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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 45

Gandhian Ideology of Trusteeship and Natural Resource Management

Wednesday 31 October 2007, by Anita Barik


The advancing processes of globalisation worldwide have been accompanied by deepening divisions and conflicts—both within and between societies. We see around us a spreading “culture of wars” that justifies the use of coercive means to realise the desired ends. And the situation at the start of the 21st century has become further aggravated with the emerging crisis of control over natural resources. The conflict over competing claims to natural resources witnesses an effort to grab a greater share of the resources; and it also involves different ways of using the resources. The effects of these competing claims have given rise to resistance in multiple forms. The most significant among them is the voice of resistance opposing the corporate houses, government and the development idiom that gives priority to the commercial use of local resources over their use for subsistence. Thus contemporary resistances have added a new dimension to the struggle by articulating the issues in forms of survival of the majority, as well as by focusing on the related issues of privatisation, unequal distribution of developmental benefits and sustainable development. The worth of the resistance lies in raising some critical governance issues pertaining to policy formulation, resource use and control and socio-economic equity.

Against this backdrop, it is appropriate to revitalise the Gandhian ideology of the trusteeship system (especially in the context of management of natural resources or resources meant for public good), when we are celebrating the centenary of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement.

Gandhi visualised that the process of trusteeship as a means to bring about a change and eliminate class conflict from the social horizon. He did not seek to abolish capitalism, rather stressed on the conversion of autocracy into trusteeship. In his opinion, the exclusive method by which economic equality could be brought about was by non-violent transformation through the trusteeship process.

IN the context of management of natural resources, the public trust doctrine primarily rests on the principle that certain resources like land, water, and forests have such a great importance to the people as a whole that it would be wholly unjustified to make them a subject of private ownership. These resources being a gift of nature should be made available and free to everyone irrespective of the status in life. The doctrine of Gandhian trusteeship system enjoins upon the capitalist to protect the resources for the enjoyment of the general public rather than to permit their use for private ownership or commercial purpose. Though Gandhi had advocated state ownership of land and other means of production, in his opinion, there existed no room for private property as he emphasised the concept of “non-possession”. He stressed that if everyone realises the obligation of service (as an eternal and moral law), she/he would regard it as a sin to amass wealth, and then there would be no inequalities of wealth and consequently no famine or starvation. It is the surest way to evolve a new order of life for universal benefit in place of the present one, he observed. In his trusteeship system, he provided a peaceful alternative to state ownership and expropriation. As he visualised, a violent and bloody revolution is a certainty one day and advocated voluntary abdication of riches and the sharing of power for the common good. It was with a view to avoiding any such violent revolution and creating the possibility to maintain permanently the stability of equality that Gandhi tended to advocate his trusteeship system. The trusteeship system has the stamp of Gandhi’s social relations theory with modern nuances and perspectives. This theory aims at solving social conflicts in its two forms—interpersonal and intergroup, and by cooperation, peace and harmony.

It is quite obvious that the trusteeship system alone provides a practical solution for the abolition of conflict over natural resources. The public at large is the beneficiary of the seashore, running water, air, forests and ecologically fragile lands. The capitalist as trustee should protect the natural resources. But the system does not involve forceful appropriation of the capitalists. Gandhi also strongly believed that the trusteeship system should not be based on philanthropy. The trustee has no heir but the public, he asserted. This system would contribute significantly towards the resolution of conflict and achieving cooperation.

The author is a Research Scholar, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at and

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