The documentary Story of Stuff shows the immense impact of the economy on the environment. As the skulls denoting toxic fumes float into the sky in the film, one is left wondering if there will ever be a way of living to protect nature from our waste, while also allowing for a true exploration of life.
In India, we needn’t look far. M.K. Gandhi propounded the idea of ‘Swaraj’ – self-rule, in his book Hind Swaraj in 1909, to empower the country to build a social framework based on decentralisation, which inherently has a smaller ecological footprint. Between Gandhi and economist J. C. Kumarappa, his close associate, we have a system that focuses on interconnected human evolution and reduced environmental impact.
Sumanas Koulagi’s book draws from the work of these two giants – Gandhi, the patron saint of the environment and Kumarappa, the green voice. The book is an extended version of his Ph.D. dissertation, and the theoretical academic analysis is beautifully complemented by his work with the Janapada Seva Trust’s Khadi Initiative. The book reads like the result of a deeply personal journey informed by careful social and ecological observations, on how to fulfil life’s purpose without harming the environment and human rights.
Sumanas uses khadi, the hand spun and hand-woven cotton fabric that Gandhi recommended during the Freedom Struggle, to analyse existing development models. Development is an intentional act, he writes; I suppose it is a verb and not a noun, much like love. Sumanas talks about the limitations of different development systems such as the Sustainable Development Goals, Ubuntu, and Gross National Happiness, and arrives at the Swaraj Development Paradigm as the most pertinent framework to tackle growing inequality and the environmental crisis.
The book is structured in four parts: an explanation of the Swaraj Development Paradigm; an analysis of the khadi sector; ways in which the sector can be changed; and a snapshot of the practices he has undertaken at the Khadi Initiative he works with.
The paradigm is explained using three interconnected sections: morality, politics and economics, explained in the context of the khadi sector in Karnataka, which he studied for a year. The section on the khadi sector shows the malaise most Indian systems seem to be inflicted with – corruption, workers being exploited, identity-related favours, and an overwhelming sense of drudgery.
Where many would accept this as status quo, Sumanas is not bogged down by systemic inequalities and the dust surrounding the reams of khadi. His book leaps to action, calmly and transparently, and lays out his experiments at Janapada Seva Trust’s Khadi Initiative for the reader to try. He peppers his chapter on the way forward with organisations that are following aspects of the Swaraj Development Paradigm. This includes the Honeybee Network, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Dastakar Andhra, and Chennai’s Organic Farmers’ Market, which one can explore for an application of the paradigm in different contexts.
The ideas Sumanas presents not only encourage the reader to not only consider the existing socio-economic order, but also spark self-reflection. For instance, he writes: “self-rule (Swaraj) is not only an act against the oppressive forces embedded in social and state practices but also entails an internal struggle”. He connects the ideas of development, environment and the interconnectedness of human life (or the web of life), throughout the book.
Just as the concept of development requires attention to nuances, Sumanas’s book will require careful reading and possibly some soul searching on its ideas. Given that it has evolved from an academic exercise, the book can be heavy reading. I advise patience and some homework – both of which will yield rewards because his march towards reform and reimagination and the practice of the Swaraj Development Paradigm is an important contribution to actionable change for equity and the environment.
The book is available on Amazon. You could also contact the author for more information or copies at email@example.com.
Reviewed by Shatakshi Gawade, Sanctuary Asia.