On the occasion of World Environment Day (5 June), it would be useful to underline that Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of non-violence can be extended from its political and social implications to the concept of conservation of nature against the invasion of modern technology without which we survived for thousands of years.
The tremendous progress of technology has now become a part of our lives as we take for granted the comfort and advantages it offers, disregarding the negative impact it can cause to nature in general. Gandhi’s non-violent methods envisage that nature ought to be handled in a mild manner, much against modern technology’s onslaught on nature to help technology achieve its goal.
Tagore had also written on the love of nature that nourished us for thousands of years and is still a source of nourishment and pleasure for both physical and mental needs.
The traditional respect for nature helped conservation, while the modern concept of science conquering nature hastened its destruction.
The modern slogan of ‘save nature and save yourself’ are belated warnings that were followed in the past. The two key principles of rational ecology namely, ‘maximum diversity’ and ‘minimum interference’ can be followed if the Gandhian principle of non-violence is accepted in spirit.
It is nothing new for us because in India we have always followed the simple formula of least interference. For example, according to Indian tradition, cows were not milked for a while after a calf is born so that the latter gets enough nourishment. Arable land is not cultivated for sometime after reaping a crop so that it gets some rest.
Flowers and leaves were not plucked at night when these were supposed to ‘sleep’. The sacred groves or various customs/deities of the forest or hills helped conservation in a regular way.
Modern science and technology debunked these traditions as superstitions without any suitable environmental alternative that can help conservation.
Gandhi’s love of traditional values and Nature is criticized and even ridiculed on various counts not least because the philosophy is against modernity and technology.
But of late, people have become conscious of the desecration of nature in the wake of natural calamities, change in the weather pattern, excessive pollution that can cause various ailments, change in the harvesting patterns, destruction of flora and fauna, and so on. Electronic items can damage the environment as well as human life.
In less than 300 years, the symbiotic relationship between man and nature has been snapped by the onslaught of modern technology and western colonialism.
The number of elephants, tigers, and wolves, which play an important role in the ecosystem for their large biomass, is dwindling. Whales are dying in the sea due to the oil-spill of big ships. The worst part of this onslaught is that those who once lived nearest to nature are the worst sufferers of such depletion of wild life. The so-called natural classification is anthropocentric.
For instance, while water hyacinth is destroyed, rose and corn are conserved. The reason is obvious: whatever is good for human consumption (corn or other edibles) or for aesthetics (rose or sandalwood) is to be conserved and whatever is not good or necessary (like water hyacinth) is to be destroyed.
The Gandhian concept of combining tradition and modernity however tried to combine the traditional empathy for nature. Some people obviously thought it is anti-modern and anti-science while some others regarded him as a forerunner of the modern concept of rational ecology.
Post-independent India’s initial euphoria over development by resorting to heavy industrialisation for overcoming poverty and hunger also tried to sever the umbilical cord with nature. Gandhi’s emphasis on traditional values and methods was discarded as an impediment to progress.
Large projects were undertaken by both public and private sectors. These initiatives brought about modernity and prosperity to a section of the society but at the same time left a larger section outside its ambit.
In the present context we can only say that the honeymoon with modernity in this context is over for many, “and a large number of thinkers are turning towards tradition and its various facets to meet the ecological problems of a technology-oriented society because Gandhi turned his back to urban life and its related issues”, to quote Ramachandra Guha in “Gandhi and the Environmental Problems” in Gandhi and the Global Crisis, edited by Ramashray Ray, Simla 1996.
In his reckoning, Gandhi’s awareness of the impending environmental crisis can place him as an early environmentalist, but his solutions will not appeal to our modern problems of a technologyoriented society because he turned his back to urban life and its related issues.
Gandhi’s attempt to adhere to traditional ways of life was generally rejected.
However, some neo-Gandhian scholars are calling for the revival of many traditional ways to handle new difficulties including conservation problems in the light of modern scientific knowledge. These attempts to give a new look at our traditional ideas and methods are necessary in order to handle various environmental problems aggravated by mindless devastation of the environment by technological projects.
Various forms of traditional wisdom about practical solutions of different problems are considered by environmentalists to be more prudent than the ones offered by modern technology. Some scholars are examining the merits of traditional methods of irrigation in today’s world with specific reference to India. Various forms of traditional wisdom about practical solutions of different problems are considered by the environmentalists “to be more prudent than the ones offered by modern technology”.
It is good to see that not only scholars and intellectuals but our present political system also recognises the classical model of environmental management reflected in various constitutional provisions and laws .The tradition of recognition of the rights of nature as envisaged by Gandhi in the present era is gradually being recognised by both the public authorities and private institutions.
Both Gandhi and Tagore were very sensitive about nature and its protection. The concept of rights was not so clear then, but it was clear that we should not harm nature indiscriminately. The terms and conditions were not very explicit in their writings unlike the ancient texts, but at least it is clear that we should use them only minimally under certain conditions.
Another welcome change is that the responsibility of protection of nature has been passed on to individuals. It is no longer the sole responsibility of the State.
“No longer is the environmental stewardship solely the responsibility of Kings and their ministers; within a democracy this becomes a more broadly shared responsibility.
Indeed through the 42nd amendment to the Constitution, environmental stewardship along with nine other specified responsibilities became a duty of every Indian citizen,” as the environmentalist, Mary McGee, has emphasised.
(To be concluded)
The writer is formerly of Calcutta University and UGC Emeritus Fellow.