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Padma Shri Laila Tyabji pens her thoughts on Bapu's legacy
By Padma Shri Laila Tyabji Saturday, Oct 10, 2020
“Gandhi ji died the year after I was born, but he was a familiar figure in our family stories. My great uncle Abbas Tyabji was a close associate, inspired by Gandhiji to move from being Chief Justice of Baroda State to freedom fighter, burning his English suits and spinning and wearing Khadi; taking part aged 76 in the Dandi Salt March. He led the March once Gandhi was imprisoned, and himself was arrested and jailed later. Gandhi affectionately called him the Grand Old Man of Gujarat, GOM for short.
Gandhi was also close to other members of our family, coming to stay in our home on Warden Rd in Bombay, where he and my grandfather found common cause in opposing Jinnah’s plans for a separate Muslim state. My grandmother would cluck affectionately at the paraphernalia required to house this simple man - a goat tethered in the garden for his milk, separate cooking arrangements for his vegetarian meals in our meat-eating household. He was much loved by all - my father and his siblings enjoyed being chased by him round the sprawling lawns, waving his stick and toothlessly chuckling. It was much later that they recognised him as a saintly, extraordinarily wise and venerated figure, and what a privilege it was to have known him.
Today, though Gandhi is given lip service as the Father of the Nation, its easy for everyone, politicians, economists and bureaucrats, to forget his wisdom and practical common sense. There’s not much left of him in the India of today except the image of his spectacles on our municipal rubbish bins. Forging an industrial urban mechanised India is the priority, despite the burden this puts on our already overcrowded infrastructure; despite the exodus it encourages to our cities. Working as I do with crafts and craftspeople, I see how right he was to stress the importance of our rural communities, still 65% of our population. As he said:
“We are inheritors of a rural civilisation. The vastness of our country, the vastness of the population, the situation and the climate of the country have, in my opinion, destined it for a rural civilisation... To uproot it and substitute for it an urban civilisation seems to me an impossibility.
He is often dismissed as a hopeless romantic whose idea of India as a series of localised rural self-sufficient local Utopias is essentially unworkable, On the contrary, he was extremely practical. He said. “My idea of self-sufficiency is that villages must be self-sufficient in regard to food, cloth and other basic necessities”. He added, “But even this can be overdone. Therefore you must grasp my idea properly. Self-sufficiency does not mean narrowness. To be self-sufficient is not to be altogether self-contained. In no circumstances would we be able to produce all the things we need nor do we aim at doing so. So though our aim is complete self-sufficiency, we shall have to get from outside the village what we cannot produce in the village; we shall have to produce more of what we can in order thereby to obtain in exchange what we are unable to produce.
"Today our villages have become a mere appendage to the cities. They exist, as it were, to be exploited by the latter and depend on the latter's sufferance. This is unnatural. It is only when the cities realise the duty of making an adequate return to the villages for the strength and sustenance which they derive from them, instead of selfishly exploiting them, that a healthy and moral relationship between the two will spring up”
As India moves forward in the 21st century, we seem to be ready to pour money into every economic activity that takes us from 'developing' to 'developed', but forget about the strengths and potential we already have - unsung but unique - matchless in the world. What amazing things other countries like Thailand and Indonesia have done with their much more limited crafts. How short-sighted we are!
Wherever I work, whether Kutch, or Kashmir or Madhya Pradesh, it is vibrant rural communities and traditions that draw in visitors and eyeballs.
What's missing is the back-end and forward linkages - investment and support, credit for regular supplies of appropriate raw materials, design and product development that takes traditional skills and motifs into contemporary lifestyles and trends.
Frustrated at the lack of institutional support, craftspeople are leaving the sector in droves. As Gandhi said as long ago as 1946: "The cities are not only draining the villages of their wealth but talent also."
When we started the DASTKAR Ranthambore Project 27 years ago, villagers, already beleaguered and angry at being evicted from their ancestral forest lands in order to turn them into a a sanctuary for the Tiger, were incredulous that we could possibly offer an alternative, or that their rudimentary hand skills, were used mainly to cobble together rags as coverlets or make crude baskets from the reeds in the ponds. could possibly have a commercial potential. They were animal herders or agricultural labour, dependent on the forest, land and water for a living. They scorned the idea that their horny hands had something that could earn a living. Today the women of those villages are the best off in the region, their daughters sought after as brides. Teaching them to hone and diversify their inherent skills has also been an entry point for enlightenment re education, health care, family planning, and gender rights. They have pukka houses, gas stoves, their own bank accounts....
Like Gandhi, I am not suggesting a return to a primitive life with no mod cons. But India is blessed in having its feet in both East and West, modernity and tradition. Local resources, skill sets and knowledge systems can partner with 21st century technology and become the source of exciting new creative inspiration.
Let’s not be brainwashed into thinking that West is always best, and brand is better than hand!
Let’s also remember that the much vaunted IT industry only employs 3 million jobs. That 10 millions young hopefuls unsuccessfully attempt to enter the work each year and 11 million others were rendered jobless last year. That unemployment rose to a 45 year high. At our period of greatest growth 2005 to 2010 job creation remained more or less stagnant. The formal sector has been actually shrinking, with China and Bangladesh becoming the workshop of the world.
Let us look to our villages as power Centres to regenerate new sources of economy and employment. Not just the traditional craft and textile skills already extant but All the ancillary things that rural communities need. Weavers for instance need storage facilities and packing units, dying, dry cleaning, people to build and maintain looms..... Leather tanning, wood curing, silk cultivation, indigo, madder, bamboo, and mulberry plantations, the herbs, roots and other raw materials for herbal medicines and toiletries, New activities and earning sources would curb the rush to our overburdened cities.
Farmers need structural reforms, R&D, and skilling to break out of the rice-sheet-pulses cycle by crop diversification, proper cold storage and transport, and greater public investment rather than subsidies and price support. How horrified Gandhi ji would have been to see farmers being greeted in our capital city by water cannons when they came to discuss their problems!
We need to return to Gandhi’s practical wisdom, and look at our development paradigms anew.
In the Chinese script, the characters for crisis and opportunity are the same. This, a time of terrible economic and social distress, is an opportunity to creatively convert latent potential into strength. Gandhiji was so brilliant at that!”
By Padma Shri Laila Tyabji