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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 42 New Delhi October 6, 2018

Is Cleanliness Gandhi’s Greatest Contribution to Nation-Building?

Sunday 7 October 2018, by Devaki Jain

It has been distressing for me to notice how the entire space for celebrating Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary by the Government of India has been focusing on toilets: public defecation-free India. In the process of shifting public attention, finances and administrative energy into building toilets (I will not go into the flaws, the failures, the continuation of manual scavenging etc.), and therefore ‘Swachh Bharat’ as the clarion call at this time, Gandhi’s contribution to poverty eradication, to life-styles, to sarvadharma, and samaanathva, has been neglected, has lost space.

 Even as this campaign was started with symbolism like Gandhi’s famous glasses, it hurt people like me.

Gandhi had such important ideas for India’s economic growth, economic prosperity and economic justice. He also had doable and valuable ideas on people-friendly institutions. For example, Gandhi’s appeal in developing the khadi movement, could be described in corporate language as buyer-seller meet! If people would buy what is produced in widespread economic units, namely, households and small shops, then there would be a distribution of incomes almost automatically. While the khadi programme has been justifiably criticised for being unviable in terms of investment which brings returns, it could also be argued that it was not designed and implemented in more effective and rational ways.

But the real point was consumption restraint: that those who have, spend and purchase, try to purchase what will provide livelihood for someone else. The consumer-producer link which we now have through Amazon?! For the “better off”, by the “better off”—to put it mildly.

The Gandhi celebrations could have concen-trated on his economics as non-violence. It hurts to notice the kind of goods that are now part of the buying habits of the middle classes and rich. It hurts to read that India has added more to the club of the world’s wealthiest, while we also have the persistence of deprivation.

There are many programmes for the under-privileged—the latest is Modi-care, there are also efforts to engage with women’s rights.. There is also effort at skilling. But Gandhi had it worked out in a cycle—engage with the masses for producing the required goods, whether they be cloth or food or even tools and machine production. Engage with the public, persuading through rhetoric and economic incentives and systems to buy these goods. Organise cooperatives of labour for building roads or houses. Strengthen programmes like the NREGA. Let the rhetoric and the propaganda be addressed to these issues, in the same way as this government has addressed Swachh Bharat!

Alas, the celebrations have steered clear of the heart of Gandhi’s dreams—a just and peaceful social and economic order.

The author is an economist and writer.

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