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Gandhi's Search for Alternative Path of Development

Bharat Dogra

An interesting and encouraging aspect of the freedom movement in India was that along with the struggle against colonial rule, vigorous efforts were made to find an alternative path of development. While several people in India were eager to ‘develop’ as much as the British and later some others wanted to industrialise as rapidly as the Soviets, there were others who kept alive the concept of small and cottage-scale development to be based in largely self-reliant rural communities.

This viewpoint was most vigorously articulated by Mahatma Gandhi who popularised the spinning wheel or ‘charkha’ to symbolise this aspect of self-rule or ‘swaraj’. Gandhi’s early experiences with the charkha are still significant in the context of the ‘large vs small, global vs local’ debate.

In a significant book ‘Hind Swaraj’ or ‘Indian Home Rule’ he wrote in 1908: “It is machinery that has impoverished India. It is difficult to measure the harm that Manchester has done to us. It is due to Manchester that Indian handicraft has all but disappeared. But I make a mistake. How can Manchester be blamed? We wore Manchester cloth and this is why Manchester wove it.” So Gandhi argued strongly in favour of going back to self-reliant production of clothes in villages, a task in which charkha will have the crucial role of spinning the yarn, which will be used further by the handloom weavers to produce entirely hand-made cloth, called khadi or khaddar.

Mahatma Gandhi was frequently asked why be gave so much importance to the spinning wheel. He replied in 1923: “Economic inquiries conducted between 1798 and 1814 show how many hundreds of thousands of our men, women and children worked on this (spinning) industry - mostly in their leisure time - each day and earned crores of rupees annually.”  (1 crore = 10 million)

In 1931 be described his thought-process more clearly, “ ‘What is the kind of service’ I asked myself, ‘that the teeming millions of the India most need at the present time, that can be easily understood and appreciated by all, that is easy to perform and will at the same time enable the crores of our semi-starved countrymen to live?’ And the reply came that it is the universalization of Khadi or the spinning wheel alone that can fulfil these conditions.”

The spinning wheel in Indian conditions was the best example of appropriate technology, because, as Gandhi said in 1927: “It uses machinery for the service of the poorest in their own cottages.” Further by taking essential industrial activity to village cottages “Khaddar is an attempt to revise and reverse the process and establish a better relationship between the cities and the villages.”

Mahatma Gandhi recognised that given the low per capita land availability in villages, the Indian peasant needed some additional craft work that could be pursued easily by the family without much capital investment. He wrote quite clearly in 1919 : “Without a cottage industry the Indian peasant is doomed. He cannot maintain himself from the produce of the land.”

In 1921 he wrote, “I have seen women beaming with joy to see the spinning wheel work, for they know that they can through that rustic instrument both feed and clothe themselves.”

When an Indian mill-owner heard of Gandhi’s efforts, he called upon him to convince him that the best way of reducing dependence on imports was to establish more Indian mills.

“I am not doing exactly that”, Gandhi replied “but I am engaged in the revival of the spinning wheel.”

“What is that”, the mill-owner asked, feeling still more at sea.

After explaining his work to him, Gandhi concluded, “I swear by this form of Swadeshi, because through it I can provide work to the semi-starved semi-employed women of India. My idea is to get these women to spin yarn, and to clothe the people of India with khadi woven out of it.”

It is clear from this episode that Gandhi’s concern was not confined to reducing the dependence on foreign mills, he was equally eager to reduce the villagers’ dependence on domestic mills in the context of that produce which could be made by villagers themselves.

In 1924 he stated clearly, “Just as we should not on any pretext whatsoever use foreign cloth, we should not use cloth manufactured in our mills.”

In fact even much earlier, in 1908 he was clear that : “It would be folly to assume that an Indian Rockfeller would be better than the American Rockfeller.”

For Mahatma Gandhi it was clear that it will be foolhardy for handloom weavers to rely on yarn supplied by mills, for mills see their interest in displacing them instead of helping them.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.     

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Oct 20, 2019


Bharat Dogra [email protected]

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