Securing their future


GLOBALISATION is today being hawked as a new idea. But in fact, over 70 years ago, the idea was advanced by Mahatma Gandhi as the ‘Economic Constitution of the World’:

‘According to me the economic constitution of India, and for that matter of the world, should be such that no one under it should suffer from want of food and clothing. In other words, everybody should be able to get sufficient work to enable him to make two ends meet. And this ideal can be universally realized only if the means of production of the elementary necessities of life remain in the control of the masses.

‘These should be freely available to all as God’s air and water are or ought to be; they should not be made a vehicle for the exploitation of others. Their monopolization by any country, nation or group of persons would be unjust. The neglect of this simple principle is the cause of the destitution that we witness today not only in this unhappy land but elsewhere as well.’

The issue therefore is not ‘globalisation’ per se, but the character of globalisation, namely for whom the bell of globalisation tolls? As one can see there is a fundamental difference in Gandhiji’s concept of the world economy and globalisation with that of the present day. The basic premise of Gandhi’s economic constitution for the world was that its primary task was to ensure that no human being suffered from hunger and that the production system was so structured that the poor were enabled and empowered (ownership of means of production) to produce food locally for their own consumption as far as possible. This was to minimize their dependence on bringing in (imports) food into the local area. Local production of food was also to ensure employment to the largest number of people thus putting purchasing power in the hands of a larger number.

Gandhiji also saw the system of local production for food as the most effective insurance against hunger the world over. Next to food, he saw the production of cloth by the poor, locally, as a safeguard against their having to go naked.

In contrast, extant globalisation is based on a diametrically opposite view that all production, including food, cloth and other basic essential consumption items for human survival, should be produced only at such places in the world and in such production systems that offer ‘comparative advantage’ (ostensibly to reduce cost of production); and then such production, including food, be traded globally and transported across the world and taken to local villages by a network of traders.

This concept of globalisation is regarded as in the best interests of what is called ‘global economy’ which is not concerned explicitly and directly with an elementary fact of life that the ‘need for food’ arises thrice a day for every single stomach. It is a biological tyranny. Time is thus of the essence in ensuring immediate availability of food and its access. No other product faces such stringent condition of demand.



Second, even in economic terms inherent limitations of the theory of ‘comparative advantage’ go unrecognized. It is confined to production/manufacturing. Production cost is only one constituent in the composition of the eventual price which the consumer has to pay. There are the distribution costs apart from enormous time lag when there is a vast distance between production and consumption points. There are the costs of storage, transportation and distribution up to the last stomach. These distribution costs often offset the supposed comparative advantage in terms of cost at the production point.

Besides, in this system of distant centres of production, purchasing power remains concentrated and the poor are deprived of substantial share in the ensuing purchasing power. This gives rise to the obscene phenomenon of millions of tonnes of rotting grains side by side with starvation deaths. India has 60 million tonnes of food stocks while 50 million persons are acknowledged to be facing starvation – some even succumbing to it, and about 50 out of 100 children up to the age 0-5 suffering from malnutrition.



For Gandhi, handicrafts was neither a ‘category’ not a curiosity. They were an integral part of his economic thinking. His economic constitution of the world rested on food being produced locally by the bulk of the population dependent on land and agriculture. By its nature, agriculture is a seasonal activity. What does this vast humanity do locally for gainful employment during the slack season without having to give up means of local food production? It is here that the critical place of crafts enters the life of the rural population. Gandhi recognized why rural communities gave primacy to local production of cloth – khadi or handloom – the first based on hand spun yarn, the other on mill yarn. In his thinking, khadi based on local spinning received higher preference for it also yielded greater local employment and purchasing power. In his scheme of things, after the weaving of cloth, crafts followed, meeting other essential local needs – be it making of mats, baskets, earthenware, footwear or utensils. And all these were integral to freedom itself.

‘Khadi is a controversial subject. Many people think that in advocating khadi, I am sailing against a headwind and am sure to sink the ship of swaraj and that I am taking the country to the dark ages. I do not propose to argue the case for khadi… it connotes the beginning of economic freedom and equality of all in the country. It means a wholesale swadeshi mentality, a determination to find all the necessaries of life in India and that too through the labour and intellect of the villagers. That means a reversal of the existing processes. This is to say that, instead of half a dozen cities of India and Great Britain living on the exploitation and the ruin of the 7,00,000 villages of India, the latter will be largely self-contained, and will voluntarily serve the cities of India and even the outside world in so far as it benefits both the parties. This needs a revolutionary change in the mentality and tastes of many.

‘Khadi to me is the symbol of unity of Indian humanity, of its economic freedom and equality and, therefore, ultimately, in the poetic expression of Jawaharlal Nehru, "the livery of India’s freedom".

‘Moreover, khadi mentality means decentralization of the production and distribution of the necessaries of life. Therefore, the formula so far evolved is, every village to produce all its necessaries and a certain percentage in addition for the requirements of the cities.

‘Heavy industries needs will be centralized and nationalised. But they will occupy the least part of the vast national activity which will mainly be in the villages.’



His proposition was derived from his dream for free India: ‘I have not pictured a poverty-stricken India containing ignorant millions. Establish village swaraj – make each village self-governing and self-contained as regards the essential needs of its inhabitants.’ Fifty years after independence, there is not a single village out of 350,000 villages which is self- governing. Is it surprising we still have 300 million people who are poverty-stricken and as many who are ignorant – deprived of literacy; and there are starvation deaths in villages alongside with bufferstocks of 60 million tonnes. Gandhiji had advocated food self-sufficiency at the village level as the primary task of village panchayats and had endorsed Vaikunthbhai Mehta’s suggestion of a village level foodgrain bank to ensure that no single person goes hungry even for a day.



Swaraj came. Gandhiji died less than six months after independence. Nehru became the steward of the Indian ship. He did not go for Gandhiji’s political structure of people-led village republics to mind India’s political, economic and social health on a day to day basis. Nor did he opt for the Gandhian vision of food and cloth led industrialisation which was oriented to subserve the villages.

As India’s first prime minister, Nehru contended that ‘the test of real strength is how much steel you produce, how much power you produce and use.’ This contention was given lasting expression in the model of development formulated by P.C. Mahalanobis at Nehru’s behest, its primary thrust being concentration of resources in sectors such as steel, power and the like to build industrial muscle and modern machines. This model was seen by its architects to be in perfect consonance with the chief aim of planning in India ‘to solve the problem of unemployment as quickly as possible.’ Indeed, Mahalanobis designed several cogent steps to achieve that consonance. Mahanalobis was to Nehru what Kumarapppa was to Gandhiji.

It is not sufficiently recognised that while fashioning the foundations of the industrialisation model Mahalanobis raised the insightful question of the character of industrialisation which would be appropriate for India at its stage of development, and for its immediate problems and long term agenda. He was aware that modern industrialisation and urbanisation are twins. But he argued that the pattern and pace of industrialisation in India must be so regulated as to prevent premature urbanisation.

He regarded unemployment as India’s foremost problem and realised that pressures of mass unemployment, which was concentrated in rural areas, would exert enormous influence on the pace and pattern of urbanisation. Therefore, the first plank in his strategy of industrialisation was to reach work to the unemployed as close to where they lived, by creating the widest possible dispersal of ‘work stations’ right into the heart of rural India. Such an extensive network of work stations was to apply some breaks on intolerable influx of the unemployed to the existing relatively few urban industrial centres in the country at the time.

His operation plan included that scarce capital resources be concentrated to create a critical base for massive industrialisation, and labour resources be deployed for production of wage goods using minimal capital, for an attack on unemployment as quickly as possible.



Broadly, he strategised that existing industrial vocations (jobs/incomes) of the rural/urban populations must be protected and promoted as far as possible, and where necessary any existing competing machine mode of manufacture kept idle – but not human beings who must have work. Accordingly, any additional expansion of capacity for manufacture of consumer goods, he held, must as a rule be in the labour intensive segment of an industry/product and not in capital intensive techniques.

This strategy led to the setting up of the well known Karve Committee and the common production programme industry by industry. While Mahalanobis was no Mahatma, it is noteworthy that the character he wanted to lend to industrialisation came closely to answer some of the adverse consequences of unbridled industrialisation which were of concern to the Mahatma.



Despite the fact that it was fully backed by Nehru, Mahalanobis’ well thought out strategy came to naught. Nehru’s own chosen team of ministers and officials made up the demolition squad. The common production programme was not adhered to by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. It was breached by allowing huge capital investment in disallowed areas, e.g. in textile mills to produce cloth, which was assigned to be produced by the labour intensive handlooms under the Mahalanobis strategy.

For 17 uninterrupted years, Nehru remained at the helm as prime minister and chairman of the Planning Commission. But he could not protect the well-conceived Mahalanobis strategy from harm. As a consequence, unemployment and urbanisation galloped. The unemployed flocked to urban centres in search of work, in numbers beyond our industrial and urban capacity to digest, heaping misery on the most vulnerable sections of our societies.

Though Mahalanobis exited Yojana Bhavan and Nehru left us in 1964, unbridled industrialisation has continued as the ruling strategy, albeit with diminishing regard to mounting unemployment and premature urbanisation. Take numbers alone. In 40 years, between 1961 and 2001 (Third to Ninth Plan), there has been plan investment of about Rs 9000000 million on the infrastructure for industrialisation (energy, transport, communications, industry/minerals) and not a fraction for labour and skill-based industries employing millions.



The place and priority Mahalanobis gave to solving the employment problem ‘quickly’ by activating the labour intensive decentralised village industries was not only consistent with his economic model but also reflected his sensitivity to Vinoba Bhave’s criticism of the First Plan at Yojana Bhavan where Vinoba arrived from his ashram covering 1200 km on foot:

‘In the Constitution you have promised work and food to all citizens. But now you have totally forgotten this assurance. If you, on whose shoulders lies the responsibility of providing work to all, find it impossible to do so, you must resign.

‘You ask village industries to support themselves. You first cut off my feet and want me to stand… Village industries did not die themselves, they have deliberately been killed.

‘Although both the Planning Commission and I are primarily concerned with the good of the Indian people, there is a difference in our basic approach. I am concerned mainly with two matters. First, we should stick to our pledge of stopping import of food grains. The Commission visualises the continuance of imports for an indefinite period. I join issue on this point. We must fix a definite date for achieving self-sufficiency and abide by it. Otherwise, the will power of the nation shall die.

‘Secondly, an essential postulate of planning should be to provide work for all. The Planning Commission accepts this objective, but refuses to shoulder the responsibility of implementing it. If we do not accept this responsibility, our planning would not be national but only partial. If they agree to provide work for all, our villages will have to be made self sufficient.’

Nehru’s subsequent observations, however, raise a difficult question: Did Nehru subscribe fully to the Mahalanobis model, and were his reservations any the less responsible for the collapse of that model?



In the standing committee of the NDC, great stress was laid on the heavy machine making industry which was seen as the basis of industrial growth. ‘There is one approach which has sometimes been put forward that you should first build up your consumer goods industry, gradually save money and build up something else, thereby generating more employment. That, I believe, from the point of view of planning, is a completely discarded theory.

‘Of course, it does some good here and there; I would not enter into the details but this approach is not a planned approach at all. If you want India to industrialise and to go ahead with odd little factories producing hair and the like – it is totally immaterial what things, whether they are small or big consumer articles. You must go to the root and base and build up the structure of industrial growth. Therefore, it is the heavy industries that count: nothing else counts, except as a balancing factor, which is, of course, important. We want planning for heavy machine making industries and heavy industries, we want industries that will make heavy machines and we should set about them as rapidly as possible because it takes time.’

Speaking at the All India Congress Committee, Chandigarh, 28 September 1959, Nehru argued that the primary thing about an integrated plan was production and not employment. Employment was important, but it was utterly unimportant in the context of production. It followed production and not preceded production. And production would only go up by better techniques which meant modern methods. Nehru’s formulation – that the primary thing was production and not employment – was destructive of the integral place of handlooms, village industry, crafts and the like. It also marked the end of the economic constitution of India as envisaged by Gandhiji.

This is the ground for us to suggest that we were bitten by the mentality of globalisation long before the recent crusade for globalisation and its passionate, albeit unthinking, advocacy in New Delhi since the unleashing of the new economic reforms early in the ’90s.



Crafts to Gandhiji were not a decorative add on, they were a daily necessity. They arose and rested on fulfilling basic needs. This was indeed the rationale which lent strength and helped handicrafts survive various vicissitudes of the colonial period, summed up by D.R. Gadgil as the ‘de-industrialisation’ of India. But as shown above, soon after independence and long before ‘globalisation’ lashed at our shores, we had already torn apart handlooms, village industries and handicrafts from the very economic rationale of their existence to the toiling rural masses.

From the Third Five Year Plan onwards, this process of tearing apart of what were integrally inter-dependent, was set in motion. Soon it assumed menacing proportions as a systematic undoing of the initial formulation of the Mahatma and later Mahalanobis. Mahalanobis had in fact laid down that if and where necessary machines already installed could be kept idle, but not human beings. Notwithstanding such clarity and commitment, government allowed large machinery imports, as for example, in the textile sector, leading to what this author described as ‘handlooms face liquidation’ in an article in the early ’80s.



This long journey is to remind ourselves that while considerable and commendable efforts have been made in the past five decades to promote ‘development’ of handlooms and handicrafts and these efforts have achieved notable progress, we must be cognizant of the reality that (a) we may have won some battles, but have lost the war, (b) handlooms and the crafts have not occupied the vast, universal and crucial role in the Indian economy that was envisaged for them at the time of freedom and reinforced by Mahalanobis, in terms of ensuring widespread employment and purchasing power thus diminishing rural poverty and disparities and, (c) even such place as they occupy today is by no means secure; their security and survival in the future cannot be taken for granted as stronger winds of globalisation blow and are in fact being invited by our authorities to blow in this land. In time to come the crafts will be shaken loose even further from their roots which lie in ‘localization’, i.e. in decentralized production for local consumption and deriving their main strength from the domestic consumers.

But we need not wait for disaster to strike. We can start on some fortifications when we still have time on our side. To initiate a discussion on what such steps could possibly be, here are some suggestions:

1. A movement to establish craft museums at every panchayat and municipal level by working closely with panchayat leaderships to reinforce local pride in local skills. These will be living museums. Each museum should build a directory of outstanding crafts persons of the area; Museums to organize two exhibitions per year of local craft producers preferably to coincide with gram sabha meetings or Independence Day or Republic Day; To give awards to local crafts persons annually on Independence Day/Republic Day.

2. Panchayats/municipalities to be approached/assisted to strengthen local haats to promote interest and preference in the local population in local products.

3. To form craftsperson’s associations at ‘area level’ and ‘by crafts’ to protect their place and interest.

4. Upgradation of skills and quality of products, e.g. type of work Dastkar and other such organizations are doing, but this has to be multiplied a thousandfold.

5. Haats like Dilli Haat to be organized in all major towns with population of one million and above.

6. Annual crafts fair in India for exports of products of the kind we want to promote.

7. Stalls at all major railway stations and airports.

8. Education and housing for all craftspersons, and introduction of craft education in school curriculum.

9. For fostering daily visible aesthetics, to promote development of crafts linked with school/college education – dress, school bags, other equipment; and coordinated development with architects for use of crafts in public and private buildings and passenger buses.

All these may still be no more than a drop in the ocean, but without them even the drop will dry.

To conclude with an African parable – a favourite of Julius Nyerere: A rabbit was racing briskly. The people asked him, where was he heading to. The rabbit said, ‘to fight the elephant.’ His reply was met with derisive laughter. ‘You are going to fight an elephant!’ The rabbit said, ‘Yes, I know, I can’t fight the elephant, but I must give a fight.’