..... the heavy machinery for the work of a public utility which can not be undertaken by human labour has its inevitable place. But all that should be owned by the state and used entirely for the benefit of the people.”8 Equal distribution of income and wealth go hand-in-hand with proper balance between centralised and decentralized methods of production in urban and rural areas respectively for the welfare of the masses.
Gandhiji’s emphasis on labour intensive of production does not indicate that he was advocating obsolete machinery with less productivity. He was in favour of simple tools, which save individual labour and lighten the burden of millions of cottages.9 While clarifying the role of machinery, he mentioned that “mechanisation is good when the hands are few for the work intended to be accomplished. It is an evil when there are more hands than required for the works, as is the case in India. The problem is how to utilize their idle hours, which are equal to the working days of six months in the year.”10 He was against the craze for machinery in a labour-surplus economy like India and accepted the utilisation of modern tools and implements provided they help in reducing unnecessary human labour. He wanted production by the masses and not mass production. Here, it should be noted that the adoption of labour-intensive technique of production to create job opportunities was suggested by World Development Report – 1990, especially to developing countries. It was pointed out that “...Against the background of achievement, is all the more staggering, shameful that more than one billion people in the developing world are living in poverty. Progress in raising average in comes, however welcome, must not distract attention from this massive and continuing burden of poverty.11 For removal of poverty and unemployment, it was suggested that” .....rapid and politically sustainable progress on poverty has been achieved by pursuing a strategy that has two equally important elements. The first element is to promote the productive use of the poor’s most abundant asset, labour. It calls for policies that harness market incentives, social and political institutions, infrastructure and technology to that end .....switching to an efficient, labour intensive pattern of development and investing more in the human capital of the poor are not only consistent with faster long term growth, they contributed to it”.12 It was further noted “since labour is an abundant resource, encouraging its use is generally consistent with rapid and efficient growth.13 Indian Planners are not unfamiliar with these views and suggestions. They were discussed by Gandhiji over eight decades ago, initially in Hind Swaraj and then in Young India and Harijan with special focus on Khadi and village industries. He stated “I have not contemplated, much less advised the abandonment of a single, healthy, life-giving industrial activity for the sake of hand-spinning. The entire foundation of the spinning-wheel rests on the fact that there are cores of semi-unemployment people in India..... the spinning wheel is destructive of no enterprise whatever. It is life-giving activity”
The essence of the Gandhian approach to technological progress lies in treating Nature as a friend and benefactor. This approach is opposite to what we have practising so far in the name of technology. All decentralized technological systems which makes use of natures-in-built processes demand a settlement pattern different from the heavily one that form our preference now. But if we take a broader view, they can become the harbingers of a advancement, leading development with the help of eco-friendly technology.
When the basic problems of Indian economy are analyzed, the pattern of income distribution, inequality, poverty, unemployment are still existing as they were when Gandhiji advocated the spinning-wheel as a panacea for all ills. Thus, his emphasis on Khadi and village industries was not a temporary measure, but a permanent solution to overcome the root problems of poverty and unemployment from India.

Foot Notes:
  1. Karshenas, M; Environment Development and Employment: Some conceptual issues p-22, in Bhalla, A. S. (Edi.) Environment, Employment and Development
  2. Bifani, P; Environmental Degradation in rural areas p-106 in Bhalla, A. S. (Edi.), Environment, Employment and Development
  3. Ibid; p-99
  4. Nayyar, K. R.; Politics of sustainable Development, Economic and political weekly, 28th May, 1994 p-1928
  5. Ibid: p-1327
  6. Kumarappa, J. C., Economy of Permanence, p-2
  7. Gandhi, M.K, Harijan , 27-8-1936
  8. Ibid, 22-6-1935
  9. Gandhi, M.K. Young India, 16-6-1926
  10. Gandhi, M.K, Harijan, 16-5-1936
  11. World Development Report, 1990, p-10
  12. Ibid; p-3
  13. Ibid, p-56
  1. Bhalla A. S. (Edi) Technology Appropriate for a B. N. Strategy in 'Towards Global Action for AT' Technology and Employment Branch, I. L. O. Programme: Press, 1977
  2. Human Development Report 1997, 1998, UNDP
  3. Kumarappa J.C.; 'Economy of Performances', Varanasi, Serva Seva Sangh Prakashan September, 1984, Fifth Edition
  4. Nayyar, K. R.; Politics of sustainable Development, Economic and political weekly, 28th May, 1994
  5. Various Issues of Young India and Harijan.
  6. World Development Report, 1990
  7. World Bank research programme - 1993