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How Gandhi’s ideas can lead us out of the climate crisis

75 years after Independence, a logical hunt for answers around the climate crisis leads to places where many ideas from Gandhi and swaraj have been before

Mahatma Gandhi's ideas can easily create the foundation of a localised, self-reliant economy,  (Unsplash)

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Earlier this month, we were treated to Aati Soppu Paayasa at our family farm in Coorg, Karnataka. The traditional dessert is made from a leaf that is foraged from the wild, and used for unique preparations to celebrate the overflowing of rivers and streams around this time of the year. The Aati Soppu Paayasa is a great example of a tenuous connection we have with the natural wealth around us. More importantly, it is a reminder of our ecologically aware traditions that did not consider seasonal flooding as traumatic but as a marker of abundance. 

My neighbours and the team at the farm did not have to go to a marketplace, nor did they have to pay anyone to source the soppu. Neither packaging nor transportation were involved. The making of the Aati Soppu Paayasa created hardly any footprint at all. It provided us all with nutrition, and filled us with a sense of pride and value in multiple ways.

In a sense, Gandhi and the call for Hind Swaraj described the self-reliance and independence that the soppu foraging from the neighbourhood signified. Gandhi’s 1930 march to Dandi, Gujarat, and the subsequent breaking of the Salt Act symbolised the idea of Swaraj and autonomy not just politically but economically as well. These ideas can easily create the foundation of a localised, self-reliant economy, which holds much promise as a possible response to the gravest threat that stares us in the face: the climate crisis.

Gandhi stressed that India's wealth lies in its villages, and that the residents of a place must have easy access to their own resources. As solution seekers, we did not go looking for Gandhian principles. Our search for answers started at an altogether different place: the root causes of energy – and transport – linked footprints are a major focus of climate action and efforts. 

As we tried to understand where energy gets consumed, and what the transport is needed for, we started to get a glimpse of how production and consumption have gotten separated further and further apart. It is our bizarre and grim reality that the people of Bengal eat rice grown by farmers in Punjab and fish hauled in from the coast of Andhra Pradesh. Uttarakhand’s farmers consume vegetables grown in their own state but after sourcing them from mandis in faraway towns. Or that tomatoes and sugar in Bengaluru's store shelves come from thousands of kilometers away despite both commodities being produced within a 100 km of the city!

The production-consumption chasm holds true even near the source of production in many cases. For instance, a significant percentage of village clusters across India are importing in – on the back of trucks – most of their basic needs such as vegetables and fruits, cooking oils, pickles, brooms and suchlike. All these are things that a village can grow, create and access at nearly no cost either to themselves or to the planet. When these are brought in from faraway production centres, the transport, packaging and storage footprint of long supply chains is very high. The village economy’s resultant dependence on a couple of commodities as producers weakens soil, biodiversity and ecosystems, making it an ever more vicious cycle of loss.

The list goes on, especially if we include basic value-addition, post-production and many skills and knowledge systems that were once commonplace in their unique contexts. This is no longer the case as many of these skills and knowledge systems are now lost. Often times, these are substituted by a mass production option that appears to be cheap, but which essentially shifts value, causes loss of skills and biodiversity, and eventually of pricing power and economic dependence, as happens to all those who lose control over production and become consumers of most things they need.

This is the prevalent economic reality around us. The incentives have become so entrenched that we fail to take notice of the footprint we exacerbate. This footprint problem has become invisible because policy, governance and even the efforts of civil society organisations are focused on the income side, while the local basket of needs -- by no means a small one once you add it all up -- ensures that the overall cluster economy stays negative in most cases. There is wisdom in getting a cluster to address its basic needs, relying on its own ecological wealth while leveraging and enhancing its skills and knowledge.

Gandhi’s call for Swadeshi and khadi symbolised decentralised production and distribution and served as a check on exploitation of natural resources. He considered the default form of the colonial Western economy as a violent one. He was supported in his vision of an alternative to the western economy by Indian merchants and businessmen of the day. G.D. Birla was a vociferous critic of British economic policies. Haji Osman Sait is said to have lit fire to all the imported goods at his family establishment and a Bangalore landmark, the Cash Bazaar superstore, when Gandhi called for a boycott of foregin goods. Given the reality of the violence implicit in our supply chains across the country, we can only nod in agreement.

Many of these Gandhian principles point to an implicit understanding of the environment and more importantly, working within the ambit of circular and sustainable structures . This is the nuance that business and sustainability leadership must begin to consider and imbibe if we are to enjoy the next 75 years of a hard-fought liberation. We need a breed of leaders who is able to reimagine and rethink the possibilities these ideas represent and their criticality in the face of the climate crisis. They will be able to steer us so that 98% of the country does not end up paying the price in every way possible in the short term.

Sameer Shisodia is a farmer, a cyclist and the CEO of Rainmatter Foundation

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