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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 41 New Delhi October 1, 2016

The Myth of Development: Time to Invoke Gandhi

Monday 3 October 2016


by Vikash Sharma

Whenever you are in a doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? —M.K. Gandhi, 1948


The Crisis

The contemporary model of development in India has been seen as a critical force in the transformation of the society. It is this framework of the modernist development agenda that has been endowed with the possibility of giving a new social character to the Indian society. It is in this context that Immanuel Kant’s reference to modernity as a process of social awakening, as a transition from darkness to a new light can be invoked. Ironically, far from the Kantian notion we have adopted a model of development for our country that is not only alien to our socio-cultural roots but has also made the country lose its own distinctive conceptuali-sations of the self. Consequentially this has allowed our unique and independent paradig-matic stands to be crushed by the overarching influence of this emerging West in terms of cultural practices, material orientations and ideological commitments. This is what we call the ‘multiplications of wants’—influenced by the Western model of development, the priorities of the nation are targeted towards the growth of industrialisation, the hegemonisation of technology and the establishment of urbani-sation.

This unilinear, economy-centric model of development has led to the growth of advanced forms of alienation, inequality and increasing individualism in society. A recent crisis in Odisha, where a man, named Majhi, carried his wife’s body for twelve kilometres after the hospital where she died failed to provide an ambulance to carry the body back to their village, reveals the tragic and utterly devastating impact of a developementalist agenda that does not take the common man into account. This is only a single incident but every day there are hundreds of instances where the stark social inequality and lack of infrastructural initiative get reflected. These moments are clear indicators of the paradoxical relationship between the needs of society and direction of development. Moreover such incidents point towards the ambitions of marketisation which degrade human connectedness, destroy its uniqueness and cut off all relationship with the soil.


Invoking Gandhi

Amidst such a crisis I am exploring the traces of Gandhi, who had critically examined the violent ambitions of Westernisation and opposed market-oriented development. He fought against the unconditional, unchallenged acceptance of the Western model of development. He felt that this kind of development was unsuitable and devastating for the common people of India.

Gandhi was particularly inspired by Henry David Thoreau and John Ruskin to make the country self-reliant and cultivate indigenous livelihoods and technologies needed for the development of all. It was the most viable and effective way to fight extreme poverty and backwardness that India was facing. For Gandhi, this idea of development emerged as an alternative and spiritual way of liberation that would lead India to total freedom both in the external world as well as in the inner realm.This project of nation-building did not see the elites alone as the sole authors of modern India but believed in bringing together the subaltern: the oppressed castes and tribes, the poor peasantry, the minorities and building up a nation where they experienced collective prosperity.

The Gandhian agenda was engaged with the question of development at the very root/fundamental level concerning itself with the fulfilment of the basic needs of the people; however, his creative genius lay in the fact that he was able to reconcile this material concern with the higher concern and thus aimed to promote spiritual development and harmony with rejection of materialism and superficiality. For Gandhi the material and the spiritual were intrinsically related and the development of one and the negligence of the other were not possible, they had to go hand in hand.


Aspiring Middle Class and Consumerism

However, in present-day India, we often realise how the public sector is slowly withdrawing itself from its role, disappearing as if purpose-fully to allow smooth privatisation. From educational institutions to public hospitals we are reminded about the ailing bureaucracy in India. It would not be wrong to say that the public sector is playing an important role in alienating the common people from the functioning of the state.

The complex structure of the bureaucracy with its gigantic machinery has distanced people from it. Moreover post-liberalisation the reluctance of the system to adapt and alter to meet the needs of the people and become more convenient for them has rapidly led to the downfall and degradation of many state-run institutions. Problems, such as corruption and nepotism, have only added to the dilapidation of the system. Because of this dead weight of the bureaucracy and the lack of government initiatives to improve upon these, people are bound to move towards the private sector. This means rapid liberalisation and the gradual withdrawal of the state from the market and economy at large. A characteristic of such a time is the proliferation of the urban middle-class. It is a class that allows itself to be seduced by consumerism and emits the symbols of the West in all possible ways. This class has little to do with the concrete circumstances faced by the rest of India. They are prompt in condemning India for its lack of cultural sophistication and economic backwardness and poverty and they also feel a certain sense of shame and embarrass-ment to acknowledge that this is the country of their origin.

The West with its entrenched materiality and economic wealth has constituted the ultimate dream of the Indian middle class who see it as their ultimate liberation. It is indeed a hyper-materialistic society. Everything from education and health to relationships and ethics—all are categories or turned into commodities transacted in the market.

This magical charm has successfully grasped both the state and masses who are increasingly convinced that the path to emancipation must go through ruthless development and imitation of the Western capitalist mode of production. In fact, it is not just the urban-middle class that has lost its power of critical consciousness but even the state has not been spared. Projects like “Make In India” reiterate the state’s over-dependence on MNCs, the World Bank, IMF. Indeed we have lost our own sense of agency, allowing gradually but consistently all indigenous economic methods to be ruined and crushed under the wheels of neoliberalism.

It is the greatest paradox of our times that India has not retained its distinctive voice and independent identity; it has been completely taken over by the gigantic, dominative and even oppressive neoliberal market ethics.


Gandhian Swaraj

In times such as these one begins to ask oneself a penetrating question, a question which takes us deep down to the roots of our own civilisational history. If we have fought political colonialism why have we remained mentally colonised, where have we lost our own sense of self-respect? Perhaps, when Gandhi spoke of Swaraj he was referring to this journey that we have so conveniently forgotten to undertake, but this is a journey without which all journeys remain incomplete. There is indeed a coloniser, an oppressor within each one of us who does not allow us to move from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge. This oppressor likes to keep us ever dependent, lethargic and without a mind of our own. It is this enemy that he said we must fight against and win over when he talked about the significance of ruling over oneself (swaraj) before one thought of ruling the ‘other’.

Today, our lack of grounded, socially embedded and people-centric models of economic enterprise are all indicators of how hollow our notions of growth and progress are. We may call ourselves free but ironically we are still colonised by the logic of a singular modernity.

Let us understand that there is not one modernity but there are many modernities, let us for once have the strength of mind and heart to define it in our own indigenous way. Only then can we free ourselves from this golden cage which has never allowed us to experience the infinite sky!

Vikash Sharma is the editor of The New Leam, a magazine on education and culture, New Delhi. He can be reached at

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