The principle of gram swaraj is perhaps fairly simple and accessible. Swaraj, often translated as self-rule, needs to be understood through the twin principles of self and rule. Concept of ‘Self’ cannot be distinguished from the cultural understanding of self. Here, it indicates the idea of self, in Indian intellectual traditions, which draws its meaning from its relational dependence on community and more permanent aspects of the world inherited. Rule is governance, and may carry the idea for the purposes of growth. But more importantly, it also means restraint.
Gram swaraj therefore, is village-self-rule. This refers to giving the authority to villages to use their fullest capacity to regulate and control their affairs in a decentralized fashion. More important here is not the aspirations of the village republic, but recognition that the necessary aspiration are drawn through ‘self.’ In other words, the idea indicates a heightened sense of self-reliance. There is interdependence, but second to independence a the level of village community.
Gandhi’s words on idea village offer some food for thought: “An ideal Indian village will be so constructed as to lend itself to perfect sanitation. It will have cottages with sufficient light and ventilation built of a material obtainable within a radius of five miles of it. The cottages will have courtyards enabling householders to plant vegetables for domestic use and to house their cattle. The village lanes and streets will be free of all avoidable dust. It will have wells according to its needs and accessible to all. It will have houses of worship for all, also a common meeting place, a village common for grazing its cattle, a co-operative dairy, primary and secondary schools in which industrial education will be the central fact, and it will have Panchayats for settling disputes. It will produce its own grains, vegetables and fruit, and its own Khadi. This is roughly my idea of a model village… I am convinced that the villagers can, under intelligent guidance, double the village income as distinguished from individual income. There are in our villages’ inexhaustible resources not for commercial purposes in every case but certainly for local purposes in almost every case.” (Emphasis ours.)
From the perspective of policy framework, we read Gandhi’s thoughts in a more general manner. The idea that we want to draw upon, can be concisely put under the following motivation:
- Sustainable growth and self-reliance
- Developing local capabilities not necessarily with scale
- Allowing for diversity of aspirations and methodologies
The pandemic was perhaps a call, not just to a vaccine voyage, but a journey to and discovery of the self. Few would not have realized that the moment people began focusing on only their necessities, the economy tanked. Was the economy built of non-essential items, then? This is a larger question with no easy answers, but sustainability as a concept becomes most prominent.
What is important however is the recognition that societies that had means of their survival within their reach, did better. This is why the call for emphasizing on the ‘local’ was most pronounced. Dependence for survival over external sources makes one weak, susceptible to shocks and in perpetual anxiety. Self-reliance is the key. Gandhi spoke about it when he discussed village republics. We take these views even in larger context. Societies and communities must develop self-reliance.
The second point is connected. Local capabilities is a term often known for capabilities rather than local. There is an unsaid paradigmatic linkage from capability enhancement to scale, fueled by today’s society, which remains hugely influenced by the western models of development. Gandhi was prophetic to realize that scale does not necessarily brings happiness, and hence local capabilities does not only mean capability enhancement for locals, but one which remains for locals. Each community and society develops its own capabilities in their own way. Because any capability of a community, when used by another community, it no longer remains local for the second community. The pioneering work of thinkers like E.F. Schumacher or the Limits to Growth movement offers useful starting point. In nature, nothing grown indefinitely (except cancer), and therefore the culmination of growth has to be maturity, not more growth. Indian intellectual traditions provide with us necessary influence and our idea will be to surface them. Indeed, this does not imply that we are against growth. We are against an indefinite idea of growth, or growth for the sake of growth. We celebrate growth for purpose.
And finally, we welcome diverse approaches and methods of growth and aspirations. Western society has evolved a very straightforward definition of what must one aspire, with primarily materialistic foundations. This is not necessarily the universal truth, definitely not in Indian intellectual traditions. Each of us grow and develop diverse range of interests and preferences. The diversity should be celebrated, not homogenized. Communities develop their own trajectory of development, and have their unique ways of valuation. Social aspirations must evolve what suits them most, culturally, historically and ethically. Just like imposing history on a student interested in painting may not be a good idea, similarly imposing aspirations does incalculable harm too. This point is about diluting our obsession with making one type of development, as the only valued type of development.