Mahatma Gandhi continues to be an Indian icon, with his name and ideas being continually invoked or evoked forseveral purposes. He was a complex person with complex ideas which can still bear exploration and analysis. Earlier this year, addressing over 100,000 representatives of Gujarat’s Panchayati Raj institutions at a state-wide gathering, the prime minister invoked Gandhi in calling for self-reliant and strong villages as a facilitator of rural development. This was a natural message for the occasion, but one might think about what these ideas can mean in practice and how one might reimagine Gandhian economics for the 21st century, almost 75 years after his death, and 30 years after the constitutional amendments inspired by his vision of village democracy.
India has over a quarter million village-level governments and three million elected representatives for these. There are also higher-level rural governments as well as those for towns and cities, but the village, with a population of just a few thousand, is at the center of the Gandhian idea of the rural idyll. Village-level governments have served important roles in giving some experience of the functioning of democratic institutions to many more Indians than before the constitutional amendments, but real change is lacking is on the economic front. They still lack adequate authority to manage local public goods and the independent funds needed to deliver even on their too-limited responsibilities. Arguably, most village governments are anyway too small to have efficient scale, but the same problem of lack of funds and authority exists at the two higher tiers of rural local government. Some of the problem has come from the resistance of state governments, since they still have constitutional authority over local governments within their boundaries. Finance commissions have been partly finessing this problem with direct grants.
India now has a government that has shown itself willing to change ideas of nation and citizenship and to shake up long-standing economic structures. Gandhi was also someone who was willing to adapt and to change his views to some extent as the world evolved. His economic thinking was shaped by a time in which colonialism and unequal access to markets and technology had disrupted India’s economic structures and impoverished many Indians. That is why he opposed imports and promoted his vision of self-reliance. That term, of course, had many other implications beyond insularity in economic structures. What might Gandhi support now, in terms of economic policies for the average Indian? Affordable access to high quality internet infrastructure and services would be an obvious priority, not just for government services or through government facilities, but for something much more empowering for average Indians, including opportunities for learning and for economic betterment. In his time, Gandhi promoted hand spinning and weaving but he would very likely have supported access to 3D printers for additive manufacturing. Creating productive entrepreneurial jobs close to home would have appealed to his ideals of decentralisation and community. He would have understood that local governments need the authority and resources to provide local public goods such as lighting, transport, and especially sanitation. He would support greater tax authority for local governments to make them more self-reliant. But he would also have understood the benefits of untied grants from higher level governments, taking advantage of their superior taxing powers and redistributive capacity. He might be wary of large factories, global production networks, and the growth of megacities. But if he had observed the past 75 years of the evolution of the world’s economy, he would likely understand their role, especially in an international order less unequal and colonial. Rather than being fixated on idealised villages of the past, he would be advocating for sustainable, inclusive development, including decentralised renewable energy systems. He would be promoting local management of natural resources and the ecosystem as a whole.
If Gandhi returned today, self-reliance would not mean autarkic and insular villages where existing inequalities and power structures remained entrenched. Rural development would not mean obsolete technologies for the poor, but inclusive access to high-quality infrastructure, public services, learning and skilling opportunities, and national or global markets for local production. Gandhi would also recognise the limits of agriculture as a source of jobs, the need to reduce pressure on the land, and the changing nature of rural India. He would likely advocate recognising urbanisation proactively, creating strong towns as well as strong villages by reclassifying peri-urban areas as municipalities, giving them the requisite powers to manage their infrastructure.
The evolution of Gandhi, from Gujarat to London to South Africa and back to India, was remarkable, as was his continued evolution as the leader of India’s freedom struggle. He was far from perfect, but he was creative and adaptive as well as relatively inclusive. India should implement a Gandhian economics for this century, not the last one.
Nirvikar Singh, Professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz