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'Gandhian' field trips

'Gandhian' field trips

Author: Tavleen Singh
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: October 4, 2009
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/gandhian-field-trips/524664/0

Every Gandhi Jayanthi, I find myself wondering if I should add my two bits to the reams of commemorative comment that Gandhiji's birthday inspires. Usually I resist the temptation. The tone of this column is irreverent and since I get into trouble every time I mock lesser politicians with the name Gandhi, I tremble at the thought of writing one word about our only political Mahatma. This time, though, when I saw Rahul Gandhi ordering his troop of neo-Gandhians to spend the night of Gandhi Jayanthi in Dalit homes in the filthy, fly-blown villages of Uttar Pradesh, I found myself unable to keep from saying something. At the very least it needs to be pointed out that the Mahatma would have been mortified by this political field trip disguised as Gandhian virtue.

Since most of our younger politicians are the sons and daughters of rich and powerful older politicians, it is a good idea for them to find out how the average Dalit family lives. The only time they venture into the mofussil is during election campaigns. And, then they come in convoys of air-conditioned SUVs equipped with bottled water and packaged food and have no need of local refreshment or accommodation. So if Rahul Gandhi's intention is for these spoilt princes and princesses to get a taste of how the poorest Indians live, then it is a good one.

Let them sleep on some cow dung-plastered floor in a windowless hovel with mosquitoes filling the air and people covering the floor. Let them wake at dawn and find some secluded spot to perform their morning ablutions and let them drink the poisonous water that the average Indian villager drinks. But, let them remember that had the Mahatma been on this field trip he would have exchanged his fancy bungalow in Lutyens' Delhi permanently for the village hut. He would have done this in the hope of learning how to better the lot of those who have nothing. At the end of the Gandhi Jayanthi excursion, if every politician on the trip is asked to make a commitment to improve the village he spent the night in, it would be something. Otherwise it would be an exercise in hypocrisy, like almost everything else that is done in the Mahatma's name.

Gandhiji spun his own cloth and encouraged Congress politicians to wear khadi because British textile mills were killing Indian jobs. Khadi and the 'charkha' were symbols of protest against India's colonisation. They are meaningless symbols now. And, meaningless are most other things our politicians do in the Mahatma's name without realising that there is an aspect of his legacy that is more relevant today than ever before.

Gandhiji was talking about sustainable development long before anyone invented the term. He believed that nature had provided enough for every human need but not enough for human greed. Had India's leaders built on this idea when they made their 'development' schemes, India would be in the frontlines of the debate on climate change. We can still be.

One of the few fortunate consequences of India being among the most backward countries in the world is that we can learn from the mistakes that developed Western countries made. Instead of being defensive when climate change is mentioned, instead of whining about Western countries being the biggest polluters, why do we not come up with an Indian idea of sustainable development? The vast majority of Indians count among the smallest polluters in the world. They live without the wastefulness that defines the Western model of development. They do it out of necessity not conviction but on this can be built an Indian model of sustainable development that could combine the benefits of modernity and modern technology with traditional Indian habits of consuming out of need and not greed. Now, that would be a real tribute to Gandhiji.

Instead of the tokenism of renaming the NREGA in his name, what about a campaign to create sanitary living conditions in our villages in Gandhiji's name? He was one of the few Indian leaders who was appalled by the squalour of rural Indian life and wrote about it eloquently. There is much that can be done in Gandhiji's name that would truly honour his memory. But, for that we need to get beyond the empty symbolism of sleepovers in Dalit huts. It mocks the misery of the poorest of our citizens to do this. They do not live in squalour because they like to, but because they have no choice. Their squalid living conditions, their shameful poverty, bear witness to how little has changed for the Dalits since Gandhiji first began his fight against untouchability. What is sadder still is that Dalit leaders like Mayawati so quickly forget where they came from.

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