Gandhiji’s name in the context of economy evokes images of poverty and deprivation among many. His minimal dress resembling that of a half-clad faqir, his personal austerity, his emphasis on charkha and khadi as drivers of economy, his insistence on swadeshi or self-reliance, his disdain for modern machinery and the large cities that grow around them, his dislike for the privileged elites and the modern professionals that inhabit those cities—all these make many believe that he propagated an economy of want and scarcity.
My colleague, M D Srinivas, and I have recently authored a book on Gandhiji titled, “Making of a Hindu Patriot”. This gave us an opportunity to undertake an intense study of the formative period of nearly three decades that he spent abroad, mainly in South Africa, before his return to India in early 1915. By that time, he had already been recognised and publicly hailed as the Deshbhakt Mahatma by the Hindus of South Africa.
In going through this journey of his,from a callow and somewhat diffident young man to the mature Mahatma committed to the service of his country and her people and civilisation, we have seen him slowly mastering the discipline of aparigraha, of minimising wants and possessions and teaching these to his army of satyagrahis. Such freedom from wants and possessions —along with the other sanatana Indian disciplines of satya, truth, ahimsa, non-violence, abhaya, fearlessness and brahmacharya, celibacy— were essential in the dharmika fight for the protection of the human dignity and essential divinity of Indians that he waged in South Africa. And these disciplines of self-control, of yama-niyama, of course, influenced his ideas on economy.
However, while practising personal austerity necessary for a struggle based in dharma, we also see him exercising what looks like great extravagance in his public functioning, when the situation so required. One particularly striking example of such extravagance was the nearly royal treatment that Gandhiji organised for Gokhale when he visited South Africa during October-November 1912. Gandhiji received him on his arrival at the Cape Town and accompanied him on the train journey from there to Johannesburg. On the way, Gandhiji arranged for several grand receptions by the Indian community at the towns and, in some instances, for large number of Indians to reach by special trains to meet Gokhale’s train. At the end of the visit, Gandhiji accompanied Gokhale to Mozambique, Zanzibar and Dar-es-Salam. All this, especially the chartering of special trains would have been quite expensive in those somewhat early days of railway travel. Incidentally, this happened after the publication of “Hind Swaraj”, in which Gandhiji condemns railways for impoverishing India, deepening the hold of the British on the country and spreading diseases like the bubonic plague. Later, during his struggles in India also Gandhiji chartered special trains on several occasions to fulfil his public commitments. Personal austerity for Gandhiji did not mean being miserly and curbing the expenses necessary for effective public functioning.
Even the personal austerity that Gandhiji practiced and preached did not mean living in want, scarcity or lacking proper nutrition. I first realised this when I had an occasion to take lunch in the kitchen of Sevagram Ashram. While sitting down to eat, I noticed a board above the entrance door, displaying Gandhiji’s caution against eating excessively and then it says how much of vegetables, grains, milk and curd, etc., would suffice. Those amounts are so substantive that not many of us would be taking that much in our diets and for most Indians today such amounts of food would be beyond their reach.
Later, we came across the scale of diet that he fixed for the students at the Phoenix School that he opened in 1908. It included: half a bottle of milk, two ounces of ghee, flour, mealie meal (corn flour), pulse, rice, fresh fruit, green vegetables, sugar, bread, nuts (mainly groundnut). Unlike in the Sevagram kitchen, he did not mention the amounts of many of the items here, probably because he felt that these would be available in abundance in the school. What caught our attention in this scale of school diet is the reference to ‘two ounces of ghee’. A diet that contains nearly 60 ml of ghee per day is indeed generous by our standards today. Gandhiji advocated disciplined austerity but not deprivation or under-nutrition.
Gandhiji was convinced that Indians, given their habits and manner of eating, required and were entitled to at least 60 ml of ghee per day. He was so insistent on this that during his imprisonments in South Africa he launched an intensesatyagraha to demand that this quantity of ghee must be included in the scale of diet fixed for Indian prisoners. It was not an easy demand for the Government to concede. Gandhiji had to starve for several days before 60 ml of ghee was allowed for Indian prisoners. One cannot even imagine such consideration being granted to the prisoners in India today. That much of ghee alone would exhaust the daily diet allowance of prisoners in most States of India.
The two examples above, the generous scale of Indian diet that Gandhiji recommended and the great expense he made on Gokhale’s visit to South Africa, illustrate two of the pillars of the economy that Gandhiji recommended— one, abundance of food, including milk, ghee, fruit, vegetables and nuts; and two, abundance of resources for efficient public functioning. There is also a third pillar of that economy— equity and justice in distribution. Gandhiji’s ideal was the establishment of Ramarajya and Ramarajya is necessarily anchored in justice. He gave his definition of Ramarajya on several occasions. Below, we quote one such definition from the Navjivan of March 22, 1931.
Personal austerity for Gandhiji did not mean being miserly and curbing the expenses necessary for effective public functioning. The personal austerity that Gandhiji practiced and preached did not mean living in want, scarcity or lacking proper nutrition… Abundance and equity of Ramarajya of Gandhiji’s ideal had to be all pervasive and inform all aspects of life
“A just administration implies an era of truth or swaraj, dharmaraj, Ramarajya or the people’s raj (democracy). Under such a government the ruler would be the protector and friend of his subjects. Between his way of life and that of the poorest of his subjects, there would not be such a gulf as there is today. There would be an appropriate similarity between the king’s palace and the hut of his subject. The difference between the needs of the two would be slight. Both would enjoy pure air and water. The subjects would get sufficient food. The ruler would give up eating fifty-six different kinds of delicacies and be satisfied with only six. If the poor use utensils made of wood or mud, the ruler may well use utensils made of such metals as brass. For the ruler who wants to use utensils of gold and silver must be robbing his subjects. The poor should be able to obtain sufficient clothing. Let the king have more clothes, but let the difference be not such as to cause envy. The children of both should be studying in the same primary school. The ruler should become a senior member of the family of the poor. …”
There being not too big a gulf between the rich and the poor, there being “an appropriate similarity” between the living style, dress, food and tastes of the highest and lowest, and the equal access of all to air, water, education and also health— is an ideal that all functioning societies strive to reach. There is evidence to indicate that such equity did prevail in the classical Indian polity. Dharampal —the noted Gandhian historian of the eighteenth-century India— has compiled much evidence from the British archival records on the relative similarity of the ordinary dress and food of the rich and the poor and the relatively low gap in the incomes of the highest and the lowest being. One example of such similarity he quotes is of Alexander Read’s observation that inthe Hyderabad of 1779 he found it difficult to distinguish the nobilityfrom the ordinary people with “the great difference in their appearance consisting (only) in the cleanliness of their jamahs (clothes).”
There is also a fourth pillar of the economy that Gandhiji would have recommended: the easy availability of means of livelihood for all. His insistence on spinning and khadi was anchored in this essential requirement of a functioning economy. We shall discuss this pillar of economy in a separate article.
In short then, Gandhian economy would be an economy of private austerity and public affluence based in abundance of food and livelihood for all with minimal differential between the rich and the poor in the consumption of essentials and in the availability of essential services like health and education. This formula fairly accurately describes what Gandhiji would have recommended. Though he wouldn’t agree with our calling it a principle of economy. For, he did not want to separate the economic from other aspects of the polity. As he said, “I do not make such distinctions as social, economic and political. What is political is also social and economic.”(CWMG: Vol.82, p.134).Abundance and equity of Ramarajya of Gandhiji’s ideal had to be all pervasive and inform all aspects of life.