Gandhi at 150: Green movements have Gandhian streak

Environmental movements do not make a direct reference to Gandhi, but the methods they adopt and discourse that is moulded in their wake often contain Gandhian elements

By John S Moolakkattu
Published: Tuesday 01 October 2019
Gandhi is often considered an early environmentalist. Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Environmental movements across the world have been engaged in critiquing large-scale industrial enterprises and the values of capitalist society. With climate change looming large, there is an increased sense of awareness that it will impact disproportionately on the poor in the Global South.

Environmental movements do not make a direct reference to Gandhi, although the methods that many of them adopt and the discourse that is moulded in their wake often contain Gandhian elements.

One example is the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, which, after a violent confrontation with government forces, turned to civilian-based forms of resistance. Its alternative model of organising society—based on the principles of autonomy, participation and public office — is seen as a form of service rather than as a source of power, suggesting strong Gandhian overtones.

Most of the environmental movements in India emerged in response to the developmental paradigm that the country adopted after Independence. They are centred on issues related to livelihood, land, water and ecological stability.

What is remarkable about these movements is that many of them adopted Gandhian methods of action such as civil disobedience, burying themselves in coastal sand, Jal Satyagraha, long walks, hunger strikes, involvement of political and community leaders, petitioning to officials, dialogue with scientists and government officials and convening of all party meetings to build consensus. Many leaders of such movements were inspired by Gandhi and his perspectives on social change.

Ecological movements emerged in the form of people’s response to threats to their survival and to conserve vital natural resources like soil, water and vegetation systems, particularly after economic globalisation, which saw an intensification of extractive activity by the corporates.

The urban middle class has led the environmental movements in the West. But in India, they are centred on the question of survival and livelihood issues and the participants are mainly the poor, although the coalitions formed in support of such movements often include a cross-section of society.

Gandhi is often considered an early environmentalist although he did not use terms like ecology and environment. Forest satyagrahas were common even during the British period. There is no evidence to suggest that Gandhi was concerned about them.

The deep ecologist Arne Naess had studied Gandhi before he developed his ecological principles. Gandhi never used the term development and his vision of life implied a very low carbon footprint. Basic needs satisfaction received primacy rather than consumerism, which is held up by many as a hallmark of progress. It is based on a non-materialistic and non-exploitative worldview that underscores interdependence between humans and nature.

Gandhi’s ideas of swadesi also suggest the use of resources available locally without being invasive on nature. He condemned modern civilisation, industrialisation and urbanisation and called for a rural social order based on agriculture and cottage industries. In sum, his vision for India had strong implications for a sustainable form of living rather than being purely concerned about the destruction of beauty of nature, forests, rivers and so on, as many naturalists do.

Coming to the notable environmental movements, we have the example of Chipko, Narmada and Silent Valley protests. The Chipko Movement is particularly noted for its Gandhian connections. Similarly, Gandhian ideas, appropriate technology and equitable distribution of politico-economic power are discernible in the Narmada campaign.

Whereas the Chipko Movement involved actors like local community, women and local activists, the Narmada Bachao Andolan was led primarily by the tribal people with help of local, national and international non-profits. Narmada Bachao Andolan leaders like the late Baba Amte and Medha Patkar have explicitly stated that their inspiration has come mainly from Gandhi.

In Chilika lake in Odisha, the protesters were able to raise questions like the ownership of the lake, destruction of livelihood, commercial use of resources by corporates and so on. In the Plachimada agitation in Kerala to close down a Coca-Cola factory, Gandhians worked hand in hand with people from other ideological streams.

The common refrain everywhere was in favour of some kind of self-determination in the use of local resources and assigning a pre-eminent role for local participatory institutions.

In conclusion, it can be said that the environmental movements in the country have a Gandhian streak in them, which they came to acquire as the movement progressed and issues around their formation got crystallised, although the original inspiration for such movements always came from people’s struggles for survival and livelihood.

Second, more than the rank and file, many movement leaders have acknowledged their debt to Gandhi and his methods. Third, their reliance on own resources rather than seek foreign funding in carrying out their protests also reflects a Gandhian view.

The ensuing discourses formed during the course of movement politics had ideas relating to economy and polity that had a Gandhian flavour. Gandhian ideas are often fused in Indian environmental movements to produce concepts such as local sovereignty and livelihood protection, alternative development, recognition of the value of indigenous knowledge, decentralisation with key role for panchayati raj institutions and self-reliance, among others.

There is a realisation that given the enormity of the environmental crisis, it is only by radical changes in the political, social and economic realms that we would be able to address the issue at hand. This warrants a change in values.

There is a quest for a post-materialist society focused on the quality of life rather than the quantity of consumption, which is also in the Gandhian line of thinking, and to some extent, reflect the Hindu ecological vision of life. In all these movements, the self-organising capacity of the affected poor was also emphasised.

The author is editor of Gandhi Marg, the journal of Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi

This article was part of Down To Earth's print edition dated October 1-15, 2019

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