MAHATMA Gandhi's Sevagram ashram in Maharashtra was the appropriate site for a recent conference marking the birth centenary of J C Kumarappaan economist who became one of Gandhiji's closest associates and the most ardent advocate of his ideas on rural development. Through prolific writing in books and magazines over a period of 20 yearsstarting in 1929Kumarappa outlined an economic doctrine that is remarkable for its far-sighted emphasis on conserving the environment.
Kumarappa's ecological concerns grew out of a deep awareness of the harmful effects of unchecked industrialisation. The only sustainable social orderhe contendedwas one based on what he called the "economy of permanence"wherein human beings collaborate with nature to meet their needswithout disrupting the natural patterns of growth and renewal. ThisKumarappa stressedcould best be achieved through a decentralised model of economic planning aimed at making villages self-sufficient so they make optimum use of local resources. "The recent international conference at Riosays Devendra Kumar, former secretary of the Gandhi National Memorial Trust,served to highlight the very issues that Gandhian economicsas developed by Kumarappawas pointing out."
Kumarappa examined such issues as conservation of water and forestseffect of erosion and waterlogging on soil quality and availability of fodder and fuel in the rural economy. He advocatedamong other measuresthe manufacture of handmade paper from waste paper and grasses and the use of organic manure instead of chemical fertilisers. "Kumarappa's writings are strewn with profound ecological consequencesthough he does not express it in these termssays Ramachandra Guha, a research fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi.The environmentalists of today are only taking up where he left off."
Kumarappa excelled in studies at school and college. After graduating in history from Madras Christian Collegehe decided to pursue a career in accountancy and was sent to England. He qualified as a chartered accountant in London and embarked on a lucrative career as an auditor for a British firm.
After the war endedKumarappa returned to India and set up an auditing firm in Bombay. In 1927he went abroad againthis time to visit his brother who was living in New York. Kumarappa stayed and obtained a bachelor's degree in business administration from Syracuse University in 1928. He transferred to Columbia University in New York City to study for a master's degree in Economics.
During this period he began accepting invitations to deliver weekend lectures on Indian history and culture to small groups. One of these lecturestitled Why then is India poor?was reported in The New York Times and caught the attention of his professorE R A Seligmanwho suggested Kumarappa base his master's thesis on it.
Kumarappa agreed and undertook an exhaustive study of the financial policies and taxation structure prevailing in India. He was shocked to discover that the British authorities had imposed the expenses of their imperial wars on the Indian exchequer. His thesistitled Public Finance and Indian Povertydescribed in detail the financial irregularities committed by British institutions and indicted them for impoverishing the Indian people by imposing unjust taxes on them. Kumarappa's biographerM VinaikwritesThis study so convinced him of British injustice and exploitation that he turned into a passionate nationalist.
Another important experience for Kumarappa at this time was coming into contact with H J Davenportwho taught a course called The Economics of Enterprise. Davenport advocated extreme materialism and held that the sole determinant of any act or policy was the amount of wealth it generated. Kumarappa was repelled by this theoryregarding it as narrow and misguidedand debated frequently with Davenportattempting to repudiate his theory. In doing soKumarappa was compelled to examine and redefine his own viewpoint. He became convinced of the moral and social dimensions of economic decisions and this was to become the turning point in his intellectual life.
On returning to IndiaKumarappa wanted to get his thesis on public finance publishedbut he first solicited Gandhiji's opinion. An appointment was fixed and on May 91929Kumarappa met Gandhiji in Sabarmati ashram near Ahmedabad. The meeting was a great success and a bond was immediately established between the two. Gandhiji praised Kumarappa's dissertation and told himYou are almost the first economist I have come across who thinks along the same lines as I do.
Kumarappa was deeply impressed by Gandhiji and offered his services in the national cause. Gandhiji urged him to acquire a first-hand awareness of rural India and suggested that he should undertake an economic survey of Matar talukaa once-prosperous rural area in Gujarat that had become impoverished. Gandhiji introduced him to the vice-chancellor of Gujarat VidyapithKakasaheb Kalelkarfor assistance in the project (See box).
Impressed with Kumarappathe vice-chancellor offered him a professor's post. Kumarappa accepted the positionbut declined to accept any salary in keeping with his commitment to Gandhian ideals. The task of surveying Matar taluka turned out to be challenging and called upon all of Kumarappa's experience and administrative acumen. The fieldwork he had to do gave him exposure to village life.
His years abroad had made Kumarappa thoroughly westernised in dress and mannersbut after meeting Gandhijihe devoted himself fully to the national cause and adopted an austere lifestylewearing khadi and embraced the Gandhian philosophy in all respects.
An incident took place during this time that illustrates the adjustments Kumarappa had to make. One of his European friendsJohn Mackenzieinvited Kumarappa to tea shortly after he had switched to khadi. Kumarappa got a friend to help him don dhoti and kurta. On reaching the Mackenzie homeMrs Mackenzie opened the door and Kumarappa's instinctive reaction was to doff his Gandhi cap courteously. Much amusedMrs Mackenzie retortedKumarappa, you must also learn Indian manners. You mustn't take off your cap in greeting, but shed your chappals instead.
Gandhiji decided to serialise Kumarappa's thesis on "Public Finance and Indian Poverty" in the Young India magazine between November 281929and January 231930This marked the beginning of Kumarappa's long involvement with the magazine becauseat Gandhiji's urginghe became a regular contributor to its columns. Eventuallyhe even succeeded Mahadev Desai as its editor and used the magazine to mobilise public opinion against the unjust policies and practices of the British in India. Kumarappa rapidly acquired a reputation for bold criticism and in 1931he was arrested on the charge of sedition and imprisoned. This was the first of his four stays in prison between 1931 and 1944for a total of four-and-a-half years.
Kumarappa was a bachelor all his lifepleading he did not have the time to devote to a family. His only leisure activity was photographyusing his own equipment to develop and print pictures. In timeKumarappa acquired a large collection of photographs and negatives.
Kumarappa exerted his greatest influence when he became head of the All India Village Industries Commission (AIVIC)which had been set up in 1934. He shifted to AIVIC headquarters in MaganwadiWardha districtand this was his home for 17 years. Among the programmes he launched to revive village industries were oil-pressingbee-keepingpaper-makingsoap-making and pottery. Nirmal Chandra of the Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi saysKumarappa's efforts went a long way in reviving the self-respect of the villagers.
Never once did Kumarappa waver in his conviction that making villages self-sufficient through small-scale industries was the key to the regeneration of national life. He travelled widely and lectured frequently on the principles of decentralised economic planning. Some of his lectures were later published in a popular booklet called Philosophy of the Village Movement.
HoweverKumarappa's ideas did not find much support in political circles. In 1937he was made a member of the national planning committeewhich had Jawaharlal Nehru as chairperson. But Kumarappa resigned shortly after to protest the unwillingness of the other committee members to put the village at the centre of planning.
In December 1947a national conference of revenue ministers was held in Delhi and it decided to set up an agrarian reforms committee to suggest methods of improving rural conditions. Kumarappa was appointed chairperson and the committee submitted its report in July 1949containing several recommendations favouring land reform through decentralisation. Howevernone of the recommendations was taken up at either the Central or state level as the government was already committed to a policy of rapid industrialisation.
Effectively marginalised from the political mainstream and disappointed with the government's economic policiesKumarappa spent the last years of his life coordinating and guiding the work of activists and voluntary agenciesbelieving that the Gandhian concepts of village planning could best be implemented by them.
Kumarappa had been troubled by complications arising from high blood pressure for several years and in 1953his health failed and compelled him to retire from active work. He settled in the Gandhiniketan ashram near Madurai to be among people engaged in the work dear to his heart. Shortly after his 68th birthdayhe suffered a stroke and was hospitalised in Madraswhere he passed away on January 301960
Opinion is divided about why Kumarappa was neglected. Some say his model of decentralised planningwith the village as a self-contained economic unitdid not address the issue of how these units would be integrated at the macro-level nor was it clear what relationship would exist between rural and urban communities. "He did not allow for a complementary relationship between villages and industrysays Bharat Jhunjhunwala, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur. But Guha states,Kumarappa's ideas failed to find support because he was ahead of his time. The debate of environment versus development that he had anticipated is still raging and the verdict of history may well decide in his favour."
Another feature of Kumarappa's thoughtwhich he shared with Gandhijiis his belief that social regeneration could be brought about by a moral appeal to the individual. IndividualsKumarappa feltcould be persuaded to forsake self-interest voluntarily in favour of the larger social good. "Kumarappa was too much of an idealistsays Kamal Taori, a bureaucrat who heads the Khadi and Village Industries Commission in Bombay. Taori's remark is ironical for he is the head of the very agency that is entrusted with the implementation of Kumarappa's principles.
Many Gandhians complain bureaucrats have subverted the aims of Gandhian institutions by exploiting them to further their own interests. N S Radhakrishnan, secretary of the Gandhi Peace Foundation for more than 20 years, analysed the lack of impact made by institutions such as the KVIC and said,Too much bureaucratisationtoo much hankering after government grantswhich in itself is against the Gandhian idealand too many people in these institutions becoming self-appointed agents of undertaking social revolutions."
Kumarappa's neglect in recent times is clearly symptomatic of the decline of Gandhian ideals and institutions in post-Independence India. There ishowevera renewed interest in Kumarappa's pioneering role in emphasising the importance of living in harmony with the environment. The scores of people who gathered at Sevagram recently for his centenary conference bear testimony that his influence survives.