ARTICLES : Gandhian view on Environment

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Mahatma Gandhi - An Environmentalist With A Difference

By Shreekrishna Jha.

The whole world knows that Gandhi was a political leader and a revolutionary of an extraordinary type. That he was a great thinker and a saintly figure is also well known all over the world. It is also widely known that he was a humanist and pacifist of international fame. But very few people know that he was an environmentalist too. This is primarily because the environmental problems have surfaced largely in the post-Gandhian era and as such, the concern for environment has assumed importance only in recent years. Nevertheless, there were people in the past too who could foresee the future and visualize the dangers inherent in the kind of development the nations chose to go in for following the Industrial revolution in the west. Gandhi was one of such persons.
Gandhi had bewildering insights and foresights. One is really appalled by his farsightedness so clearly and emphatically expressed in the Hind Swaraj almost a century ago in1909 when few people talked of environmental problems and hazards. Similarly one is overwhelmed by his grasp of the resultant human predicament and his ingenuity to suggest appropriate measures to root out the problem rather then search a solution to control it.
It needs hardly any mention that entire problem of environmental hazards and degradations are rooted in the scientific-technological development leading to large scale and speedy industrialization and the consequent socio-culture upheavals the world over. True, the achievement of industrialization for mankind cannot be undermined. Industrialization has given to human society tremendous material pleasure and prosperity. But at the same time, it has also imperceptibly done irreparable loss to mankind. Reckless and limit less pursuit of industrialization by all nations are now posing serious problems for very existence of not only man but for all living creatures and all kinds of species on our planet.
Detection of depletion of the ozone layer, reported recurring of acid rain and the warming up of the earth as a result of green house effect are serious pointers to the existential problems. Already numerous species of animals, birds and plants have become extinct. Desert formation is increasing with rapid speed. Deforestations and increasing emission of smokes and injurious gas are not only polluting the atmosphere, but also affecting adversely climatic conditions to the awful disadvantages of living being, Mushrooming of the slum area (in most of the third world countries ) as an unavoidable byproduct of urbanization the syndrome of our cherished mode of development is fatal to the physical atmosphere required for proper living. Disposal of industrial wastes and things like plastic and synthetic containers and used/discarded wares has already become a formidable problem not only in the developed west but also in the developed countries. The cumulative effect of all these factors on the health and living of human beings has caused an alarming concern among people in the entire world.
Everybody now knows that scientific and technological development is at the root of the state affair. And yet, people are taking resort to the same science and technology for a solution of the environmental problem. Gigantic efforts are being made for the management of this problem. But its magnitude and viciousness are defying any proper and satisfactory solution. The reason is quit obvious. The factors responsible for the problem continue to aggravate the situation with much faster pace than the effort to control it. There is no control and management of environmental pollutions and degradations. The permanent cure of this dreadful problem lies in a suitable alternative life style in tune with nature. People now do realize the truth of it but the naked materialism of modern civilization becomes a roadblock in putting it into practice.
Gandhi had clearly perceived this solutions. His indictment of the modern civilization in the Hind Swaraj was intended to caution mankind against this calamity. He made a relevant appeal to the people of his countrymen not be trapped by the allurement of this civilization. He also wanted the western society against its ill effects. As a front leader of the Indian nationalist movement and a visionary and planner of society and political systems of India after Independence, he drew a blue -print which accordingly rejected the western model based on that scientific-technological culture.
To Gandhi, the main plank of the modern civilization is the unsatiable and unending pursuit of material pleasure and prosperity. All modern western socio-economic and political theories and institutions are based on this cardinal principle and people in other parts of the world are blindly imitating it. If the trend is not arrested and a suitable alternative to it provided, Gandhi believed, the result would be disastrous. For instance, the modern western economic development is flourishing on the extravagant utilization of the non-renewable resources i.e., coal, oil and metal. So long it was confined to a few western countries, it did not create that much of problem. But when the whole world is involved in this never ending venture, this will play havoc with nature. Nature is a sine qua non of existence and if man interferes with it beyond a point, he will be doing it at the cost of his own existence. Perfect and meaningful existence is possible only in harmony and conformity with nature.
Gandhi fully understood the primordially of man-nature relationship and his theory and philosophy of life, society and politics are in consonance with it. it is this understanding of, and, reverence for, the salience and senility of nature for human existence which makes him an environmentalist par excellence. He is not an environmentalist who will analyses the causes and consequences of depletion in the ozone layer. He is not competent to recommend measures against environmental pollutions and safeguards against all kinds of environmental hazards. He belongs to the school which believes in remedy rather than cure. In Plato's ideal state, there was no place for doctors, for, he advocated the practice of a life style in which nobody would fall ill. Gandhi also subscribed to this line of thinking. He is propounder of a kind of life, culture and society which will never lead to environmental problems.
The universe is based on certain principles and governed by inexonerable laws of the Creator. Man has the potentiality to unfold them. However, undue interference in the system is replete with dangerous consequence. Every created thing has specific meaning and purpose and therefore its autonomy is to be respected and safeguarded. Interactions among created things and their mutual give and take sustain the universe system. Gandhi believed in this universal co-existence and subscribed to the principle of reverence for all lives. His nonviolence in this way is universal law of life and it manifests in love for all creatures. This is the basic principle of life and no human endeavor, individual or collective, social, economic or political, should be in conflict with it according to Gandhi.
This is precisely the reason of his condemnation and rejection of modern western and socio-economic and political systems. Gandhi highlights the ills of industrialization which is the base of modern civilization. Industrialization leads to centralization of economic power, it flourishes on exploitation of both man and nature and has now become the greatest source of pollution. It is leads to urbanization which makes life miserable according to Gandhi. He was highly critical of the growth of big cities like Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and Delhi in India. As our present day experience shows, mega polls and metro polls are the real pollution centre of the world . Gandhi had visualized this and as early as in 1910 gave a graphic description of the consequences of madness for urbanization in the following words:
Nature works unceasingly according to her own laws, but man violates them constantly. In different ways and at different times, Nature tells man that there is nothing in the world which is not subject to change... And yet extraordinary occurrence startles us and sets us thinking. There has been one such in Paris. This river in Paris rose in such a heavy flood that huge buildings were washed off. A picture gathering was in imminent danger. Strongly built roads, on which millions of pound has been spent sagged at places. Men were drowned. Some who escaped drowning were buried alive. Rats, deprived of their food, attacked children. How did this happen? The people of Paris had built the city to last for ever. Nature has given a warning that even whole of Paris may be destroyed. It certainly would have been had the floods subsided a day later.1
Frequent occurrences of devastating flood, and dreadful earthquakes in recent times are consequences of our craze for development and its damaging impact on nature. Nations are mad after acquiring economic, military and political power in cutthroat compellation against each other. Very few states have at present nuclear power and keeping in view the destructive potentiality of the nuclear weapons, every nation is speaking against them. Nevertheless, those who do not have these weapons, do not really cease to aspire for acquiring them. Some of them indeed have been making clandestine efforts even at the neglect of their basic duties and necessities to become nuclear powers. Recent nuclear tests by India and Pakistan are glaring examples. The nuclear-haves, on the other hand, are vociferously advocating for disarmament, but in actual practice, are the are not prepared to do anything to destroy or curtail their weapons. That the production and testing of these weapons are awfully detrimental o environment and their use is fatal to both man and nature are not secret to anybody. yet nations are not desisting from resorting to suicidal exercise. When atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima Gandhi had mankind to follow the path free from this danger in future. To quote him:
"When I heard that the atom bomb had wiped out Hiroshima, I said to myself, 'the word adopts nonviolence, it will spell certain suicide, for mankind.2
Having thus clearly visualized the dangerous direction in which the modernity was pushing the world, Gandhi had worked out a worthwhile alternative for man's peaceful, purposeful and happy existence. In his nonviolent systems and life -style, weapons of annihilations, which are produced at considerable cost of natural and human resource become redundant
Gandhi is a passionate champion of a life pattern based on three cardinal principles; Simplicity. Slowness and Smallness. Modernity makes life complex by multiplying its day -to day needs. In fact this kind of complexity is ingrained in it. A complex life can hardly be peaceful and happy ultimately. On the contrary, tension and frustration are its attendant characteristics. A simple life is one which requires only bare necessities of life. It is a life of contentment, a pleasure some experiment in austerity. The ancient Greek ideals of life of contemplation and meditation could be realized through the Gandhian path. It is not something new for India. It has been the set pattern of life of our sages and also, to a large extent, that of the common folk in rural areas. Such a life is bound to be slow and smooth, free from tension and din and bustle of the city life. Modernity makes life very fast. Just imagine, mankind today has the fastest modes of travel. Life is equipped with all kinds of time -saving devices. And yet, paradoxically, everybody is always short of time.
Finally Gandhi believed that a good life can be lived only in a small community. To him, big cities were centres of corruption and all kind of vices. Therefore, he remained an ardent advocate of the village life throughout. He repeatedly said that India lived in her villages. What he tried to underline was that the soul of India lived there; that the village life is the ideal life and that India should live in the villages. In fact, this is his universal prescription for a good life. It is a life of peace and tranquility, a life of innate simplicity and a life in close proximity with nature. Such a life is also prone to the ethical.
From scientific point of view too. this kind of life alone can be based on renewable resources. The pastoral and agricultural predominance in the pattern of life is conducive to the preservation of environment. An eminent Gandhian has thus highlighted this:
A civilization built on renewable resources, such as the products of forestry and agriculture, is by this fact alone superior to one built of non-renewable resources, such as oil, coal etc. That is because the former can last, while the latter can not last. The former co-operates with Nature, while the latter roles Nature . The former bears the sign of life, while the latter bears the sign of death. It is already certain beyond any possibility of doubt that the "OIL-COAL-METAL-ECONOMICS" cannot be anything else but a short abnormally in the history of mankind-because they are based on non renewable resources and because, being purely materialist, they recognize no limits. The frantic development of atomic energy shows that they know their rate and are now trying, through the application or ever-increasing violence against nature, to escape it. Atomic energy for' peaceful purpose' on a scale calculated to replace coal and oil, is a prospect even more appalling than the atomic or Hydrogen bomb. For here unregenerate man is entering a territory which to all those who have eyes to see, bears the warning sign 'keep out'.3
The real importance of Gandhi as an environmentalist lies not in his vision and his right understanding of man-nature relationship. He made honest efforts to translate his percepts in actual life. Even before he became an internationally known leader and a Mahatma, he patterned his person life and that of a small community on these ideals. His Phoenix and Tolstoy Farms in South Africa testify to it. Subsequently, in India too he established Ashrams on that pattern. He did euologise the village life but he was pained to see the poverty, Illiteracy and unsanitary conditions in Indian Villages. Therefore, throughout his life he kept on telling people and giving demonstration on health, hygiene and sanitation. Hardly any political leader of his stature in the world had ever devoted so much of time and energy on these problems with so much sincerity and dedication. Environmentalist of today give scholarlys lectures and write research papers and books on the subject. There are also activist environmentalists no doubt. But we an easily discern in them the motives to be prominent and cash it for political purposes. Gandhi tried to carry the message to the mass through the life he himself led. This is what made him an environmentalist with a difference.

  1. See Gandhi Marg (New Delhi), October 1988,pp.34-35
  2. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.88,p.37
  3. E. F. Schumacher, Roots of Economic Growth ( Varanasi, 1997), p. 7

Professor Shreekrishna Jha is the Director of the Gandhian Institute of Studies, Rajghat, Varanasi9