ARTICLES : Gandhian view on Trusteeship

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

Gandhi's Concept of Trusteeship

C. S. Dharmadhikari*

Today the word ‘management’ has acquired a magical implication. Presently, the wind of globalization is blowing at a high speed. Hence, new dimensions are being added to the concept of management almost on a daily basis. This is the age of experts and specialists. Consequently, in the field of management, technological innovation is giving a new momentum to an efficient and dexterous functioning. Thus, like in many other fields, different departments and sub-departments are being founded endlessly. Financial marketing, human resource management, and similar other areas are emerging as its important branches. Not only that, even the idea of micro-specialisation and super specialisation is fast emerging in the arena of management studies. The following story very well illustrates how a mad race for specialisation is breaking the holistic view of knowledge into bits and pieces. A traveller approached a man, who happened to be a historian, and enquired about the road leading to the railway station. The historian suggested to the traveller that he should ask a geographer as geography was not his area of specialisation. More important example one could find in the report of a School Inspector who wrote: ‘I saw a fraction of a teacher teaching a fraction of a subject, to a fraction of students in a fraction of time.’ All that it meant was that there was nothing in totality – no holistic approach to anything or subject. There is another story illustrating the same theme. A teacher asked his students to identify the living being in the following story. There were four men walking in the Queen’s garden. They came across a living being there. On closer examination, they described it in four different ways. One of them found it like a pillar, the other as a wall, third one as sieve and the fourth one as a rope. Who were these people? The teacher asked the students. One of the students who had studied Aesop’s Fables replied that all the four were blind. A still smarter boy stood up and said to the teacher: ‘No sir, they were experts and specialists.’ Hence they could see only that part of the elephant they had specialised. None of them could see the elephant in its entirety. Similar development is taking place in the area of industrial management and even in the cultural and educational field. Thus, intensive knowledge in a narrow field is becoming the order of the day. One result of such development is that the end user (the common man), is hardly associated with the entire process. He is missing from the entire decision making process; though everything is being planned and done in his name and for his consumption. In sharp contrast to these specialists and experts, Mahatma Gandhi was a votary of the common man. He was also a man of strong common sense. Today management has become an integral part of our social reconstruction. It is a new discipline which is being taught by innumerable institutions. It is fast gaining ground in the industrial and commercial establishment. Hence a number of institutions are running both long-term and short-term courses. Management studies have three important segments – management of industrial and commercial establishment, the training of the managers and the training of the employees and the workers.
The drive for the conquest of nature in all fields has radically changed the entire mindset of man. Hence, fast changes are taking place in the area of management as well. Now management study is reduced to two prominent areas: management of material and the management of men. The earlier understanding about the management of men was that man is essentially lazy and a work shirker. Behind that understanding was the feeling that man is more concerned with his rights rather than his duties. Hence he could work only when guided by the principle of reward and punishment.
Gandhi rejected such a perspective on man and his nature in his scheme of things. He had greater faith in self-regulations than all the external controls put together. Besides, he was also a great votary of cultural and spiritual tradition and its major ethics. He accepted and promoted one of the major spiritual values of Indian tradition: Man is not a fallen being as he has not committed any ‘original sin.’ Rather he carries a speck of divinity in his persona. Hence certain godly tendencies are very much inherent in his personality. It is on account of self-forgetfulness that certain ungodly tendencies get attached to his thought and action. Hence, one has to get rid of the veil of avidya to know and feel his true self. Once that is achieved, he comes into his true form. It was such a perspective which made Gandhi a trusting person. He always believed in the basic goodness of man and his capacity to move towards perfection by overcoming some of his apparent weaknesses. To that end, he presented his ekadash vrata to be imbibed and followed. It was from such a perspective that he looked at the entire question of management of men and material in our times. He did not believe in reward and punishment being the basic principle behind human action, as it is based on the heart-wrenching feeling of fear and greed.
His entire thinking about management was based on love, trust and human goodness. He asserted that the entire human behaviour should be based on mutual love and trust. It was such a view of man and his world which was the underlying idea behind his concept of trusteeship. He strongly pleaded that voluntary decision based on self-inspiration could be used to inspire man to forsake his self-interests. That would also prompt him to work as a trustee on behalf of the society for all that he possesses in terms of material, skill and talent. He further avers that if such a perspective is introduced and accepted in the realm of human affairs, then the entire present thinking about management would have to undergo a radical change. He always emphasised the fact that both propertied classes and the workers should consider themselves as trustees for their property and labour respectively. We know that in the present system, workers sell their labour and the rich buy it from the market. Thus the rich hardly engage themselves in any kind of physical labour, whereas the workers have to constantly engage themselves in physical labour. The ideal situation would be one in which the workers have their leisure time and the owners of the means of production also engage themselves in some kind of physical labour. Then alone the dignity of labour would be established in the society. Today the entire situation is so queer that workers want maximum price for their labour while doing the minimum work and the owners want to pay the minimum wages and take the maximum work. Thus, if one is kamchor (labour-thief) and the other is dhanchor (money-thief). Thus both are thief in their own way as both of them suffer from the same capitalist mentality. In other words, both groups try to extract maximum advantages from their assets, though each of them has taken them from the society itself. The tragedy is that with such mindset they could never come closer to each other.
Hence, a new idea has come in the field of management, that is, the workers should have shares both in the process of production as well as distribution. Even some of the State laws give such rights to the workers.
It was with such a perspective that the Supreme Court in the National Textile Workers Union vs. P.R. Ramakrishnan and others (AIR 1983 S.C. 75) had made a ringing observation that in a Company apart from the shareholders, the interests of the workers are also involved in the entire process. This is premised on the fact that the products of the company are the result of the capital investment by the owners and the labour investment by the workers. In fact, in a way the contribution of the workers in the entire process could even be taken as being more substantive than the capitalist who invests his capital in any concern. This is so because the capitalist might invest a part of his capital in one concern, whereas the worker puts in all his efforts in the process. That is the reason why the working class is given so much importance in the socialist system. After making such ardent observation, the Court supported them by making references to the various Articles of our Constitution. However, it is to be noted that if the capitalist system is kept intact, even the workers are also governed by the same capitalist mindset. The real question arises whether worker’s mere participation in the process of management and as such their contribution in the entire process, could or could not be considered as being socially useful or is it nothing more than a compromise with the capitalist system of production? Our actual experience in the field is that those labour leaders who are taken in the management boards as the representatives of the working class hardly represent the interests of workers, or buyers or end consumers or even those of the society. They just end up becoming a part of management; keep enjoying perks, privileges and all kinds of amenities, even at the cost of all the above groups including the workers.
There is another problem with the present system of the capitalist production. The owners and the workers have full control over their concern. Owners make profit; shareholders get their dividends and the workers their bonus. But the buyers hardly get anything. They may end up by getting some gifts which is not even a pittance. Strangely enough, even when the profit is of huge proportion, one never hears about any discussion on price reduction of such products. What is more, the so-called capital invested by the owners does not actually belong to them. It comes from banks, insurance and other companies or from the common man. That is why Vinoba made a pithy observation when he said that in our country a capitalist is considered to be one who had the least capital of his own. Thus in the present capitalist system, the owners and at times even the workers rule the roost at the cost of the buyers and end consumers. Gandhi suggested a way out of such a tricky situation. He proposed that both the capitalists and the workers should consider themselves as the trustees on behalf of the society in the entire process of production and distribution. In this age of modernity, the central role of human beings is missing from humanism. So the greater emphasis is being laid on horse power rather than man power. There is even an attempt to build up a super structure of equality and equity on the basis of industrialism. We often forget that in a relationship of love and interdependence, there is two way traffic of receiving and giving.
But modernity teaches us only to grab and not to give. Even all technological innovations encourage us to move towards a state of self-indulgence rather than self-renunciation. Man, though the creator of all technologies, is becoming their slave rather than remaining the master. As such, his entire world view is based on selfishness. In the process, he is becoming lonely and isolated.
Sometimes, we think that the accumulated and aggregated interests of all individuals would result in the sum total of societal interests. This is a false premise. This would result in a situation of free for all – an anarchical situation. We often fail to understand that there is a lot of difference between working for our rights and pursuing all kinds of things of comforts and convenience for us. Pursuit of rights brings responsibility in its trail. The basic malady of modern man is the absence of love, faith and idealism from his life and thought process. This malady could not be got rid of by iron discipline or technological efficiency. In fact, that requires unstinted empathy and feeling of unbreakable friendship. But the modern man has lost his sense of proportion and even equanimity. His capacity for technological and scientific innovations has added to his egotism. He is behaving like a creator rather than remaining a creature. It is time to remind ourselves that the heart of Indian tradition lies in the true feelings of the unity of all beings, inter- dependence in the entire cosmic order and a sharing and cooperative mindset. To that end the scientific mind would have to be injected with a dose of spirituality, love and compassion. Then alone science would provide life-blood to humanity. And in the entire process, man and the interests of his higher self would be a measure of everything. All this cannot be achieved by removing man from his central position.


It is in the above context that the idea of trusteeship as propounded by Gandhi would have to be explained and evaluated. It has been one of the core beliefs of our tradition that everything in the cosmos belongs to God and thereby to all, and not to any individual. Once this basic premise is accepted, then man would remain nothing but a trustee. He would never consider himself as the sole owner of anything. Based on such basic understanding Gandhi gave a new orientation to the much age old concept of trusteeship. He wrote:
‘Everything belonged to God and was from God. Therefore it was for His people as a whole, not for a particular individual. When an individual had more than his proportionate portion he became a trustee of that portion for God’s people. God who was all-powerful had no need to store. He created from day to day; hence men also should in theory live from day to day and not stock things. If this truth was imbibed by the people generally, it would become legalized and trusteeship would become a legalized institution.’1 Every member of the society would have to utilise his mental, moral, physical and material resources for the common interest and welfare of the society and not for his self-interest. The real test of a well-organised society is not the number of rich people it has in its midst, but to what extent it is free from starvation and malnutrition. Gandhi averred that the rich and the powerful might utilise their skill and talent to make millions, but even their self-earned wealth should be utilised in the common interests of the society. He was aware of the fact that quite often vast wealth could be made only through unfair means. But as someone who also has faith in the goodness of man, he did not totally rule out the possibility of wealth creation through fair means. Such a possibility becomes still more greater if one is conscious of the fact that his wealth ultimately could not be used for his personal or family interests. His critics believe that Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship is too good to be true and implemented in its real spirit. But if the society constantly harps on it and also takes practical steps for its implementation, then the life on earth could be free from exploitation and domination and even from conflict situations. In such a case, the social order could be based on cooperation, co-existence and mutual love and respect. True, like Euclid’s principle of geometry, the idea of trusteeship might be taken as indefinable, unachievable and as an ever elusive concept. But if we persist and persevere, some day we might succeed in building up a society based on the very concept of trusteeship.
As a practical visionary, Gandhi was aware that in the beginning people find it difficult to implement even a good and useful idea. Hence in the beginning, a number of people full of faith and idealism might opt for it. But human history is witness to the fact that in the subsequent period, there might be many takers of an idea which appears difficult to follow in the beginning. Besides, Gandhi has great faith in the goodness and perfectibility of man. He favoured the idea that the society should be built on need and not on greed, as there is no limit to greed, but there is a limit to our need. He wanted the society to be built up on the basic principle that each one of us should work according to his capacity and should receive things according to his needs. This is a principle derived from the working of a family and Gandhi wanted it to be applied on the whole society. Explaining the concept of equality he said:

“Economic equality of my conception does not mean that everyone will literally have the same amount. It simply means that everybody should have enough for his or her needs. ... The real meaning of economic equality is “To each according to his need.” That is the definition of Marx. If a single man demands as much as a man with wife and four children that will be a violation of economic equality. Let no one try to justify the glaring difference between the classes and the masses, the prince and the pauper, by saying that the former needs more. That will be idle sophistry and a travesty of my argument. Everyone must have a balanced diet, a decent house to live in, facilities for the education of one’s children and adequate medical relief....”2

Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship could be considered in a holistic way. Once the idea of trusteeship grips the society, then the whole idea of philanthropy and gifts would disappear from the society. A trustee would never entertain the feeling that he has given away something of his own, as he would never have the feeling of exclusive ownership of his property. He would never take himself to be more than a trustee.
A draft practical trusteeship formula was prepared by Gandhi’s co-workers, Narhari Parikh and Kishorelal Mashruwala and it was fine-tuned by M.L. Dantwala. On Gandhi’s release from Aga Khan Palace Detention Camp it was placed before him and he made a few changes in it. The final draft read as follows:

  1. ‘Trusteeship provides a means of transforming the present capitalist order of society into an egalitarian one. It gives no quarter to capitalism, but gives the present owning class a chance of reforming itself. It is based on the faith that human nature is never beyond redemption.
  2. It does not recognize any right of private ownership of property except so far as it may be permitted by society for its own welfare.
  3. It does not exclude legislative regulation of the ownership and use of wealth.
  4. Thus under state-regulated trusteeship, an individual will not be free to hold or use his wealth for selfish satisfaction or in disregard of the interests of society,
  5. Just as it is proposed to fix a decent minimum living wage, even so a limit should be fixed for the maximum income that would be allowed to any person in society. The difference between such minimum and maximum incomes should be reasonable and equitable and variable from time to time so much so that the tendency would be towards obliteration of the difference.
  6. Under the Gandhian economic order the character of production will be determined by social necessity and not by personal whim or greed.’3

I am firmly of the opinion that the idea of trusteeship should be included in the syllabi of management studies. Kishorelal Mashruwala, an interpreter of Gandhian ideas and thinker in his own right, had said:

‘The theory of trusteeship makes no distinction between private and non-private property. All property is held in trust, no matter who possesses it, and what its nature or quantity is. Indeed, the theory of trusteeship applies not only to tangible and transferable property, but also to places of power and position and to intangible and non-transferable property such as the muscular energy of a labourer and the talents of a Helen Keller.
Even a cripple in an asylum for invalids is a trustee to the extent he is able to exercise his will. Every human being not mentally deranged is only a trustee of all that is within his control.”4

Today there is a big gap between the rich and the poor in the society, leading to a situation of cleavage and conflict. This question relating to an egalitarian order was raised during the freedom struggle as well. There was an inherent conflict between the interests of the princes, zamindars and the big businessmen on the one hand and the common man on the other. Unfortunately, in our country money is being used not just to buy goods but also human beings. Earlier there was a demand for the abolition of the institution of private property and expropriation of these properties without any compensation. Such demands were raised from several quarters, but Gandhi always stood for the change of heart. He was firmly of the opinion that the rich and the powerful should voluntarily surrender their wealth for the welfare of people as a matter of their duty. And everyone participating in the process of production should be given his due share. In other words, payment should be made on the basis of their needs and not on the basis of their share in the production processes. This could result in the promotion of the idea of shared societal life. He wanted an exploitation free production and distribution system which would promote an environment of mutuality, co- operation and brotherhood.
Fortunately, these ideas in their own ways are being integrated in the modern system of management. At least among the well-established corporate houses, there is a new tendency of not to go in for profiteering, by using all kinds of fair or foul means. Among the intelligent managers such change is discernible today. There is also a tendency to take the management of the concerns beyond the purview of the family members and other relations.
The idea of collective management, beyond the family inheritance, is gaining ground. Managerial responsibility is getting divided instead of remaining concentrated in one hand. Thus there is a trend towards the decline of selfishness in the affairs of management. Now greater emphasis is being laid on the dignity of labour, human relationship and the larger societal interests. Thus a new breed of managers is developing more humane approach. Even employees are getting better opportunities for the participation in the management. Now along with the cost of production, due consideration is being given to the idea of social cost. Even motivation behind the work along with research and development is being given due consideration. True, these tendencies are more pronounced in the western countries. It is a matter of regret that we in India are moving at a slow pace in these directions. It is a matter of even greater regret that a number of people have failed to grasp the finer nuances of Gandhi’s concept of trusteeship, which could have encompassed some of these new challenges in the field of management.
In modern times, the State is taken to be as the final arbiter and repository of all human concerns and affairs, so much so that if any property is not under any individual ownership, it must go to the State. The word used for such power is ‘vest’ which means that the State would not behave in respect of that property as the original owner might have behaved. Rather it would work as its trustee on behalf of the entire society. It would be virtually under popular ownership and the State would use its proceeds for the welfare of the general masses. The people in the Establishment could not use it to promote their own personal interests. In legal parlance, this is called the Public Trust Doctrine.
This public trust doctrine in our country, it would appear, has grown from Article 21 of the Constitution. According to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, every citizen has the right to life and liberty. Such a right does not mean just vegetative existence or survival, but to live with dignity. This has been further explained by the Supreme Court in a number of judgments. This right to life includes the right to health, clean environment that is needed by a human being to lead a life of dignity. This right to life is also applicable to the right to participate both in the ownership and management of the industries. Thus it could be safely concluded that Gandhi’s trusteeship has also a base in our Constitution as it has close linkage with the right to lead a life of dignity. It is widely believed that profit-making has always been the driving force behind trade, commerce and industry. It is further argued that if there is no scope for profit-making, then why should a man engage himself in all these activities? There might be a grain of truth in such a line of argument, but this is not the whole truth. For, there might be equal if not more potent reason for such engagements. In this connection, Vinoba Bhave raised a fundamental question: Did Jnaneshwar Maharaj write Jnaneshwari to make money or to get something like a Nobel Prize? This is true of most of the saints, sages and even prominent writers and poets. In fact, it is moral and spiritual inspiration which has been behind most of the great works in the world. Social welfare, commonweal, patriotism and human concerns have often inspired people to undertake death-defying tasks. All of them could be put in the single category of moral and spiritual inspiration. Can anyone take the position that such inspirations have ceased to exist? This is the basic question we must ask. Gandhi was gripped by such moral and spiritual inspiration and it was the same inspiration which lay behind his idea of trusteeship. If such inspiration also grips the industrial sector, that alone would humanise its working. In Western countries such ideas are gripping the minds of the leaders of industries. Unfortunately, such a mindset on the part of the Indian corporate world is far from reality. Here, the concept of the corporate social responsibility is only confined to making some donation/gifts or to extend some financial help to some social institutions. Here again, it is mostly a part of strategy for tax planning. Gift/donation is the greatest saviour of capitalism. Whatever may be the source of money making, some donations to social institutions absolve the donor of all his sins. He also earns a lot of punya and even gets a lot of social recognition and prestige. We often forget that the recipient of such donation is considered to be a helpless and hapless man. Hence, alms giving and gift/ donations should never be taken as a means to meet the social responsibility of the rich and the powerful. It should come out of a deep feeling of sharing and cooperation. In the same way, it is also a moot question in our country, to what extent our private sector is truly private and our public sector is truly public?
Even the institutions of private sector, including banks and insurance companies, are run on the basis of public funding. Mostly, they remain as profit-making institutions run under the private ownership. If they start making losses, the government or the public institutions could take over them. Once the financial problems are over, they once again return to the private sector.
Thus the general policy is to nationalise the sick and loss-making institutions and let profit-making institutions remain in private hands. Now multi-national companies have also joined the rank. Their only concern is money-making without caring for the use of the purity of means or otherwise. They are rarely concerned with the interest of the country they are operating in. Profiteering is their sole consideration and exploitation their common norm. Non-Resident Indians (NRI) are given greater respect than the Indian businessman. In fact, they could be very well described as Non-Reliable Indians or Non-Required Indians. Another category of Resident Non-Indians (RNI) has also emerged in our country. Physically, they live in India but, temperamentally they are of alien culture. Their Indianness or swadeshi remain only as a matter of their entertainment. They produce good quality goods for export and goods of inferior quality for local consumption. That is their normal policy. To some extent, our working class is responsible for such distortions. Even the demand for the nationalisation of sick industries is also a dishonest policy, as they are mostly done to retain the services of the employees working there and not actually improving their financial health. Our public sector has also become a pastureland for our bureaucrats and administrators. They are hardly concerned about the financial health of these concerns. They are mostly concerned about their perks and privileges. The policy of depreciation becomes the dominant feature of public sector undertakings. Consequently, their basic vitality is sucked away, and they are left without life and energy.
In our country, the industrial culture has not taken deep roots. Hence, corruption has assumed a pandemic form. There is a heavy dose of bureaucratisation in every industry and providing jobs has become the primary goal of the public sector undertakings. One could very well imagine why Gandhi laid such emphasis on the purity of means. Today such emphasis and his advocacy of the close relations between the ends and the means appear to be of seminal importance. In this context it is relevant to quote what one commentator said about Jawaharlal Nehru’s opinion on this point: ‘Shri Nehru refused to believe that there was much difference between the public and private sectors and stated that it was ultimately the public sector which meant the well-being of the people and the country. Today it was not the capital alone but also the intelligence and labour that counted among the productive potentialities. He also deprecated any class-conflict as well as any controversy over respective interests. All would have to work for the ultimate good of the people.’ In the above context, Gandhi’s concept of the oceanic circle appears to be of crucial importance today. Unless, there is a firm commitment towards societal welfare from all sides, it would be difficult to introduce discipline in every walk of our national life and a policy of fair pricing of the goods along with maintaining their high quality. Besides, the race of advertisements for promoting poor quality goods is not going to subside. Presently goods and commodities are being produced for the market. As such maximisation of profit remains the primary motivation. In sharp contrast to the above perspective, Gandhi’s trusteeship was based on brotherhood of men marked by co- sharing and cooperation. Here production was meant for the consumption of all the members of the society and not only for marketing and profiteering. According to trusteeship, all this is not just an economic issue. What should be the primary motive behind human labour? Does one work simply for promoting his financial interests? Or could man work for sharing and contributing his labour towards societal commonweal? Could man find another motivating force for labouring beyond his self- interests? These are the seminal questions for serious consideration. Gandhi’s trusteeship was based on such alternative motivation for human labour. Production being a cooperative venture, every member must contribute his/her might to that end. Once such realisation dawns on human beings, inspiration and motivation based on self-interests is automatically done away with. Thus it could be safely said that Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship is based on the culture of sacrifice and concern for others. Can we ever say that such feeling and mindset would never become an integral part of our dominant social culture? Is it possible to think that one could never sacrifice his own interests for the sake of others? Is it not possible to base our new economic thinking on the concerns for others, unlike the old economic thinking which was based on profiteering and selfishness? Could not it become a bounden social duty? Could one rule out all such possibilities forever? Our answers could be an emphatic. ‘No.’ In this connection it is relevant to recall what Gandhi had told H.G. Wells on the “Rights of Man” prepared by him: ‘Begin with a charter of Duties of Man (both M and D capitals) and I promise the rights will follow as spring follows winter.’5 Hence, let there be no cut- throat competition or competitors in the economic life of the society. Even if the feeling of competition is retained, let it be inspired by duties and not by consideration of rights. Our difficulty is that such high ideals and moral principles are often not to our liking. They also appear impractical to us.
Gandhi underlined all kinds of high social values not only human and spiritual values. Could any society ever have sustained existence in absence of such values? If not, how could we say that they are too impractical to be practiced?
We Indians have not accepted the whole lot of Gandhian ideas so far. He has pointed a way for human and societal salvation. Some day we have to make a vital decision. Why not to walk on the path shown by Gandhi. Even a section of the western society has underlined the centrality of his ideas – their practical use for the present time. Today people of the world have moved closer to each other on account of fast means of transportation and communication. Whether such closeness would bring love or conflict is the moot question. It is the time to give a fresh look at the Gandhian ideas and ideals with open eyes and with an open mind. That his ideas are not outdated is being demonstrated by a number of developments from all over the world. Let us also contribute our might in that direction. That is my ardent wish and prayer.

* C.S. Dharmadhikari is Freedom fighter and retired Judge of High Court of Mumbai. He is currently Chairman of Institute of Gandhian Studies, Wardha and Gandhi Research Foundation, Jalgaon, MS, India. E-mail:

  1. Harijan, 23-2-1947, p. 39.
  2. R. K. Prabhu, U. R. Rao (Eds.), The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1996), p.267.
  3. M. K. Gandhi, Trusteeship, (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1998), pp.39-40.
  4. K. G. Mashruwala, Gandhi and Marx, (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1998), pp.79-80.
  5. The Hindustan Times, 16-4-1940.