Mahatma Gandhi serves as a great example of embracing emerging strategies to address social issues, which is the cornerstone of Nemetics approach to complex problems. In this post I would like to highlight Gandhian strategy in three critical areas, which are as follows:
a) Gandhi’s strategy about uplifting the poor.
b) Gandhi’s strategy about children education
c) Gandhi’s strategy on Indian Independence
It is interesting to note that Gandhi never ever had any fixed ideas or concepts about these social issues. His strategies simply emerged from his keen observation and engagement on these issues as it were during his time.
Bread & Butter for the Poor
First, let us explore Gandhi’s strategy for uplifting the poor. He understood that there was little or no point of talking about ethics, moral, religion, spirituality or philosophy to the poor, though he himself was a very spiritual man. He also shunned the idea of placing before them any sort of ‘collective vision’. Why so? Because he thought that by doing any of these things he would be simply be ‘cheating’ the people since reality was completely different.
He saw that more than 80% of Indians were very poor with hardly any good food to eat much less nutritional food. The poor could somehow manage the ‘bread’ as he said but were unable to have the butter to go along with it. With this came his simple realization that to the poor ‘Food is God’.
He then set his mind to come up with means for the poor to get the butter. And that wasn’t very easy under British rule. They hardly cared about the poor masses since their only concern was to amass money for Britain. So what could be done? He then hit upon a simple plan. Every villager would have a ‘charkra’ (a simple inexpensive spinning wheel) with which they could spin out yarn which is then sold to the local hand looms for turning the yarn into garments, which could then be sold in the local market.
The idea caught on and soon became a success much to the chagrin of the British rulers since their money spinning textile industry was threatened. The appeal to people became effective since the villagers had lot of time on their hands. They had very little to do between sowing seeds and harvesting. That idle time was properly utilized within the given constraints to bring ‘butter’ home.
However, Gandhi didn’t relax after exchanging the idea. He and his friends were all engaged in spinning yarn through the ‘charka’. Over time, it soon became a symbol to which people could easily relate to and unite. This was a great feat since uniting so many people having such great diversity is no doubt a very difficult task. People were simply proud to spin the wheel. I heard from my father how as a school boy he was so inspired by Gandhi that he was busy with his spinning wheel two hours a day every evening after he was back from school instead of spending his time swimming, which was his favourite sport.
I think this was probably the first networked co-operative movement in the world aimed at economic improvement of the masses. Certainly it wasn’t a small feat. This simple but powerful idea soon caught the fancy of a young boy named Verghese Kurien. When he grew up he started the world’s first milk co-operative movement which is today the world’s largest producer of milk and milk products. In India this is known as the ‘white revolution’.
How is the Gandhian strategy of co-operative movement applied to this area? Every morning before sunrise around 3 million village women bring to the Amul factory whatever small amount of milk they could milk from the few cows they have in exchange of good money, which is more than they could have otherwise got by selling their product in the local market. From such small contributions Amul then produces milk and milk products distributed all across India.
Now we come to the next strategy that emerged for educating the children of India. He noticed that the traditional ‘caste system’ was a big constraint for the unity of India. Upper caste people simply refused to mix with the lower caste people and the lower caste people were alienated from the main stream. This was not only sad but also would prove to be a disaster if India were to progress, he thought. The lower caste people, mainly comprised of various types of artisans, constituted 60% of the population. How was he to bring them together?
A strategy emerged. He would aim to do so through children education. How was it? In India, every village is known for its mastery of some craft or the other. That is how they survived for centuries. For example, if one village mastered making earthen pots and utensils then another village was famous for making cotton garments, or polishing gem stones or well known for smithy work. Gandhi wanted these crafts to survive. So he designed his education system around the craft the village was famous for. He insisted that every child of the village would master the trade or craft of the village along with other subjects like Maths, Science and Languages. He was clearly aiming at integration at various levels.
At the most basic level he wanted the higher castes to integrate with the lower castes by at least appreciating the work that made the place well known. He also wanted to integrate modern subjects with the traditional subjects so that cultural continuity remains without creating a scarcity of teachers to teach the children. However, to my mind the greatest integration he aimed for was to integrate ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’, ‘empathy’ and ‘reason’, traditional and the modern, poor and the rich, west and the east and above all integration of collective innovation and sustainable economy by building on each other’s innate strengths without the aim of mass production. It was simply a grand strategy which his disciples failed to appreciate and implement after his death. If India would have adopted this strategy she would have been a glorious example of what a sustainable economy might look like in these days of world wide economic crisis. His clarion call on this issue was, ‘Man’s needs may be fulfilled but not his greed’. How true these words ring today!
However, I believe that this brilliant strategy can still serve as a blue-print on which sustainable economies and societies can be redesigned and rebuilt to save our planet, save ourselves in many ways and save our future generations too. I think the last evidence of implementation of this brilliant strategy can be seen in fragments in Tagore’s Shantineketan where the old seamlessly merges with the new. That was Tagore’s dream. My father was so enamored by that dream that he planned to send me as a child to Shantineketan for my schooling. But my mother would have none of that. She simply refused to let me leave home. However, I partially made up for that by frequenting that place to soak up the richness of such bold and cherished ideas. I can still feel it stir in me, patiently waiting for an expression at the right time. However, I know that long wait is over and now is the time to explore that strategy again.
Lastly we would explore his emerging strategy towards gaining independence of India from the British. It would strike odd that he did not start out with any concept or idea of how to gain freedom from the British like many did. He did not harbor any idea of collective revolution or armed revolution or mass uprisings.
His first approach was to persuade Britain to grant India dominion status like it did for Australia and other countries. And he peacefully pursued this for several years till it was amply clear that Britain had nothing to do with it.
Soon the second strategy emerged. He would peacefully protest against any further British plans to make and carry away wealth and money from India. With that strategy in mind he started small collective movements against the British administration for anything collective consciousness thought to be an act of exploitation. The most famous in this series of protest is known as Dandi March (or also known as the Salt March). Soon such collective actions were having the desired effect on the general mass. They have found a way to stop the British in their tracks.
Meanwhile as Britain entered WW II Gandhi sensed that such collective actions can be taken several notches higher since Britain would now be needing money more than ever before to sustain the war efforts and it would be sponging India for that. He stepped up his campaign and called it as ‘Non-Violent Non-Cooperation Movement’. The strategy was simple and clear to the masses. Don’t buy British goods. Boycott them. Don’t help the British in any way, however small. Use only goods made by Indians in India. Somehow, anyhow stop the money exchange. I remember my grandmother telling me how she, on hearing Gandhi in one of his several public speeches switched from fancy British and French clothes to the home spun clothes and how she along with her friends made a bonfire on the streets out of ‘foreign clothes and other articles such as women toiletry like scents, powders, soaps, face creams, etc. Was it the same grandmother who is to get her laundry done in Paris? Incredible is the effect of the voice of an authentic leader who could stir the collective consciousness of the masses through simple but cogent words!
By 1942, Gandhi was pretty clear that with the war upon the British they would have no other option but to leave India when the war comes to its logical end. They would simply run out of money to administer India. I marvel at his systemic way of thinking. It is at that time he took it upon himself to proclaim the famous slogan that instantly found a place deep in the hearts of every Indian, ‘Quit India’. The challenge was thrown and the British were in no mood to accept it.
These two words galvanized India and Indians against the British so as to make their stay unbearable. No fights. No wars. No revolution. In two years time the British were looking for a face saving solution to quit India, their crown jewel. 15th August 1947 marked a not so peaceful transition to freedom at midnight when India greeted her new found freedom through non-violence, something she stood for thousands of years.
In this example, we see how strategies to win freedom (such a wicked problem) evolved with time by adapting to the given situation at hand.
a) Strategies are not great plans and visions or explicit missions. They effortlessly emerge out of necessity in a given situation.
b) Look at the problem first, think of the solution later. It is never the other way round where a solution keeps waiting to find an application or a problem to be solved.
c) The strength of the collective consciousness is the real strength, not money. Collective consciousness can only be changed through meaningful and authentic actions not through gimmicks or magic.
d) Adopt ‘adaptation’ as a rule. Small changes in a system’s design bring great desirable changes in the output. Adaptation is always done against authentic constraints. There is no need to redesign entire systems.
e) Keep people at the center of everything. Involvement, Participation, Co-operation, Engagement and Exchange are the key words.
f) Sustainable economy (satisfying needs not greed), ‘Food is God’ and education for children are all interconnected and interdependent as a whole to give any strategy a shape and life. One is not without the other. All meaningful strategies must have these three vital components to work effectively.
In another post I hope to highlight another Indian leader, Dr. Manmohan Singh, the present Prime Minister, who also adopted this concept of embracing emerging strategies to uplift the destiny of the masses; though he took a seemingly different route to do so.
Opinions, conjectures and analysis expressed in this post are entirely my own.