Gandhi at 150: A contemporary fable

Gandhi’s personal lifestyle choices are not what make him crucial to the future of our species. What matters more is to understand why Gandhi anticipated the environmental crisis more than half a century before the term 'sustainable development' was coined

By Rajni Bakshi
Published: Saturday 28 September 2019
Gandhi. Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Anand Mahindra, head of Mahindra Group, one of the largest Indian multinational corporations, once told a story he heard about a village somewhere near Goa. This village was once famous for growing the most delicious watermelons. It also had a custom that allowed children to eat as many watermelons from any farm for free. All they had to do in exchange was to save the seeds of the most delicious watermelons and give the seeds to the grower of that watermelon. The farmer then planted only the seeds of the watermelons the children found to be the sweetest and most luscious.

But some people in the village decided that since their watermelons were so delicious and could fetch a good price, why “waste” so many in free distribution to the children. As the practice of allowing children to enjoy free watermelons dwindled, the quality of watermelons began to decline. Soon the village was no longer growing the region’s best watermelons.

The focus on what is priceless is Mahatma Gandhi’s most urgent insight. Here, priceless does not refer to some “thing” which is so rare and expensive that it is beyond measure. It refers to that which is kept outside any form of market, and which cannot be turned into a commodity or submitted to the vagaries of supply and demand. 

Over the last few decades, a great deal of effort has gone into putting a price on ecosystems — in the hope that translating ecosystem services into metrics that economics recognises will help save them.  At the same time, it is increasingly becoming clear that the cascading environmental crises cannot really be addressed by fitting the narrative into a framework that economists understand. 

Consequently, Gandhi is crucial for the deeper search for answers. 

Ironically, in 2019, many people would ask, how can that be? After all, they have been brought up to feel grateful that after Independence, India did not follow Gandhi’s way, which they imagine would mean that we would all be spinning charkhas, owning only two-three sets of clothing, passing the night with the help of only lanterns and so on. 

Gandhian simplicity has wrongly been associated with hardship while deve-opment is equated with the cultivation of more wants and the means to fulfil them. Thus, many visitors to Gandhi’s famous mud hut at Sevagram, Maharashtra, are startled to find that one of its small rooms has a massage table — an essential part of Gandhi’s naturopathy-based lifestyle. There is also a phone booth, installed at a time when phones were a rare luxury.

However, today Gandhi’s personal lifestyle choices are not what makes him crucial to the future of our species. What matters more is to understand why Gandhi anticipated the environmental crisis more than half a century before the term “sustainable development” was coined. 

This was primarily because his assessments were based more on core principles with material data merely as an add-on. Gandhi could predict that modern industry and consumption patterns would strip the planet like locusts because he saw the edifice of modern industry based on a disregard for means as long as the end objective is realised.

For example, in that story about watermelons, as long as the “means” included the intrinsic joy of local children freely eating as many watermelons as they liked, there was a sustained prosperity. Altering the means led to a short-term spurt in monetary gain, but eventually brought about a decline of both the product and villagers’ well-being. 


The prime importance of means led Gandhi to insist that we are doomed if we equate civilisation with clever gadgets, technology and conve-nience. Instead, for Gandhi, civilisation is only that which shows us the path of duty or the path to a life of purpose. This focus on a life of purpose, what diverse Hindu traditions have called purusharth, was priceless for Gandhi. The opposite of this was what Gandhi called the “mad rush” of endlessly increasing wants.

It was Rabindranath Tagore who elaborated on this insight by clearly distinguishing progress from civilisation. “Progress which is not related to an inner ideal, but to an attraction which is external, seeks to satisfy our endless claims. But civilisation which is an ideal gives us power and joy to fulfil our obligations,” Tagore said in a lecture in China in 1924.

In terms of everyday material life, Gandhi’s disciple, JC Kumarappa, starkly defined the choice before humans: we can either build a parasitic economy or one in which human needs are dove-tailed with the rest of nature’s ecosystems. Kumarappa was a chartered accountant educated at Columbia University, USA, who became a full-time satyagrahi and wrote his seminal book An Economy of Permanence while in prison in the early 1940s.

If you observe closely, it is evident that “… nature enlists and ensures the co-operation of all its units, each working for itself and in the process helping other units to get along their own too — the mobile helping the immobile, and the sentient the insentient. Thus all nature is dovetailed together in a common cause,” wrote Kumarappa. 

As the story of the watermelons illustrates, we are not confronted with a binary choice between nature as a commodity or nature as an object of pure veneration to be left untouched. There is no ideology called “Gandhianism” which provides a roadmap through what now looks like a grim future.

What we can count on, from Gandhi’s thoughts and actions, are some core insights about how to decipher what really matters. Above all, he inspires us to constantly be alert to values that are priceless and ask ourselves if we are willing to nurture these values or kill them by neglect. 

The writer is the author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom

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

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