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Gandhi, Indian Ethos of Agriculture & Swaraj

This article was written for the magazine Agricultural World, New Delhi for their October 2019 Issue. 


Recently, we have heard the case of a major multi-national corporate body suing a small farmer with 4 acres of land to the tune of 1.2 Crores for using what it claimed as its own variety of Potato for making unhealthy food. The legal case has been subsequently withdrawn after a public protest.  As a country that has a very largen number of small and marginal farmers who do farming with their families, India is continuously faced with the challenge of having to engage with economies, technologies, policies, practices and knowledge that is created from countries where farming is done by a very small population of farmers each owning very large tracks of land. Such instances are a wake-up call for India to revisit its agriculture outlook and examine whether there is any merit in the way of agriculture that is currently prevalent at all. It is important for India to revisit its on ethos on food sovereignty to articulate a position that today in the global space is seen as not merely voicing a fresh approach but also more relevant in the context of the reality of climate change. This article tries to capture the Indian ethos in agriculture as articulated by Gandhi. The author has been associated with the Organic Farming movement in the State of Tamilnadu since over 2 decades and also coordinates one of the several farmers’ free exchange of seeds and biodiversity celebration festivals in Tamilnadu.


O tiller of the soil,

Rightly they call you father of the world;

You, and you alone, provide

For all mankind;—

Cotton, fruits, flowers and grass,

And foodgrains too,

The food that sustains all creatures,

And clothing that is welcome to all.

Braving heat and rain,

Unremitting in toil,

Robust of health,

Ever you move in contentment.

Of worth supreme is the tiller’s work,

Work that tends to others’ good;

Tireless in your labour,

You teach a good lesson to the world.

Gandhiji had perhaps been one of the few Indian leaders, and maybe the only one political leader, who had written or commented extensively on every aspect of human endeavour. The poem above translated and the comment that follows was addressed to his fellow Indians in South Africa where he used to edit the Indian Opinion. Gandhi reproduced this above poem from school-book in his newspaper and went on to write, “If we recite the poem given above before a farmer, he will simply be amused. He will not even understand what we mean. So true a father is he, and so sincere a benefactor. But we who recite the poem, what do we do? If the farmer is indeed a father and if his profession is indeed the highest, why are we busy padding ourselves with heaps of clothes? Why do we grind the poor under our heels to extort the last farthing from them? Why do we think it manly to be mere clerks, attired in respectable clothes? Such is our benighted state. We only talk of agriculture. It has got stuck in our throats and does not go further than that”[1]. If we read his statement again, we can say that what he wrote 110 years ago is valid for the contemporary India as well, maybe with the increasing realization of the role of women in agriculture, he may have shifted the gender to call the farmer the Mother in today’s context.

In recent months, ‘doubling of farmer’s income’ has come to occupy our mainstream media and political attention. We need to ask some serious questions here –

  1. Why ‘double’ farmer’s income? Why not think about a way of ensuring that the farmer’s income grows at par with the cost of living that the farmer is increasingly subjected to?
  2. Why do we fall back on the by now adequately proven poor faulty logic of productivity as the basis of measuring a farmer income? Despite living in an economy where product prices have long moved away from being influenced by cost of production, we continue to somehow calculate revenue for the farmer from a productivity point of view?
  3. Increased cost of natural services has to be factored if we were to ever judiciously use the natural resources. Yet, we continue to subsidize exploitation of natural resources or its further degradation without either paying the price or creating about the long term remedial measures?

The answers for these questions above are not easy and therein lies in the choices we made as an Independent nation. They have to do with the adoption of a model of Governance, Markets and Technology, all the three of which were divergent from what Gandhiji wanted us to adopt as a free nation. Today increasingly these choices challenge the freedom of individual and therein highlights our ideas of freedom as against the Gandhian idea of Swaraj.

Deeper into the questions, we may recognize that the fundamental fault lies in the kind of agriculture we decided to pursue with indicators of success largely seen as an ever-increasing linear graph line. Nature is cyclical and doesn’t abide by man-made charts and graphs. Today the impact of Climate Change all around us has placed the arguments of nature right on the forefront, as famous author Amitav Ghosh says, “Climate change poses a powerful challenge to what is perhaps the single most important political conception of the modern era: the idea of freedom, which is central not only to contemporary politics but also to the humanities, the arts and literature[2]”. Gandhi would have wanted us to build an agriculture economy, indeed all economy, closer to and aligned with the economy of natural order. As articulated by J.C. Kumarappa[3], the Gandhian Economist, “everything in nature seems to follow a cyclical movement. … A nation that forgets or ignores the fundamental process in forming its institutions will disintegrate. Our economic situation in India today is largely due to the absence of the natural order[4]”. This is ascribed to the nature of convergence of modern physical science and mathematics by Schumacher, who opines that their way of converging problems results in the extension of positive science into social facts wherein all divergent problems are turned into convergent problems by a process of ‘reduction’, the result however, is the loss of all higher forces to ennoble human life, and the degradation not only of the emotional part of our nature, but also, our intellect and moral character[5].

Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj encompasses a positive conception of freedom that hives closer to the idea of autonomy, which means that the individual is endowed with the ability to act on his or her own free volition. Gandhi and the Gandhian Economist, J.C. Kumarappa, were fundamentally interested in the preservation of the autonomy of the individual in the modern context of a political state and industrial economy. …Kumarappa argued that the degree of individual autonomy available in a society is a measure of its freedom, and the extent to which individuals honour their obligations reflects the social and moral evolution of that society[6].

Economic thought and agricultural economy in India unfortunately is informed by a mis-placed borrowing of concepts and frameworks from the Western countries, where the nature, need and the limitations of agriculture is completely different. Whereas abundant resources and working with nature provided Indian traditional practices with a resilience and co-creating of nutritious needs of food with nature, Western conditions imposed that they produce for the ‘’rainy day’’ or long winter within a short period of time when food production was possible.  This borrowed ‘wisdom’ has formed the bedrock of Indian Agriculture knowledge.  “India, since independence, followed a path of science led growth of its agriculture. Agricultural education was placed in the forefront of this strategy. A comprehensive educational system has been evolved for building human resource that could undertake location and situation specific research and transfer its results to improve productivity, profitability and stability of agriculture. Not only the educational system was patterned on the Land Grants Colleges of the USA, but faculty was also trained in the US universities through a joint Indo-US programme….[7]”proudly says a recent document. A study done 7 years ago, found that out of the 53 agriculture universities and colleges in India only 2 had any course on agro-ecological or organic practices[8]. Descendants of agricultural legacy of many millennia when taught that the understanding of agriculture itself is only a few centuries old, cannot see the relevance or the reasoning behind the long term ecologically sensitive agriculture that was traditionally practiced in many parts of this country.

Many years later, Gandhi recollected this poem once again, when he spoke about agriculture reforms possible in a free India, “There were people, remarked Gandhiji, who said that no basic reform in agriculture was possible without political power. They dreamt in terms of industrialization of agriculture by large-scale application of steam and electricity. He warned them that trading in soil fertility for the sake of quick returns would prove to be a disastrous, short-sighted policy. It would result in virtual depletion of the soil. …People might criticize that approach as being slow and un-progressive. It did not hold out promise of dramatic results. Nevertheless, it held the key to the prosperity of both the soil and inhabitants living on it.”[9].

Depletion of soil nutrition decrease in diversity and increased pressure on the natural resources and the unpredictability of nature due to climate change are all challenges that cannot be ignored any further today. What informs our thinking in terms of knowledge of agriculture and what forms the vision towards agriculture economy will determine whether we are moving in the path of Swaraj and real freedom or we continue to identify our own success within the realms of a two-dimensional reductionist graph. There are no easy answers. Just as we look back at 1947 and realize the choices our nation made and its consequences on food and farming today, future generations will look at the choices we make today and judge our capacity to think, analyse, imagine and work towards a different world. The choice is ours. 


[1] From Gujarati, Indian Opinion, 3/12/1910

[2] The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh, Penguin Random House, 2016, Part III, Politics

[3] The Gandhian Economist, J. C. Kumarappa is increasingly being studied in India and abroad for his critic on modern economy and the alternatives he proposed and practiced. Called as ‘our doctor of village industries’ by Gandhi, he remains one of the most complete thinker and constructive worker adopting Gandhian theories of Swaraj to Economy

[4] J.C. Kumarappa, “Rebuilding India

[5] E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, pg. 77

[6] Why the Village Movement, by J.C. Kumarappa, as quoted in The Web of Freedom, Deepak Malghan & Venu Govindu, Oxford University Press, 2016

[7] Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture (KIA), signed between India and USA in 2009, Chapter 1

[8] Exploration: South Asian Network on the role of educational institutions as innovation intermediaries for inclusive development, UNIID Discussion Paper #3, Dec 2012, Joseph Thomas & Ramasubramanian

[9] Harijan, 25/08/1946