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Economic Ideas of Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi's economic ideals, much like everything else in his life, were governed by ethical and moral considerations. His stress on rural economy and emphasis on a simple life, coupled with his concern for universal well-being formed the foundation of his unique views on economics. Gandhi's economic models were based largely on his understanding of the Indian situation. However, it should be stressed that Gandhi himself believed that the model could be employed on an international scale as well. It should be remembered that Gandhi's economic modes are particularly humanitarian in nature and for him no economic model is worth implementation unless it aims towards the general well-being of mankind.

The Basic Tenets of Gandhi's Economic Views

Gandhi had an innate sympathy for the poor and deprived. This coupled with a direct observation of the predicament of the poor and the oppressed both in India and in South Africa led him to design an economic model that would alleviate the condition of the poor and the deprived. Gandhi believed that the high capitalist endeavors were at the root of all suffering. He believed that business without ethical considerations was fundamentally evil. This led to discrimination, oppression and exploitation. Gandhi also held that there is enough in this world to feed and clothe all. However, there is poverty and deprivation because one group of people thrives on the labor put in by others. Gandhi strongly believed in the ethics of hard work and that one is entitled to take from the system only as much as he is capable of producing. This according to Gandhi, was the only way to fight poverty and to disarm the world of all its economic woes.

Gandhi also strongly believed that laziness and lack of work can cause immense physical and spiritual deprivation among the populace. It is impossible to ignite the masses towards a revolution leading to a bigger political or ideological goal if they are weak, both physically and morally. He understood that the new industrial modes of mass and large scale productions that have been ousting the age-old indigenous village techniques are ultimately leading towards unemployment and laziness. Therefore, he worked hard for a resurrection of the village modes of production.

The most unique feature of Gandhi's economic model was he wanted to turn the entire flow of profits from the pockets of the big industrialists to the workers. The consumer should, he believed, not only be concerned with acquiring high quality, inexpensive products, but also consider which sections of society are profited by his investment. Foreign clothes may be better and cheaper than the home-spun khadi, but the relentless use of the imported fabric would lead to unemployment of thousands of villagers who have traditionally earned a living by spinning and weaving home-made clothes. The same logic extends to agro-based products as well. Choosing such imported goods would lead to a degeneration of the entire village economy, which was the backbone of Indian economy, Gandhi believed.

But at the same time, Gandhi knew the actual implications of an aggressive capitalism: no such humanitarian economic considerations can possibly curb the relentless advance of the big mechanizations initiated by high capitalist agencies. Therefore, he devised a scheme to suit one and all. A nation low on man-power can well use mechanization to enhance its agricultural and mechanical production. But for a nation with a teeming population like India, it would augur no good. Secondly, he thought that a nation should produce only as much as it needs to produce. Extra production, resulting in the beginning of international economic race, would only lead to exploitation. The condition in India, for Gandhi, was ultimately a manifestation of the aggressive mechanization promoted by the British colonialists.

Gandhi's Understanding of the Indian Conditions

Gandhi came back to India after his successful South African initiative to find the Indian economy in a state of absolute disarray. He was pained by the way the rural economy was broken down and debased beyond redemption by the British authorities. He took up a two fold action. First, he had to instill in India the moral courage to be economically self sufficient, producing and fulfilling its own primary needs in home-grown, indigenous ways. This would not only revive the rural economy of India, it would also break down the British economic motives that led them to stay in India. This was indeed an uphill task. He knew it would be difficult for him to make the Indian elite, groomed to a system of caste-based economy for centuries to truly accept the dignity of labor and work. Gandhi had only one way out and he immediately embarked on that. He turned his life into a living example of his ideals and led every resident of his Sabarmati ashram to do the same. Soon, the ideals of economic self sufficiency were accepted throughout India. The death knell of the British economic interests in India was sounded and the British authorities soon realized that by attacking their economic interests, Gandhi had successfully isolated their rationale behind their rule of India.

Rural Economy, Khadi and Handlooms

One of the greatest challenges for Gandhi was to rope in every strata of the Indian society into his ideals of economic self sufficiency. Gandhi understood that the very backbone of India was its villages. Unless the village economy could be reformed, nothing could be achieved on the economic front. In his bid to resurrect the rural economy of India, Gandhi started to advocate the use of handmade tools to plough lands. He did not endorse huge farm holdings with modern agricultural machines. Such holdings, he thought, would naturally bring in discrimination where one would reap the benefits of the toil put in by someone else. Gandhi's more revolutionary concept that gathered great popularity throughout the nation was his defense for the cause of handicrafts and handlooms. It was a pointed attack against the mill-made textiles introduced by the British authorities and was an important part of their economic interests in India. Gandhi gave the call to all Indians to desist from the use of all foreign products and for everyone to spin his or her own clothes. The 'charakha' or the spinning wheel and the khadi, or the homespun coarse cloth became the very symbol of nationalism and a sign for the support for national economy. Gandhi made it compulsory for all satyagrahis to use khadi clothes. It was an important economic statement made by Gandhiji. All forms of rural handicrafts achieved great encouragement from Gandhi.