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Newsletter Issue 29 : May 1, 2010 - May 31, 2010

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Mahatma Gandhi - An Environmentalist With A Difference

excerpts from article 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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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