By P.K.Balachandran

Mahatma Gandhi is known the world over as the one who conceived and led India’s uniquely peaceful and pioneering struggle for freedom from British rule. But that he was a tireless environmental crusader and a “human ecologist” is not internationally well known. In his paper Gandhi as a Human Ecologist John S. Moolakkattu, Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, regrets that the Encyclopaedia of Human Ecology edited by Julia R Miller did not mention Gandhi.

Gandhi was a 24X7 political activist, and yet he was passionately involved with issues of the environment and ecology. He even declared that his main source of inspiration was nature!  “I need no inspiration other than Nature’s. She has never failed me. She mystifies me, bewilders me, sends me to ecstasies,” he said.

It is therefore not surprising that Gandhi’s love for nature inspired many environmental movements in independent India, such as the ‘Tree saving’ Chipko movement led by Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunder Lal Bahuguna and the Save the Narmada river movement led by Baba Amte and Medha Patkar.

Rajnarayan R. Tiwari says in his 2019 paper in the Indian Journal of Medical Research: ‘Gandhi had cautioned the world, much before any modern day environmentalist, about the problems of large-scale industrialization, which we are confronting today. Gandhi visualized that mechanization will not only lead to industrialization, to massive urbanization, to unemployment, but will also lead to the destruction of the environment.” Gandhi’s seminal work, Hind Swaraj written in 1909, had warned of the dangers the world is facing today. It was banned by the British rulers in 1910 for its “seditious content.”

Gandhi was vehemently against encouraging the urbanization of India. He argued that urbanization cannot support 90% of India’s population,  living in its 7,00,000 villages. He was against denuding the villages of their cottage industries as this would remove whatever little opportunity was still there for making use of local skills.

Gandhi was acutely aware of environmental pollution. He was especially concerned about the appalling working conditions in the industries in urban conglomerates like Bombay, with workers forced to inhale toxic air. He denounced consumerism and generation of waste, pointing to the depletion of scarce resources, and air, water and soil pollution. Gandhi himself led a simple life not wasting any resource. His concept of Sarvodaya is based on sustainable development and the practice of environmental ethics.

Tiwari points out that Gandhi foresaw a population explosion, mass poverty, over-utilization of renewable resources, overuse of fertilizers leading to water pollution. His tirade against uncontrolled industrialization was based on these possibilities. Gandhi was not aware of terms like ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’, but he foresaw the effects of these environmental changes.

Human Ecology

Gandhi was essentially a “human ecologist” says Prof.Moolakkattu. Human ecology sees human beings and their environment as being mutually interlinked, as part of an integrated whole. The Western tendency to compartmentalize everything into different categories is anti-ecological, Moolakkattu says. He argues that different facets of human life like politics, economics, sociology, culture and so on, need to be seen in an integrated way. Then only, each of them can be understood fully.

Gandhi’s economic resource person, J.C. Kumarappa, said that traditionally, religion, sociology and economics are assigned separate and exclusive spheres, but nature does not recognize such divisions. Nature deals with all life as a whole. And that was Gandhi’s view too.

Kumarappa’s Economy of Permanence reflects Gandhi’s ideas, which, in present-day parlance, would be termed “green thought”. Kumarappa advocated an economy based on the natural order. “In studying human institutions we should never lose sight of that great teacher, mother Nature. Anything that we may devise, if it is contrary to her ways, she will ruthlessly annihilate sooner or later.”

“Everything in nature seems to follow a cyclic movement. Water from the sea rises as vapor and falls on land in refreshing showers and returns back to the sea again. A nation that forgets or ignores this fundamental process in forming its institutions will disintegrate,” Kumarappa predicted.

Moderating Wants

In a very Buddhist way, Gandhi advocated moderation of wants. “A certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above a certain level, it becomes hindrance instead of help. Therefore, the ideal of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them seems to be a delusion and a snare. The incessant search for material comforts and their multiplication is an evil. I make bold to say that the Europeans will have to remodel their outlook, if they are not to perish under the weight of the comforts to which they are becoming slaves,” Gandhi said. He famously said: “The Earth has enough resources for our need but not for our greed.”

When Gandhi was asked if he would like to have the same standard of living for India’s teeming millions as the British had, he quipped: “It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require!”.

With a prophetic vision, Gandhi warned: “A time is coming when those who are in mad rush today of multiplying their wants, will retrace their steps and say; what have we done?” This fits in with the present-day ‘harmony model’, which has a strong ecological tenor about it, Moolakkattu points out.

“There is now a new index called ‘happiness index’ that is being developed. One of the features of this index is that high levels of material development need not produce equally high levels of happiness. Gandhi placed emphasis on the theme of contentment and would have found the ‘happiness index’ a particularly useful one.”

Moolakkattu observes that if one looks at the current debate on climate change, the manner in which the West is frantically trying to persuade the emerging countries to reduce their carbon emissions and the billions of dollars being spent by developed countries to slow the pace of climate change, it seems Gandhi’s prediction has come true.

But realization has been very late in coming. “Although from the early seventies we were made aware of the environmental perils through books like Small is Beautiful (Schumacher1973) and Limits to Growth (Meadows et al.1972), it took more than a decade for the world to understand the gravity of the situation,” Moolakkattu observes.

Coexistence as Equals

Ecological life was a part and parcel of Gandhian ashram life. He believed in coexistence with other living creatures and shunned hierarchical notions between man and other living creatures even if the latter were poisonous.

Moolakkattu notes: “Since Gandhi’s cottage in Sevagram was not reptile-proof, snakes sometimes sneaked in, and he used to pick them up with the help of a pair of long tongs that he always kept, and release them in places far away from the people. He looked at all life as sacred and all human beings as part of the divine, living in harmony with other beings. Suffering of all living beings was of concern to him. Even when he discussed the ways and means of preventing malaria, he was thinking in terms of how mosquitoes could be chased away with the help of repellents rather than kill them outright.”

Gandhi realized that there is some kind of continuity between lording over nature and lording over other ‘inferior’ people as in colonialism.

Moolakkattu points out that for Gandhi “it is an arrogant assumption to say that human beings are lords and masters of the lower creatures. On the contrary, being endowed with greater things in life, they (human beings) are the trustees of the lower animal kingdom.”



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here