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Preserving a Gandhian Dream

The Khadi movement in India was framed as a non-violent protest against foreign control of the economic, cultural and artistic lives of the people. For Gandhi, western economics was a devastating negation of the spiritual identity of an Indian. Self-sufficiency was articulated as an attempt to wrest control from the dominant force of the time – the British empire. However, the spirit of self-sustenance went beyond the rejection of the foreign. Gandhi had a radical and nuanced view of what constituted the Indian nation, that many would now consider not only unviable but perhaps also dangerous. Gandhi insisted that the state empower villages to remain independent economic entities, with local production aligned with local consumption. It promoted a view of the Indian village (historically the truth of this view is disputed but mythically it still holds sway) that existed almost outside of History – as entities that were eternal and unchanging – that were generally left alone by political machinations that were concentrated in cities and frontier areas.

Today India, along with a large number of developed and developing countries, features an integrated and globalised economic order. The Indian Parliament recently passed the Goods and Services Tax which is meant to further integrate the commercial and economic activity in the country, bringing efficiency and reducing leakages. To be sure the Goods and Services Tax is not an attack on the federal nature of the Indian republic and there is nothing unconstitutional about applying a uniform tax code on the whole country. However, a uniform tax code and an integrated economy is not a particularly Gandhian idea. I would hazard a guess that Gandhi, were he to be alive today, would find many problems with a tightly integrated economy and uniform tax codes. The question that we must ask ourselves is this : Can Gandhian thoughts be taken on face value 70 years after independence or were these views relevant for only a time in History and that time has now passed? The purpose of this essay is not to evaluate Gandhian philosophy or even Gandhian economics but to consider the factors in the gutting of the self-sufficient Indian village and what it would take to preserve the Gandhian dream in some form.

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Khadi in many ways is a manifestation of simple beauty. It represents the things that the modern world has now lost but yearns for – minimalism, sustainability, community based production etc

We spent half a day with the Janapada Seva trust in a small town in Karnataka near Mysore called Melkote. The Janapada Seva trust is a Gandhian organisation that works in rural welfare through efforts in education, industry, environment and agriculture. The trust runs a Khadi production facility that is seeking to revive the lost tradition of handloom weaving in the Melkote area. In it’s small but spacious facility the trust is seeking to educate young people of villages, around the area to operate handlooms and produce high quality Khadi fabric and garments. The khadi process is done completely by hand, from spinning and weaving to dyeing. Santosh Koulage (son of the founder of the trust, Surendra Koulagi), who handles the day to day operations of the trust told us that the original context in which the local craft of Khadi developed in this area has long disappeared. The Khadi handloom industry was systematically compromised by state bodies tasked with its preservation. Rampant corruption and red-tapisim from state bodies and the lack of social recognition combined to suffocate ambition and pride from the artisans. High skill and adeptness only seemed to be rewarded with poverty and extreme loss of pride. Thus, there are no more traditional weavers who are engaged with the craft, requiring training of a new group of individuals. Nevertheless, the trust has seen significant success in producing a modest line of garments for sale to urban audiences in neighbouring Bangalore, Chennai and other cities. As with most discourses on revival, it is urban markets that are being counted upon as sources of revenue.

We were told that the trust has received criticism for betraying the Gandhian ideal of local production feeding local consumption. We talked about how what the village economy is now producing is too expensive to be consumed in the villages and how what gets consumed in the villages are invariably the cheap industrial produce of the modern economy. Mr. Koulagi however sees no other way. The village as a sustainable economy, community and social entity has been systematically undermined through decades of development and progress focused on urban areas and reflecting urban values and ambitions. This has meant that the only way young people in villages can be persuaded to stay back is to give them a sustainable income and that income cannot be derived from local consumption. Therefore urban markets and elite consumers must be targeted.

We found particularly interesting, the trust’s perspective of focusing on the producers rather than the consumers. It is a counterintuitive way of thinking for those of us who are familiar with the modern economy. The concern of the trust is not primarily consumer satisfaction or product excellence but providing the young people of the villages an acceptable standard of living. This is not to say that the Khadi produce lacks in quality. We are no fashion experts but the Khadi fabric and garments available for sale in the trust’s small shop were of high quality and the hand spun Khadi, even after decades of progress in industrial garment production, has a certain charm that is unique to it. What is also unique about this production eco-system is the absence of the profit motive. When organisations don’t seek to maximise revenue, it allows them space to pursue other concerns. Mr Koulagi shared with us his apprehensions about working with urban designers and targeting urban markets. He is acutely aware of the consumerism that plagues the modern mindset and he is keen to avoid deep association with it by adapting to overtly cater to an urban market need. Instead the trust seeks to thoughtfully create sustainable livelihoods for the locals by building on existing market trends that are beginning to recognise and value handmade products for their worth.

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In a modest rural production facility, the trust is seeking to revive the very essence of the Gandhian dream. It is a tall order but it is quite appropriate that tools are simple and methods honest.

While running the unit requires government certification which the trust has, it strives to not depend on support or subsidies, in keeping with the spirit of khadi. The other aspect through which this manifests is in their notion of scale. A core belief is that the weaver’s quality of life should not suffer in the pursuit of growth. They have a fixed maximum limit for production and have constantly sought to educate and in a collaborative way arrive at a sustainable philosophy of production, with the community that works with them. An indiscriminate pursuit of profit and growth , via overtime and imbalanced work hours, is seen as antithetical to the values of the community that the trust is building.

Eventually, the trust’s core objective is to revive the Indian village and its rural traditions. Khadi production is one arm of this initiative. The trust also works closely with farmers to promote organic farming and has undertaken efforts to oppose the proliferation of genetically modified seeds. They work with cotton farmers in north Karnataka to support their Khadi production. The trust has also planted local tree species in lands around Melkote that were devastated with the introduction of Eucalyptus in the region. Eucalyptus, an exotic tree species is ill suited for Indian conditions, drawing too much water from the ground and negatively impacting other flora in the region. Apart from this the trust also runs a specialised adoption agency trying to find suitable homes for abandoned and abused children between the ages of one to five.

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Mr Santosh Koulagi now runs the trust that was founded by his parents and their friends. Like all Gandhians he too has a polite rage about him against the dismantling of the India that western notions of progress never understood.

Mr. Koulagi, feels a deep sense of loss over what has now disappeared. The Gandhian dream of a vibrant, independent and sustainable village is now all but lost. The connectedness of the local with the national and global has meant that villages are no longer buffered from the push and pull of larger political and industrial machinery. Cotton for example was never a mono culture in India and farmers who lost crops due to pest infestations or drought were not severely impacted. Today, the expensive BT Cotton seed forces farmers to grow cotton as a mono-culture cash crop investing all their efforts into it. This cotton crop may be more resistant to pests but when it fails due to lack of irrigation facilities and poor rains, the farmers lose their entire investment. Farmer suicides in cotton growing regions of India have been well documented and though there are various arguments against directly linking farmer suicides to BT Cotton, there can be no doubts about the shortcomings of a one-size-fits-all, top down implementation of modern agricultural practices in contexts where they are not suited.

As we discussed the future of the Indian village with Mr. Koulagi, we sensed a helplessness that emerged from the understanding of the true power of the modern forces of progress. All efforts of the trust and others like them in preserving the traditions and values of the Indian village come up against this inescapable force. As we traveled from Mr. Koulagi’s home to the Khadi production facility, we came upon a boarding school. We were informed that young children from villages around the area were being encouraged to join the boarding school which promised to prepare them for lives in urban areas. This would mean cutting them from the rural context into which they were born. The rural ways of living, vocations and skills that empowered and inspired previous generations in their communities would be lost for them. They would instead be raised in an environment that may appear uninspiring, impersonal and rootless. Mr. Koulagi told us that he chose to home school his son, to keep him connected to the village environment they lived in and imbibe in him the traditions and values of rural India. These are the values and traditions of Gandhi, of sustainable existence, of organic farming, of living in harmony with nature. These values are fundamentally opposed to a consumer driven economy and modern urban life.

We also met with the founder, Surendra Koulagi. It was with curiosity and bemusement that he asked us what we were hoping to learn from their ‘small initiative’ that had not reached any massive scale of success. In fact, he was honest in admitting that he did not see much of a future for grassroots initiatives that encouraged and promoted local skills, contexts and culture, in light of the larger systems at play in the Indian economy and policy landscape. His question to us, in our attempt to learn from these experiments (often manifested through lifetimes of struggles), was if we had the courage and the resilience to swim against the tide that was swiftly washing away any sort of decentralised agency and sustenance.

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We found a portrait of Gandhi at the Trust office. He seemed to appear forlorn in the portrait and had his eyes shut as if in silent contemplation.

By the time we were preparing to leave Melkote we were grasping for a silver lining in this overwhelming gloom. We found it in the story of a young weaver in the trust’s production unit. She had lost her husband recently but had also found a job at the weaving facility. She had saved up money and had recently bought a scooter, giving her a new sense of confidence and setting an example for other women and young people in her village. Unlike so many young people in this area, she had chosen not to go to a city but had found gainful employment within the rural setting as a weaver.

Urban India has had a severely negative impact on the rural, sucking away pride, hope and expectation from the rural environment and pulling the best minds to cities and towns. If this trend has to be stopped then more organisations like the Janapada trust are needed to firstly provide sustainable employment to people in rural India within village economies and secondly remind young people of the benefits of a rural lifestyle. Above all a sense of pride needs to return to the Indian village if the Gandhian dream is to survive in some form.