narmada | archives of global protests


by Kamla Chowdhry

The giant Narmada Dam sweeps away small farmers with their dwellings. Photo: Ian Berry/Magnum

The time has come to re-examine our ideas of progress.
The thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi can help.

from Resurgence issue 200

IN THE LAST 200 years science and technology have changed the face of the Earth. Armed by the Industrial Revolution, European countries conquered continents, established colonial empires, had access to raw materials and markets and used their power to control much of the world.

Modern technology propelled by the forces of the market and politics has enhanced the power of Western nations beyond anything known or even dreamt of before. It is power over matter, over life on Earth, and power over nations and millions of people. Its unfettered exercise over two centuries has raised living standards of these Western nations to unbelievable levels of consumption. As Hans Jonas points out, "Not even the ravages of two world wars – themselves children of that overbrimming power – could slow the upward surge for long; it even gained from the spin-off of the hectic technological war effort in its aftermath. The decades after World War II may well denote the high water mark of technologic economic ebullience."

Today, faith in technology and progress is unabated. The dark side of technology is ignored and pushed aside, and more technology is generated to deal with the problems of earlier technologies. We live in a world which has obsessive preoccupation with growth and unlimited confidence in new technological developments to add to our lifestyles.

But this growth and lifestyle are by no means shared by all. Forbes magazine has estimated that 225 individuals, the richest in the world, have a combined wealth of more than $1 trillion, a figure that approaches the combined annual income of the poorest one half of humanity. The assets of the three richest individuals exceed the combined annual economic output of forty-eight poor countries!

Is this a measure of progress?

The Western economic model – the fossil-fuel based, automobile-centred, throw-away economy – is the model that is being promoted and eagerly copied by the "developing" countries. The result is some economic growth, but the divide between the rich and the poor has become larger, with cities where more than half the population live in unbelievable slums. Also our economic and technological progress has been achieved by disappearing forests, disappearing rivers and wetlands, disappearing cropland for more and more cities, disappearing biodiversity, and disappearing fossil and mineral wealth and increasing wastelands.

Should such happenings not jolt us to re-examine our ideas of progress?

In India we have increased our gnp by 5% to 6% or maybe 7%, but at the same time we have millions who go hungry and are homeless. Is this progress? No society can truly be called civilized if it has hunger and homelessness within its communities.

IN 1916 MAHATMA GANDHI gave a lecture to students of Allahabad University and asked the question "Is economic progress real progress?" In discussing the subject, Gandhi said, "I take it by economic progress we mean material advancement without limit – and by real progress we mean moral progress." The economists point out that there can be no moral progress, unless there is economic progress, so that the poor can satisfy their daily needs. Gandhi's reply to this argument was that of course no one has even suggested that grinding pauperism can lead to anything else than moral degradation, that all human beings have a right to live decently and therefore must find the means to feed, clothe and house themselves. But for this simple performance, Gandhi adds, "we need no assistance from economics or their laws."

Gandhi, continuing his lecture, made the point, "I venture to think the religious scriptures of the world are far safer and sounder treatises on the laws of economics, than many of the modern economic text-books." And he added, "I believe that Jesus was the greatest economist of his time." Gandhi tells his audience that persons who have exercised great influence on their lives and moulded the lives of millions were people like Jesus and the Buddha who deliberately embraced poverty – Mahavir, Mohammed, Nanak, Kabir, Shankara, Vivekanand, Ramakrishna, St. Francis: they all embraced poverty. And, he adds, the world has been made richer for their having lived in it.

Gandhi made the point that in his view modern civilization poses a greater threat than colonialism did. He urged that worldly pursuits should give way to ethical and moral living. Gandhi's great ambition was to show India the way for its moral regeneration. He redefined the scope of dharma and included Western notions of liberty, equality, fraternity and mutual help. Gandhi gave an updated version of dharma that would fit life in the modern world.

The World Bank too seems to be inching its way towards Gandhi's thinking as to what is economic progress. President James Wolfensohn said in a public meeting, "The World Bank's central mission is to weld economic assistance with spiritual, ethical and moral development. It is in this context that we need to measure our progress and relate to the groups with whom we are dealing. At the Bank we are trying to find ways to measure ourselves not by dollar value but by the impact and effectiveness of our programmes in terms that relate to the development of the society." Echoes of Gandhi's concerns.

Modern society has always assumed that growth is progress, that you grow or die. And we continue to delude ourselves into believing that more and more technology is progress and an answer to our problems.

Within the framework of Gandhi's concerns about the poor, about the need for dignity and respect in manual work, he promoted the spinning wheel – as a symbol of solidarity between the rich and poor, of the unity of humankind, of economic freedom and equality. In everything that Gandhi did there was a spiritual message together with a deep concern for the poor.

If we want real progress, equitable and sustainable progress, then the starting point is the self. Going back to a simpler life, as Gandhi advocated, is not a step backward; rather the simpler lifestyle may allow us to regain our dignity, our spirituality and our contact with nature. The return to simplicity will also be fulfilling for our soul.

Kamla Chowdhry is visiting professor at Harvard Business School in the USA. She will teach at Schumacher College in June 2001.

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