Mahatma Gandhi in London in 1931. Photo: Wikipedia
Sumanas Koulagi.

Sumanas Koulagi, who holds a PhD from the University of Sussex and a Master of Science in biodiversity, conservation and management from the University of Oxford, was raised on an organic farm that belongs to the Janapada Seva Trust, a voluntary organization established by his grandparents in 1960 in the Indian state of Karnataka. He volunteers in the trust now after completing his PhD. 

The trust has worked in various fields ranging from organic farming and khadi to alternative education, and as a center for differently abled children.

A wide range of people with diverse interests used to visit the trust and out of all these, the frequently held natural history programs grabbed Koulagi’s attention. He happened to meet some of the leading naturalists in the country, and these interactions kindled his interest in wildlife.

The disappearance of wilderness over the years in the name of development pushed him to explore alternative ways of living that provide space for wildlife as well. This quest connected him back to the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, especially swaraj, a form of non-violent self-control. 

Excerpts of an interview with him follow. 

Kathakali Das Bhaumik: Let’s start with your grandparents and establishment of the Janapada Seva Trust. What were the basic fundamentals on which the Trust was formed?

Sumanas Koulagi: My grandparents were from a generation that was influenced by Gandhi and the freedom movement. My grandfather Surendra Koulagi settled in Melkote, Karnataka, in 1960 and started the voluntary organization Janapada Seva Trust.

He selected the village because it had all the rural industries that were part of Gandhi’s constructive work agenda. Since then the trust has been striving to establish a non-violent community which is free of exploitation, based on the idea of swaraj as advocated by Gandhi.

KB: What does swaraj mean in a broader context? How can it be perceived as a paradigm of development?

SK: Swaraj is a combination of two words, swa, which means “self,” and raj, which refers to “control” or “rule.” Hence the inherent meaning comes down to self-rule. It is a state of unalienated peaceful life where one will have an internal tranquillity and external harmonious relationship with others. 

The central quest of swaraj development is to construct a non-violent society that ensures self-rule and provides control to everyone over their lives. Such an exploitation-free society is built on the axioms of truth and non-violence.

Truth is an understanding of unity underlying the ever-changing world or interconnectedness of life. It becomes evident if we assess our everyday life.

For instance, how does a coffee that we drink in the morning become possible? There should be a plant called coffee, a honeybee or some insect must have pollinated the flowers to produce coffee fruits, someone should have plucked it, another person should have dried the seeds and powdered it, someone else should have packed and sold the powder, another person should have provided milk, and so on.

Because of all these collective contributions, we get our morning coffee on the table. This is true for each and every article we consume for our sustenance. It demonstrates that the good of an individual is embedded in the good of all.

By acknowledging this truth, the swaraj development takes a moral position of greatest good of all. In other words, it advocates morality of non-violence by recognizing the contribution of others in the existence of self. Such a moral position leads to human prosperity, but it stands in complete contrast with the morality of the prevailing development paradigm. 

However, development as swaraj identifies that people can effectively follow the morality of non-violence primarily when they fulfill their basic material needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. [As well,] they encounter the issue of survival, which is the primary source of self-interest and violence.

Therefore, the notion of development shifts from material to moral once the basic material needs are fulfilled. To achieve this, the swaraj paradigm embraces decentralization in politics and self-sufficiency in economy to ensure everyone fulfils their basic material needs and in turn encourages the morality of non-violence. This goes against the prevailing development model that rests upon centralization in politics and efficiency in the economy.

The development paradigm of swaraj recognizes the fact that every material transaction is also a moral transaction. For example, if a person purchases a football made from child labor, that person commits violence by indirectly encouraging the exploitation of children. This is true for every material transaction we make. Therefore, self-sufficiency in the economy involves reduction in the distance between production and consumption to a minimum. 

Further, self-sufficiency in the economy prioritizes human energy that enables individuals to perform physical labor. On one hand, it reduces environmental impact, since there is no requirement of an external energy source. On the other hand, it ensures more control of people over their lives by providing further access to own the means of production.

This is precisely because capital in the form of money is unequally distributed in the society whereas capital in the form of labor is more or less equally distributed. Therefore, any means of production that depends more on labor could create a more equal society by distributing wealth in its production stage itself.

This goes against the wealth production and distribution mechanism of the existing development system where wealth is created by a small group of people who possess monetary capital.

Take for instance [the] handloom. It works on human energy, requires a few thousand rupees of investment, and allows individuals from large sections of society to own it, whereas the power loom runs on electricity, demands a few [hundred thousand] rupees of investment, and becomes unaffordable for most of the common people.

The latter, therefore, increases the chances of enforcing the owner-and-laborer relationship and in turn aids in disparity between rich and poor. Most important, human energy sets an inherent limit to the production and consumption in the economy, which is essential for the survival of our civilization in the finite planet.

This is a normative vision of swaraj. It should be seen as a direction for our civilization to move forward rather than something that could be achieved overnight. 

KB: The culture of consumption has invaded every cell of our consciousness so much so that the consumerist society is completely unconscious of its footprints affecting ecology, environment, and wildlife. How has the abundance of material wealth impacted the ecological and social structure?

SK: On one hand, abundance of material wealth has created indulgence among a small section of the global society. On the other hand, it has engendered inequality and environmental crises that threaten global civilisational collapse. The growing inequality, particularly of wealth, has reached the point where the top 1% own more than one-fourth of total wealth.

According to the latest World Inequality Report, if inequality is not adequately addressed, it will result in various sorts of political, economic, and social catastrophes. At the same time, human civilization is breaking through thresholds of delicately interconnected planetary boundaries, which delineate the safe operating space for humanity.

The growth of civilization beyond these ecological limits will result in non-linear, abrupt environmental change, and will have a fatal impact if not checked. 

KB: Tweaking development models to fit into Gandhian ideals – how do you think that could be achieved?

SK: People have to explore their own path to achieve the normative vision of swaraj. However, the principles will be the same, as explained earlier – political decentralization and economic self-sufficiency rooted in the morality of the greatest good of all. 

KB: How do you plan to move forward with an effective collaboration of Gandhian ideals and manual labor to achieve a sustainable wildlife ecosystem? What are the tools you might be using?

SK: As I explained earlier, the swaraj development paradigm is built on the morality of the greatest good of all. Here “all” includes non-human beings like animals, flora and fauna too. Therefore, moving towards the normative vision of swaraj inherently brings co-existence. The question is how to enforce this moral value. At the moment, I think it can be achieved through redefining cultural memory and environmental education.

Cultural memory represents historical consciousness that provides diachronic identity for people in the present. It is referred to as memory because it forgets what lies outside of the horizon of the relevant. It entails mythical history where distinction between myth and history vanishes.

Further, it involves events from the absolute past, from the mythical primordial time that spans over the last three thousand years. The cultural memory mediates from generation to generation through symbols in the form of structures, texts, rituals, icons, performance of various kinds, classical or other formalised languages.

Since the worldview of a large section of society is shaped by its cultural memory, it is essential to engage with it to bring about a transformation.

Another important way of enhancing commitment to the morality of non-violence is through cultivating self-knowledge by inquiring about the place of the self in the cosmos. This can be more effectively done by an empirical understanding of the material world, particularly through an ecological perspective.

Such exposure to an understanding of the natural world helps individuals to realize the intricate connections between the self and other beings in the cosmos. The recognition of the contribution of other beings towards the existence of the self through these exercises encourages an individual to lead a life of co-existence. 

Kathakali Das Bhaumik

Kathakali Das Bhaumik is a United Nations digital volunteer and a freelance media contributor.