Launched by the United Nations in 2016 the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), built upon the achievement and unrealized agenda of the previous global goals of MDGs, seek to put this planet in the path of sustainable development by 2030. Universally applicable and accepted, the 17 goals of SDGs provide the future roadmap to the globe and contain plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. Consisting of 169 targets, these goals enthusiastically intend to solve the perennial problems like poverty, hunger, lack of good health, poor education and gender disparity, and modern-age problems like climate change, energy crisis, terrorism, etc.
As the entire member countries of the United Nations are committed to the SDGs and are putting their efforts accordingly, age-old philosophies and ideas of some great leaders of yore unfailingly serve as the guiding principles in designing and executing their action plans for sustainable development. One such guiding star is M. K. Gandhi, popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi or the “father of the nation India” owing to his leadership in India’s freedom movement. It is inspiring not only for India but for the entire world to recognize that the Gandhian philosophy and principles can contribute significantly to the efforts towards SDGs even after seven decades of the demise of this great leader.
K. Gandhi is such a visionary that when the term ‘sustainable development’ was not in vogue he had defined and shown ways for it without even referring to the term. His famous statement “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not any man’s greed” seems to lend to the Brundtland Commission’s official definition of sustainable development. It would be no exaggeration to say that his philosophy and ideas as a proponent of environment and sustainable development are yet to be explored and utilized in the most favourable way. Though he is not a serious environmentalist, his simple ideas and doctrine on the ways of life and living have always remained relevant, and will remain so eternally. As his thoughts on social, economic and environmental topics have the essence of spirituality and moral values encrusted around them, their relevance is undying. Described as an “apostle of applied human ecology”, Gandhi has offered his philosophy of sustainable living in his books “Hind Swaraj” and “The Story of my Experiments with Truth”, his journals “Navjivan”, “Harijan”, and “Young India”, and his several public speeches. As well, he has put it into practice in his life. Much before the popularization of the concept of people-profit-planet, Gandhi has offered innumerable ideas for beautiful co-existence of these three dimensions.
The 17 goals and its 169 targets of SDGs, which seek to address the issues and concerns pertaining to social, economic and environmental spheres in general, may be accomplished with individual and institutional practice of “holistic living” which Gandhi has advocated. As the three pillars of sustainable development- social equity, economic development and environmental justice- are connected to each other, Gandhi’s ideas of ethical living and value-based approach hold good for SDGs. His eternal call for ‘truth’ (satya) and ‘non-violence’ (ahimsa) is as relevant today as it was long ago for integrated development of any society. His techniques of ‘satyagraha’ (non-violent protest) carry the means to combat many a social and environmental threats, be it climate change, natural resource depletion or naxalism.
Gandhism on Social Equity
Gandhi’s comprehensive and all-encompassing vision for the society relates favourably with the social dynamics of the sustainable development approach. He has advocated for dignified life, consisting of a healthy body, a balanced mind and an evolved soul, for all human beings. Goal-1 (ending poverty in all its forms) and Goal-2 (ending hunger, achieving food security and improving nutrition) of SDGs are the essential pre-condition for dignified life. Gandhi has always campaigned and served for poverty alleviation through his alternative development model of “Swadeshi” (self-reliance) and “Swaraj” (local self-governance). Reducing social inequality (SDG-10) by promoting social inclusion (SDG-16) and gender balancing (SDG-5) has always remained his prime intent as these provide enabling ambience for sustainable development. He has worked consistently for bringing poor and indigenous people into social mainstream, and has advocated for preservation of their culture. In his social reform initiative Gandhi has always acted for abolishing superstition. He has advised and acted for promotion of literacy and education among all members of society (SDG-4).
His notion of “Sarvodaya” (welfare of all) by means of “Antyodaya” (upliftment of the weakest) is applicable for all societies in the world all the time. Once he has remarked about the Indian villager “……remove his chronic poverty and his illiteracy and you have the finest specimen of what a cultured, cultivated, free citizen should be”. As an epitome of ‘ethical living’ himself, Gandhi has advised for peaceful and non-aggressive culture based on self-restraint and truth. The ‘theory of trusteeship’ that Gandhi has conceived connects with the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and works well for social development. Noteworthy to cite here that Indian CSR movement owes its first phase to this theory of Gandhi.
He considers every member of the society as the trustee of the resources already available and being generated by the group endeavor. The trustees should be empowered to be developed. The means for empowerment suggested by him are decentralization, cooperation and participation by every member in planning and management of welfare and constructive programmes. Goal-3 of SDG (healthy lives and well-being for all at all ages) rings Gandhi’s promotion of ‘simple and natural living’ prioritized on personal hygiene, sanitation, cleanliness and nature cure. He has stated “Man should seek out and be content to confine the means of cure to the five elements of which body is composed i.e. earth, water, sky, sun and air”. He has advised to refrain from haphazard use of drugs.
Gandhism on Economic Development
M.K. Gandhi’s thoughts and ideas of economic development can be termed ‘humanistic economics’ as he suggests for putting the individual at the centre of any economic planning. Though he has never developed any systematic economic model, his philosophy emphasizes on inclusive and sustainable economic growth for human welfare (SDG-8). His economics is the economics of empowerment and cooperation. He is against greed and consumerism, and urges for minimal, responsible and sustainable consumption (SDG-12).
Gandhi has endorsed the economy of permanence, based on non-violence and absence of conflict between man and nature. His guidelines for an ideal life style are based on the outlook of “simple living and high thinking”. For him wealth is not for luxury, but for human wellbeing. Encouraging ‘dignity of labour’ he has promoted the concept of self-sufficient village and ideal village economy which alleviates the problems of unemployment and rural-urban migration. The ‘Khadi Movement’ initiated and spearheaded by him is the preeminent prototype of small and cottage industries. Strengthening village economy, and thus, reducing excessive urbanization can make human settlements safe, resilient and sustainable (SDG-11).
Gandhi has all the time opposed unplanned and irresponsible industrialization, and has recommended for sustainable industrialization and local innovation (SDG-9) through use of indigenous and miniature technologies. He strongly espouses the role of culture and values in economic strategies, and accentuates harmony and empathy over self-interest.
Gandhian philosophy of self-help and “swadeshi” is a reliable technique already exemplified over the years and can cause for individual, collective and national economic development. His belief that production by masses, rather than mass production, can make economic development sustainable has been realized in several societies in modern era.
Gandhism on Environmental Justice
It would not be wrong to term Gandhi a social environmentalist. Moreover, his economic thoughts are centred on environmental considerations. His theory of social economics can also be called environmental economics which is based on respect for nature and mother earth. His views on judicious use of natural resources and causing least damage to environment resonate now-a-days in environmental debates across the globe. Further, he has significantly inspired numerous present-day environmental movements. Gandhi has always advised for and promoted sanitation, both physical and mental. According to him “It is impossible for an unhealthy people to win Swaraj”. Maintaining sanitation and cleanliness is an essential component of environment management, as endorsed by Gandhian ideology. A clean environment is the fundamental condition for human empowerment. That is why Gandhi has persuaded the communities for management of water, sanitation and hygiene in a sustainable way (SDG-6).
The ongoing Swachh Bharat Mission of the Government of India is highly influenced by the Gandhian spirit of cleanliness. In his lectures to the communities he has persuaded for sustaining rural sanitation by ending open defecation & urination and spitting in public places. As a visionary and sensitive environmentalist Gandhi was probably aware of and has cautioned against, without naming, the environmental crisis the world might face like climate change and has offered means to combat it (Goal-13).
He has appealed for protection of environment and ecosystems (SDG- 14 & 15) by rational use of natural resources, promotion of water harvesting, use of organic manure, ending cruelty to animals, and large-scale afforestation. Going against the laws of nature is highly discouraged. Gandhi’s opinion of minimizing wants and making optimum use of any product and service underscores the first constituent of the reduce-recycle-reuse theory being considered for making sustainable development happen. Also, he has suggested time and again for recycling of waste.
Joining the dots we can see that M. K. Gandhi’s outlook on social, economic and environmental themes provides the stuff for a magnificent and perpetual manual for sustainable development. And, as an epitome of peace he has recommended for peaceful co-subsistence between man and nature. Without peace and harmony, sustainable development cannot be accomplished. His theories and practices are more relevant and necessary today than any other time before.
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