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Significance Of Insignificant Thoughts

The idea of Economy held by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 2, 1869 – January 30, 1948) – it may be said – deviated significantly from the mainstream ideas. Those, who are aware of this, have never felt the need to give it much importance, of course for a valid reason. However, J C Kumarappa (January 4, 1892 – January 30, 1960), who had studied at Syracuse and Columbia Universities, and German-British Statistician and Economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (August 16, 1911 – September 4, 1977) are considered to be exceptions to that! In fact, the Indian lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist and political ethicist, himself, was well aware of this fact…

While delivering a speech at an event organised by the Muir Central College Economic Society in Allahabad in 1916, Mahatma Gandhi was heard mentioning: “Frankly and truly, I know very little of Economics, as you naturally understand them. Only the other day, sitting at an evening meal, a civilian friend deluged me with a series of questions on my crankisms. As he proceeded in his cross-examination, I being a willing victim, he found no difficulty in discovering my gross ignorance of the matter. I appeared to him to be handling with a cock-sureness worthy only of a man who knows not that he knows not. To his horror and even indignation, I suppose, he found that I had not even read books on economics by such well-known authorities, as Mill, Marshall, Adam Smith and a host of such other authors. In despair, he ended by advising me to read these works before experimenting in matters economic at the expense of the public. He little knew that I was a sinner past redemption.” He had further said: “My experiments continue at the expense of trusting friends. For, there come to us moments in life when about some things we need no proof from without. A little voice within us tells us, ‘You are on the right track, move neither to your left nor right, but keep to the straight and narrow way.’ With such help we march forward slowly indeed, but surely and steadily. That is my position.

M K Gandhi

A person who could make fun of his own ignorance knew it for sure that there was not much of a harm even if his so-called ignorance was a proven one… Because, he did not think that it was necessary to acquire the knowledge that was being singled out here. This was Gandhi’s attitude towards the mainstream Western Economics. Perhaps, that is why his Economic Thought has been discussed much lesser than his Socio-Political Philosophy. The West had mostly criticised him, as his Social Philosophy vehemently opposed the concept of Western Civilisation. The Thinkers of the Occident have mostly used Gandhi to justify their own respective locus standi.

Hind Swaraj’ or ‘Indian Home Rule’ – a book written by Gandhi in 1909 in which he expressed his views on Swaraj, modern civilisation, mechanisation, among other terms, is his most discussed work. He followed the Polemic style, as he penned the book in a form of conversation between an editor and a fictional reader. As per the Western concept of Philosophy, the advancement of technology, the materialistic comforts and the equipment required to win wars, in a nutshell, form the basics of civilisation. Gandhi, in his treatise, rejected this so-called Western concept of civilisation, completely. He had even opposed the expansion of railways, the construction of modern hospitals or publications of newspapers. It is to be noted that Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, too, had a similar apathy towards Railways, initially!

Such a revolutionary approach helped Gandhi attract unprecedented attention. At the same time, his view on Economics probably rendered him unimportant. It has been assumed that Gandhi’s vision of understanding the Modern Economy and moving it forward was completely useless. Although Gandhi accepted the big industries, railways, and modern hospitals later; he used to consider them as Essential Hazards of human civilisation! That was why he used to maintain a distance with some nationalist personalities, like Mahadev Govind and Dadabhai Nowrozi, who had written scholarly articles on Economics. The economic model to boost heavy industries, adopted by the first Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, differed significantly from Gandhi’s Economic Thought Process.

Gandhi had made multiple arguments against the Industrialisation. Pointing to the hardships endured by the Working Class in post-industrial Britain and Europe, he had stated that the machines were evil and harmful. He went on to mention that in a country, like India, where existed surplus labour in abundance, the usage of machines would trigger unemployment. His first argument was not entirely valid. The miserable condition of the Working Class came into being due to the system of production that allows the owners of the means of production to increase their profits by employing the workers at minimum wages. Hence, there was no reason to blame the machine entirely… the focus should have been on the nature of the production system. Ideally, the owners of the means of production should be distributing the surplus value equally among the workers…

Even, Dr B R Ambedkar – one of the authors of the Indian Constitution – had criticised Gandhi, stating that “modern machinery enables humans to have leisure. And leisure, in turn, is the primary precondition for culture and civilisation to thrive, which make human life worthy of its existence“. Moreover, he said that the Gandhian idea of trusteeship was aimed at eliminating the Class Struggle, as far as the relationship between the landlords and tenants was concerned. However, both Gandhi and Ambedkar – a trained economist – did not mention in their writings whether they believed that the rich would protect the interests of the poor!

Gandhi’s second argument was that the unemployment was an outcome of usage of machines. This one, definitely, was somewhat logical! In a densely populated country where there lay a severe shortage of capital, as well as a surplus of labour, a Labour-Intensive technology could aid in the growth of the economy… Meanwhile, a section of the Economists is of the opinion that as the machines increase the productivity, as well as the profit; the owners invest a part of that profit. As a result, the investments create new job opportunities, thus, tackling the problem of unemployment. On the other hand, in the contemporary world, the introduction of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics has triggered the same problem (read unemployment).

Thus, a logic could be traced in Gandhi’s stance against the machines. Although his expression had been quite different from that of the traditional Western Economists, some made an attempt to explain his ideas about Economics. Among them, Ernst Friedrich Schumacher had been a famous one. Schumacher left Germany for Britain in the 1930’s, and had served as an Economic Adviser of the British Government in the 1940’s and ’50s. After visiting Myanmar (then Burma) in 1955, he realised that there existed a lot of discrepancies in the Development Policies adopted by the Developing Nations. He also had the realisation that the Capital-Intensive Technologies were not much suited for them. Schumacher advised the developing nations to adopt different types of Intermediate Technology that should be Labour-Intensive, small in size and should require less investment. His publication, ‘Small is Beautiful’ (1973), became a bestseller. Later, Schumacher admitted that the ideas borne and expressed by Gandhi and J C Kumarappa had inspired him to pen the book. Kumarappa, an ardent follower of Gandhi, had tried to analyse Gandhi’s concept of Economy, and had also criticised the Nehruvian Model of Economic Development.

Ernst Friedrich Schumacher

Gandhi, seemingly, refused to accept the ideas of production and consumption as described in Classical Western Economics. He used to believe that economic progress and real progress were different. According to Gandhi, economic progress would stand for material progress, while real progress would enable the human beings to lead a just life. He was of the opinion that people should live simple lives, and should not be influenced by the consumerism.

Now, the Post-Modern Thinkers talk about the concept of transition from Development to Modernity! They accuse the consumerism of destroying the environment. These thinkers appreciate Gandhi’s views on consumerism. In the Post-Colonial Developing World, the Policy-makers had described Gandhi’s economic ideas as ‘unrealistic idealism’! However, in this difficult time of Capitalism, Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of Economy has become far more significant.

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