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Mainstream, VOL LV No 18, New Delhi, April 22, 2017

A Mix of Gandhian Economics and Socialism

Monday 24 April 2017


by Arti Khosla

An Alternative Philosophy of Development: From Economism to Human Well-Being by B.P. Mathur; published by Routledge Taylor & Francis; 2017.

This is the latest book from B.P. Mathur’s pen. A former civil servant, B.P. Mathur worked in several capacities with the government and had a ringside view of the administration, its strength and its failures. This extensive experience coupled with his idealism and knowledge of our spiritual heritage has inspired him to voice his concerns about several things not right about our economy, public policy and governance as such.

This book essentially outlines the author’s disappointment with the current model of economic development in India that has not delivered. It is because, the author feels, the model of development we adopted is a blind imitation of Western ideas where emphasis is on persuit of wealth and individual profit. It encourages consumerism and wastefulness as also creates a vast chasm between the rich and poor. India went in for this model in 1991 when faced with a serious foreign exchange crisis. Liberalisation of the economy at the behest of the International Monetary Fund became necessary. Prior to that the country was following the Nehruvian model of socialism where state enterprises were considered as the commanding heights of the economy and though privatisation existed it played a secondary role. The reference-point for economic growth was the Soviet-style five-year plans.

In 1991 the country entered an era of free-market economy and GDP growth became a serious persuit. The economy grew at the rate of seven to eight per cent but this additional creation of wealth has not helped the poor. The benefit of growth has been cornered by 20 per cent of the people while 80 per cent are wallowing in poverty. India has today more millionaires and billionaries but at the same time a vast multitude cannot afford their two square meals a day. Thus the current model of development has resulted in more poverty, inequality, unemployment, environment degradation due to the culture of consumerism we copied from the West.

The author finds this model utterly unsuitable since it is based on the Western culture which is ‘materialistic’ while Indian culture is essentially spiritual which values austerity, control over one’s senses and promoting qualities of ‘sympathy, empathy, comradeship and brotherhood’. The author devotes a full chapter in Part 1V of his book on Indian culture with its salient features of tolerance, solidarity, family values etc. with which he is linking his alternative philosophy of development. In addition to the current model not being attuned to the indian ethos its failure is also due to poor governance.

In Part 1 of the book the author describes how we have failed to improve the quality of life of citizens of this country. Our education system at all levels—be it primary, secondary or university—is totally in disarray. The health facilities for common people are in dismal conditions. We have failed to address rural distress. Agriculture has been neglected and has become an unrumenerative occupation. Low prices for their produce and rising debts have made thousands of farmers to end their lives due to desperation. Poor governance is of course responsible for this failure.

There is no denying the author’s belief that good governance is a pre-requisite for development. The author details the requirements for good governance in chapter 14 under Part Three of the book. These are usual ones as recommended by successive committees and commissions on Administrative Reforms, namely, accountability, performance linked career development, decentralisation, eradicating corruption, depoliticisation of services etc.

While the present model of development with focus on GDP has been found ‘irrelevant’, the alternative model the author suggests should be one “where progress is measured in terms of human capability, dignified employment for everyone, equitable distribution of income and wealth and ecological sustainability and social well being of the community”. What that model should be. Gandhian economics? Or socialism? The author veers around to both these philosophies. Gandhian philosophy is relevant insofar as it stresses on individual dignity by providing gainful employment to each person and welfare of the poorest of the poor. Revisiting socialism (not of the Soviet variety) is considered desireable in creating an egalitarian society where “life chances are not allocated by structural inequalities in social, economic and political constructions of societies”. This mix of Gandhian economic model plus some ideas drawn from socialism as propounded by Karl Marx and others does not clearly indicate what in practice this model is going to be. The author himself does not seem to be very clear about how exactly we go about this alternative model.

The emphasis appears to be for the model of development which should resonate with Indian culture rather than blindly following as at present the one attuned to Western culture. The essential features of Indian culture are tolerance, accommodating others, oneness and solidarity of universe, family values, purusharth etc. Essentially it is steeped in spirituality. The author’s grasp on all things spiritual is visible in this effort.

The author has quoted extensively from several economists, philosphers, scholars and nobel laureates to buttress his arguments. Similiarly he has supported his views on the dismal state of education, health, agriculture etc. by giving statistics and numbers. Some repetitions and contradictionsnot withstanding the book is worth the read by students of economics, policy makers and those generally interested in the affairs of the nation. The repetitions are inevi-table when one writes in a general flow rather than have a structured draft before him. One only wished that the print was not kept that small which is not easy on the eyes.

Aarti Khosla is a former Additional Secretary, Government of India. She is now a free-lance writer.