Prof. T K Thomas

Prof. T K Thomas

As we celebrate the 150th Birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi tomorrow,[Wednesday 2nd October]   one feels that his ideals and principles need to be applied in nation building. There may be people who question Gandhi ji’s relevance today but his words and deeds would continue to inspire generations to come .

Two of the thinnest volumes from among Gandhi ji’s prodigious writings, ‘Constructive Programme; Its Meaning and Place” and  “Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule” articulate his vision for the young people of today. In his book on constructive work, Gandhi ji has identified or flagged 18 major issues like communal unity, prohibition, khadi, village industries, adult education, women, Education in health and hygiene etc. Some of these like prohibition may be considered redundant by the new generation but all other issues  highlighted by him are still relevant .

In his ‘Hind Swaraj’   Gandhi’s arguments against machines may be considered retrograde today.  He wrote in the context of a concern for the human element in an industrialized society.  He felt that the great heritage of Indian handicraft was seriously threatened by machines. He was not opposed to machines per se. But he was against dehumanization of our work force.  He called machines, “the chief symbol of modern civilization. It represents a great sin.” He was rather harsh as he said, “It is machinery that impoverished India…The workers in the mills of Bombay have become slaves. The condition of the women working in the mills is shocking”.  Isn’t the condition of the workers in India today still “shocking”?

In the foreword of his book on Constructive Programme Gandhi ji  writes, ”Imagine all the forty crore of people busying themselves with the whole of the constructive programme which is designed to build up the nation from the very bottom upward.”He dreamt of the entire country volunteering to take up his constructive  programme. Gandhi ji believed in creating from youth a cadre of inspiring and competent role models and change agents with courage of conviction who in turn will trigger the process of building a healthy nation.

“Today every fifth person in India is adolescent [10-19 years] and every third –a young person [20-24 years]. Investing in this segment of the population is the best way to leverage the nation’s competitive advantage- its demographic dividend.” []. In the backdrop of such huge demographic dividend, the challenge before us is to promote children and youth engagement in constructive work and enhance their participation in the democratic process.

Globally, volunteerism is now accepted as an important factor to promote children and youth engagement. Volunteering supports individuals’ empowerment, by providing them with an influential role in the community; it provides a skilled and steady work force to support the valuable work of the government; it helps in improving a volunteer’s health, well being and personality development; it helps in development of new skills and introduces positive action in the community. So if our policy makers  accept Gandhi ji’s vision of motivating every citizen especially children and youth to volunteer they would form a critical mass of committed work force engaged in constructive work.

In his booklet ,’From Yervada Mandir”  Gandhi ji writes, “voluntary service for others demands the best of which one is capable, and must take precedence over service of self. In fact, the pure devotee consecrates himself to the service of humanity without any reservation whatever.”  If we can introduce the spirit of volunteerism for constructive work right from the school level onwards, we will be able to shape the understanding of our young people for positive action!

Some years ago I visited a remote village in Assam where Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti ran a children’s volunteer programme,  Surabhi Shishu Panchayat. Initiated as part of Gandhian constructive programme, I found the children taking leadership roles in looking at different issues of their community. There was a children’s committee on health which created awareness on health issues; there was a children’s committee on education which actually had succeeded in persuading many families which were not sending their children to schools to send them; there was an environment committee which spearheaded tree plantation drive; and there was a sanitation committee which undertook sanitation drive in the area and cleaned up a dumping ground into a small park. While all the children of the Shishu Panchayat took part in the activities, the committee members took the leadership roles in conceptualizing /developing action plans, draw up campaign strategies, mobilizing not just other children but also adults and finally completing their tasks. I was impressed by this model which enabled children to connect to knowledge outside their school curriculum. Incidentally  as would be future leaders, such experience can equip them to learn how to work at the grassroots level right from school.

At the policy level if all state governments could think of introducing  concepts like children’s volunteer clubs at the school level. This would enhance  their creativity and ideas of social responsibility from an early age. This will help them to develop their personalities, improve  their life skills, make them self aware, develop social leadership skills, develop communication skills, learn the significance of compassion, empathy and mutual respect. Weekly volunteer work by children could be encouraged as part of the education system of all the states. Similar initiatives can be integrated in a properly planned youth policy of every state. Youth development programmes  of the states can be developed keeping in mind the need to develop their social leadership skills and underline their role in the promotion of constructive work in the state. Initiatives like Neighborhood Youth Centers and their mentoring programmes can be thought of as part of youth policies of the state.

Gandhi ji’s writings  concerned every aspect of human life. To him nature was sacrosanct, not to be tinkered with by man in his avarice and greed. He always cautioned that development should not be at the cost of environment and ecology. Incidentally these two terms were never used by him.  Nevertheless what he had written a century or more back is still relevant and are like warning signals. Look at some of the manmade and natural calamities the world and our own country are facing. If we blame climate change for all these, the actual culprit is man himself. Right now there are devastating floods in Patna, the capital of Bihar and in parts of Uttar Pradesh; Kerala had unprecedented rains and floods for the second consecutive year recently. Tamil Nadu especially Chennai too had faced floods and also severe water scarcity earlier. India’s commercial capital Mumbai is brought  to a grinding halt every year due to excessive rains and poor drainage system. Other states like Maharashtra, Assam, Gujarat and Karnataka also faced the fury of nature, killing hundreds of people, thousands rendered homeless and properties worth billions lost. Scientists like Prof Madhav Gadgil had warned Kerala of the impending danger and pointed out how the sensitive ecology of the state was being systematically destroyed by builders and greedy land grabbers. It seems they have proved the Mahatma right - nature does not have enough for everybody’s GREED!

Gandhi ji’s observations on the devastating floods that hit Paris in January 1910 have indeed been prophetic . Referring to the Seine river that washed away buildings and roads, Mahatma Gandhi in his article “Paris Havoc”  published in the February 5, 1910 edition of the ‘Indian Opinion’ wrote, “The people of Paris had built the city to last for ever”. Sounding a cautionary note he added, ”nature has given a warning that even the whole of Paris may be destroyed.”Gandhi ji further  observed in his article that Parisians would not realize the futility of rebuilding palatial structures and added, ”Engineers in their conceit will have more grandiose plans now and pour out money like water, forgetting and making others forget the deluge; such is the obsession of present day civilization.”

Isn’t what we have been facing by way of droughts and floods a reenactment of what Gandhi ji’ pointed out  in his article “Paris Havoc” in the Indian Opinion on February5, 1910? We are in fact witnessing more and more of what Gandhi ji referred to as “palatial structures” in Paris. For making these sky-scrappers the powerful lobby of builders, investors and bureaucrats with the active connivance of politicians have freely indulged in bribing, corruption and undermining of all the rules and regulations meant for protecting our environment and ecology. The recent Supreme Court decision to demolish four  swanky apartment blocks in Marad in Kochi, Kerala is just an indication of the massive scale at which illegal constructions are flourishing in the country destroying our environment. Almost 2000 such illegal constructions in Kerala are under scanner now.

One feels that our response to climate change and unprecedented natural calamities  need to be based on remodeling of our lifestyles to ensure sustainable development. This essence of sustainable life style needs to be viewed from the angle of our total dependence on nature. Application of Gandhian principles and approaches can indeed protect our ecology and sustainable development can be achieved if we treat this earth as an inheritance for our next generation.