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What Gandhi's economist can say about sustainability today

As twentieth-century notions on economic growth for its own sake are questioned it may be worth revisiting JC Kumarappa, the most influential Christian of the India’s independence struggle.
A mechanic stands in a workshop beside a motorcycle under repair.
A motorcycle mechanic in his Chennai workshop.
Photo by Palash Jain on Unsplash.

J.C. Kumarappa (1892 – 1960) was an Indian economist, writer and freedom fighter in the Indian Independence Movement. Widely regarded as the most influential Christian of the India’s independence struggle, Kumarappa’s most notable contribution was as the father of Gandhian economics. Informed by a lifetime of travel through rural India, Kumarappa fused Gandhian thought with Christian ethics to create a school of economics that is difficult to place within the traditional Western understanding of the political spectrum. 

Fusing traditionalist perspectives on economics with a radical commitment to universal upliftment, Gandhian economics was regarded by many as being too idealistic for real world application. But in an era where twentieth-century notions on the inherent superiority of central planning, material consumption and economic growth for its own sake are being increasingly questioned, it may be worth revisiting this school of thought, its early achievements and its founding father. 

Early Life 

J.C. Kumarappa was born on January 4, 1892, in what is now Thanjavur District, Tamil Nadu, India. The son of a well to do civil servant and the grandson of a Lutheran Pietistic Minister, his family descended from some of India’s earliest Protestant converts.  

His parents were strong believers in Pietistic notions of morality and charity. Kumarappa’s father was a strong proponent of academic achievement and professional success, encouraging all his children, including daughters, to pursue higher education and careers. 

Kumarappa’s mother believed in the importance of imparting a sense of personal responsibility and concern for the poor to her children. A defining experience of Kumarappa’s childhood working alongside his siblings to raise chickens and turkeys for sale in the market, with all proceeds going to support his mother’s charitable endeavors.  

Though most readers would nod approvingly at the Kumarappa’s parenting strategies they were ahead of their time in many ways. Facilitating higher education for their daughters at a time when even many upper-class Indian women were illiterate and encouraging their children to raise chickens in a society where the upper classes recoiled at the thought of performing any sort of manual labour. 

In keeping with the high academic and professional expectations of his family, Kumarappa would go on to study history before departing for London in 1913 to pursue an accounting apprenticeship. Unlike many Indian independence activists, including Gandhiji, Kumarappa steered clear of the political activism that was becoming increasingly mainstream among Indian students studying in the UK.  

A regular church goer at first, he grew disillusioned by the British church’s active support for World War I war efforts and became increasingly influenced by Christian Pacifist war resistors. He returned to India in 1919 to pursue a career as a successful accountant before travelling to the United States in 1927, at the age of 35, to pursue a business degree at Syracuse University.  

By this time, Kumarappa had psychologically detached himself from the organized church in favor of independent spiritual practice. Kumarappa was not alone in this. The ascetic, Sadhu Sundar Singh, and the women’s rights advocate, Pandita Ramabai, regarded as the mother of Indian Pentecostal Christianity are two other notable Indian Protestant figures, from the twentieth-century, also rejected formal church affiliation. In all three cases, an intense Christian devotion coexisted alongside a sense of disillusionment over the organized church’s support for the British Raj. 

With his spiritual transformation complete, Kumarappa’s time in the United States marked the start of his political awakening. Following the lead of two of his elder brothers, who had already joined the independence movement, Kumarappa grew increasingly disillusioned by the actions and attitudes of the British Raj. He published Public Finance and India’s Poverty, a critical analysis of British colonialism’s economic exploitation of India. The publication was disseminated internationally and widely read by many including Gandhiji himself.  

He also expressed skepticism in the unchallenged belief that technological innovation was always a net good. 

Kumarappa had returned to India in 1929, where after his request for an audience with Gandhiji was approved, he became a full-time independence activist and adherent of the Gandhian social movement. His first undertaking included an assessment of the economic state of rural India, something which had previously only be done from the perspective of the British colonial government and would eventually go on the become the editor of Young India, the official English language newspaper of the Gandhian movement. It was through this work that Kumarappa began to develop a school economic thought he dubbed Gandhian economics. 

Gandhian economics 

Inspired by the teachings of Gandhiji along with his own Christian worldview, Gandhian economics served as an indigenous alternative to the dominant ideologies of capitalism and socialism. Kumarappa recognized that contemporary Indian society was plagued by extreme poverty, low-social trust, and systemic exploitation of the rural majority at the hands of the colonial state, feudal landlords and caste hierarchy. However, he was unconvinced of capitalism and socialism’s ability to effectively address these issues, fearing their propensity to centralize decision making authority in the hands of a few, be they bureaucrats or CEOs, would only further disenfranchise ordinary Indians.  

He also expressed skepticism in the unchallenged belief that technological innovation was always a net good and believed technology should be critically assessed to evaluate whether it advances the interests and values of the communities they serve.  

The six pillars of Gandhian economics include the concepts of: 

1. Sarvodaya (universal upliftment): Gandhian economics believed economic development must focus around achieving welfare and upliftment for all people, including those who have been historically marginalized. The emphasis on Sarvodaya is also why Gandhian economics should not be confused with reactionary political thought which emphasizes the preservation of traditional social and economic institutions for the benefit of the elite. 

2. Decentralization: The decentralization of decision-making authority is necessary to protect individual autonomy and empower communities. Kumarappa believed that centralized authority and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few would lead to exploitation and disenfranchisement, regardless of the prevailing ideology. Kumarappa argued that an emphasis on small scale industries and local self-sufficiency would be more effective as a means of poverty alleviation in India. 

3. Trusteeship: Gandhian economists believed that a decentralized economy would limit extreme concentrations of wealth but recognized that class differences would likely never truly disappear and thus believed that wealthy individuals be encouraged to engage in the voluntary redistribution of wealth.  

4. Swadeshi (self-reliance): Gandhian economics was skeptical of globalization and believed in economic self-reliance at the national and local level with the aim of reducing dependence on foreign imports. 

5. Nonviolence: Gandhian economics advocated non-violence which when taking an economic perspective includes avoiding practices such as usury, hoarding and predatory lending.  

6. Environmental sustainability: Gandhian economics believed that environmental stewardship and the sustainable use of natural resources were key to ensuring the long-term wellbeing of society and that this was best achieved by giving local communities autonomy and decision-making authority over their resources and local environments. 

The impact of Gandhian economics

Though the tenets of Gandhian economics often come across as overly idealistic, the ideology inspired several major economic movements during the Indian Independence Movement. The All India Village Industries Association (AIVIA) was established by Gandhiji and Kumarappa in 1934 with the aim of identifying best practice solutions that could be disseminated to promote village industries and improve economic self-reliance 

One early initiative undertaken by the AIVIA was to address rural India’s dependence on foreign kerosene and kerosene lamps for lighting, at a time when rural electrification was extremely rare. AIVIA technicians worked to develop the magan dipa, a locally produced alternative to kerosene lamps that could operate on domestic supplies of non-edible vegetable oils. Aside from the employment generated through the manufacturing of magan dipas, the newly created demand for locally produced non-edible vegetable oil incentivized Indian farmers to process their oilseed crops locally rather than sell them for export. This would boost employment through the establishment of oil presses and also provide farmers with a new stream of income as they could now rent out their cattle to power oil presses. AIVIA believed that solutions like the magan dipa could create economic growth at the local level and improve the quality of life for India’s rural majority without the need for an industrialized export driven economy. 

Gandhian economic principles also manifested as social movements such as Gandhiji’s call for the boycott of imported clothing from Britain in favor of locally produced homespun clothing. The impact of the boycott led to a 20% decline in sales among British clothing exporters and an upsurge in local clothing manufacturing.  

Throughout all this, Kumarappa played a central role in the real-world application of Gandhian economics and was widely considered to be a major figure in the Indian Independence Movement. His activities landed him in prison on more than one occasion with his most notable stint being in 1942 where he penned two of his most famous texts. The first being The Economy of Permanence, which summarized the rationale and principles of Gandhian economics, and the second being the Practice and Precepts of Jesus, which contained his religious views on Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ. As his prison sentence progressed Kumarappa developed a severe kidney ailment that led to his premature release. He gradually recovered on the outside and soon resumed his activist duties.  

Kumarappa’s later life 

After India’s independence, in 1947, Kumarappa worked for the Planning Commission of India which sought to develop national policies for agriculture and rural development. During this time, he travelled widely throughout East Asia and Europe to study various rural economic systems. However, a rift between him and the post-independence political establishment quickly began to form.  

Despite the early victories of Gandhian economics, the post-independence Indian establishment came to view the field with extreme skepticism, despite lionizing its early achievements as major victories of the Indian Independence Movement. The Congress Party, with whom Gandhiji was aligned with, adopted a more mainstream attitude to economics viewing industrialization, urbanization and the centralization of decision making through modernized bureaucracies as imperative for India’s development.  

Furthermore, decades as an independence activist made it difficult for Kumarappa to adjust to the conformity and hierarchy of the Indian bureaucracy and he quickly developed a reputation for outspokenness and defiance and did not hesitate to openly criticize his own government’s mismanagement and ineptitude. The Congress government began to view him as a growing irritant but were limited in their ability to control him. The public viewed Kumarappa as an incorruptible advocate for India’s rural poor and a hero of the independence era which meant disciplinary action would likely harm the government’s reputation more than Kumarappa’s. 

Kumarappa grew increasingly disillusioned with the Planning Commission which he believed was staffed by out-of-touch bureaucrats who lacked a personal understanding of the rural poor and the economy of rural India. By 1954, Kumarappa’s declining health forced him to retire from his public duties though he remained as staunchly committed to his Gandhian ideals urging followers that work towards achieving sarvodaya and swadeshi though their own personal and community efforts rather than relying on the “superficial schemes” of the Government. And on January 30, 1960 Kumarappa passed away following a paralytic stroke that had overtaken him four days earlier. The Kumarappa Institute of Gram Swaraj was established in his honour and continues to operate to this day by working to promote economic opportunities for India’s rural poor. 

Conclusion 

As the twentieth-century progressed, Gandhian economics gradually faded into obscurity, often viewed as too naïve for the real world. And maybe it was in some ways. Gandhian attempts at voluntary land redistribution failed almost everywhere, except in Telangana where they succeeded in part because landlords were growing increasingly fearful of the region’s growing Communist insurgency. But the core principle of Gandhian economics, the belief that economic growth can come about through grassroots organizing at the community level remains relevant. In his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought, journalist Palagummi Sainath, documents the dehumanizing poverty hundreds of millions of Indians experience and how the Indian state frequently exacerbates their situation through social, economic and political disenfranchisement. Villagers who find their public schools and clinics mismanaged by apathetic officials, entire communities are branded as born criminals and treated as such, and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy consistently drags progress to a near standstill.  

Yet Sainath also describes hopeful tales of what happens when the poor are given the opportunity to take matters into their own hands. In one of his most inspiring case studies, Sainath describes what happens when illiterate, landless, female stone quarry workers are given the opportunity to form a cooperative society entirely managed by them. Within a few short years these women establish a system that boosted productivity, wages for themselves and even taxes collected by the state. Health and safety were improved, adult education classes instituted. The women even began publishing their own newsletter. The improvements contrast greatly with a similar quarry which decided to join a professionally managed cooperative society only to end up with half their income deducted to fund the salaries of the white-collar professionals now tasked with their supposed wellbeing. Likewise, across India, the fight for environmental protection and regeneration is often being led by local communities. One notable example being how the village of Lapodiya in India’s arid Rajasthan state came together to transform their communities water table and is now seen as a role model for water conservation across the country. Watch the video below.

The successful self-organization of both these communities is exactly what Kumarappa believed would happen when we as a society respect the personal and economic autonomy of individuals and communities and shift decision making power from the top of the pyramid to its bottom. Too often, in India and across the world, the poor are infantilized as being incapable of improving their own lives without the outside intervention of the state, private enterprise or professionally managed not-for-profits. Maybe Gandhian economics can help us revisit this harmful assumption and reassess how it has been used to inadvertently disenfranchise the poor across the world. 

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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.