The Web of Freedom: An Excerpt

The value of Kumarappa’s work lies in his ability to present an economic philosophy while working to improve village industries. Right at the inception of the All-India Village Industries Association (AIVIA) in 1934, Kumarappa was clear that while the industries that had long sustained millions’ were languishing, if India ‘was to progress economically and culturally it was imperative that the villages had to become centres of activity’. If the villager had to have social and economic autonomy, the villages had to be made ‘self-dependent, self-supporting and self respecting’. An important, and often forgotten, aspect of this understanding was the emphasis that both Gandhi and Kumarappa laid on adapting and modifying the village economy ‘to meet the present-day needs’. Kumarappa repeatedly emphasized that the entire effort of the AIVIA was ‘to bring science and progress into the stagnant pools that are called “villages” today’. The AIVIA intended to assemble and disseminate reliable and scientifically validated information on all aspects of village-based production as well as carry out research work on its own. But if science was to be brought to bear on the problems of the villages, the association needed trained workers. In a lament that is strikingly contemporary, Kumarappa pointed out that capable individuals ‘end up in town in search of secure employment’ and ‘the artistically inclined deserted the indigenous art’. The cumulative impact of this process for many decades has only ‘brought ruin and distress to our country-side’. Sapped of skill, energy and hope, the villagers had neither ‘the enterprise … nor the resources to carry out experiments’ towards improving their methods of production.

 The crux of the problem, as Kumarappa saw it, was the ‘dearth of intelligent and venturesome persons’ who would ‘study the needs of the people and by intensive experiment and research’ provide the ideas and knowledge needed to help organize the villages into self-sufficient groups. However, ‘public opinion amongst the educated [was] either apathetic or definitely against’ the AIVIA since ‘even the most enlightened’ felt that it was indulging in a futile exercise. Kumarappa felt that the scientifically trained individuals were most culpable. Instead of serving the needs of the masses, scientists were poor trustees of their knowledge which they placed ‘outside the reach of the villagers’ and sold ‘their services to the highest bidder’. The lack of well-trained workers was only one of many constraints that affected the AIVIA during its entire period of existence. The other chief problem was that while there were many village industries, till then ‘no organized effort or scientific knowledge has been directed’ towards the village economy, making the AIVIA a pioneering effort.

 For Gandhi, both khadi and village industries were essential to breathe life into the village economy. However, in comparison with khadi, the constructive work carried out by Kumarappa and the AIVIA has received scant scholarly attention. The reasons for this neglect are twofold. First, Gandhi relied upon Kumarappa to develop the AIVIA. Much of the village movement discourse of Kumarappa and his colleagues appeared in the Gram Udyog Patrika and has been ignored by scholarly work that largely relies on The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. The second and more significant reason was the changed circumstances under which the AIVIA was founded and operated in. Arising out of the indifference of the Congress leadership towards constructive work, Gandhi had chosen to delink the activities of the AIVIA from Congress politics. This, coupled with a growing faith in the modern industrial economy, led the Indian intelligentsia away from Gandhian constructive work, including village industries.

 In its early years, the AIVIA concentrated its efforts on improving villages through an emphasis on rationalizing the available diet, improving village industries, and tackling that most obdurate of Indian problems, sanitation. Cleanliness was a personal obsession with Gandhi and it was made a central agenda of the association. However, inducing caste-ridden village India to shed its prejudices was another matter.  While the AIVIA enthusiastically took up sanitation work, there was ‘little co-operation’ from the villagers owing to, as the AIVIA euphemistically put it, ‘traditional sentiment’. At the Haripura session of the Congress in 1938, Kumarappa had noted with satisfaction that the success of the volunteers in keeping the environs clean ‘demonstrated beyond all doubt how effectively this dire problem of India can be solved if every person will give half a minute’s thought every day to cover up dirt’.  This was indeed wishful thinking as Kumarappa himself noted that ‘scavenging work has been the hardest for village workers’ who faced ostracism by the villagers, leading the AIVIA to doubt the idea that practice was better than precept. After five years of failed attempts, in 1940 the AIVIA was sorrowfully reporting that with regard to sanitation its ‘scattered efforts have proved too feeble for the task’.

 In economic terms, Gandhi spoke of the exploitation of villages as ‘organized violence’ which could only be countered by the revival and patronage of village industries ‘in place of things produced in city factories, foreign or indigenous’. For Kumarappa, the remedy to the problems of village industries was not in their abandonment but to ‘bring the light of science’ to them.  Modernizing village industries was central to the challenge of stemming the outflow of raw material—as well as people—from the villages. The challenge was to enable the village to make best use of its own resources and such self-help had to address the diet available to the villager. While improving the quality and quantity of food was a task of fundamental importance, Kumarappa’s work linked the nutritional needs of the villages to questions of deeper significance—political economy and state policy as well as the ecological web that sustained life. It is through a critique of public policy, both before and after Independence, and his own prescriptions that Kumarappa’s ‘green’ ideas emerge. Thus, humble items of food become key modes of grappling with larger questions. During the early years of the AIVIA’s existence, the issues of Harijan were filled with notes on the nutritional value of a variety of food items. Indeed, the AIVIA workers had taken Gandhi’s complaint on the lack of basic nutritional information to heart. Soon the organization had accumulated enough scientific knowledge to issue thorough but simply written monographs on a variety of foodstuffs like jaggery, rice, and oilseeds. By 1941 it had published a Table of Indian Food Values and Nutrition as well as a popular volume on What Shall We Eat? which were pioneering efforts in the scientific tabulation of Indian nutrition and exposition on dietetics respectively.

 In addition to addressing the question of diet and nutrition, the AIVIA made considerable efforts to assemble, systematize, and disseminate scientifically validated knowledge and information in an easily accessible manner. It published a series of pamphlets and guides—in Hindi, Marathi, and English—on a variety of small-scale industries like bee-keeping, papermaking, and so on, that were designed to help the poor villager make full use of available natural resources with a minimal amount of capital. These early efforts at acquiring and disseminating information were only a first step towards understanding and addressing the needs of India’s village industries. While the scope of such industries on the national scale was enormous, the AIVIA necessarily focused on areas of work where it could make a useful contribution. Although it is not possible for us to summarize the entire body of research and experimental work carried out at Maganvadi and elsewhere, here we seek to illustrate the nature of the exercises carried out under Kumarappa’s supervision.

 A specific area of early interest was that of the palm gur or jaggery industry. If Gandhi’s question on the composition of gur went unanswered by India’s scientists in 1934, within a year the AIVIA was able to provide an authoritative reply based on its own chemical analysis. However, there were weightier reasons than satisfying Gandhi’s curiosity for Kumarappa and his colleagues to be interested in the fate of the humble palm. The AIVIA did not limit itself to the analysis of palm gur, but comprehensively advocated its development as the ‘only rational source of sugar in India’. While sugar was a key component of a healthy diet, it was increasingly being obtained from sugarcane processed in centralized factories with serious implications. Industrially manufactured sugar is nutritionally inferior to jaggery which is rich in a variety of minerals. Although the sap of the palm was made into alcoholic toddy in most regions, it was converted into jaggery only in some parts of India. The AIVIA sought to propagate this latter use of palm gur on a national scale and set about training workers for the task. It was also able to carry out a painstaking comparative economic assessment of the industry in regions as far-flung as UP, Madras, and Bengal. Traditionally the tapper castes held a ritually low status and were ranked amongst the poorest of Indians. With the collapse of the traditional palm gur industry and Gandhi’s advocacy of prohibition, the AIVIA sought to provide a sustained means of livelihood to the tappers. Such advocacy was not based on mere surmise. Rather, by maintaining a detailed record at one of its production centres, the AIVIA was able to conclude that the manufacture of palm gur could provide adequate employment to a family for eight months a year.  Through its experiments in Maganvadi, the AIVIA also developed a cheaper substitute to the expensive centrifugal machines used in sugar manufacture that were beyond the reach of the ordinary villagers. This made it possible for sugar manufacture to be carried out as a small-scale industry.

 If the use of white sugar deprived the individual user of nutritional value, growing sugarcane diverted scarce resources of land and water that could be used to produce much-needed food grains. In contrast, the palm easily grew on scrubland that was otherwise unsuitable for cultivation. Based on the experience garnered and its own statistical analysis, the AIVIA argued that substituting sugarcane with palm gur would result in the release of some 200,000 acres from sugarcane cultivation. The profligate nature of growing sugarcane was easily recognized in that it used large tracts of irrigated land whereas only a fifth of the viable palms were being tapped in India. However, much of this discourse was a plaintive cry that fell on deaf ears and India’s sugar mills continued to grow in strength. In the early years of independence, Kumarappa had to perforce aid protests directed against the powerful sugar mill owners of Madurai district.

 Decades later, that towering moral figure of independent India, Baba Amte, recalled Gandhi’s proposal that Amte make palm gur his life’s mission. Having witnessed the ravages of large dams and irrigation projects and the baneful influence of the sugar lobby on India’s politics, an older and wiser Amte came to recognize the wisdom of the Mahatma’s simple proposition.

 Along with its mission to propagate palm gur, the AIVIA also mounted a rearguard attempt to rescue another age-old village industry from the ravages of industrialization, the traditional oil press or ghani. The decline of the ghani is a prime exemplar of the manner in which the intricate web of social and ecological relationships within the village were sundered by industrialization in the context of a colonial economy. At the same time, the AIVIA’s work on the problem of oil presses illustrates the novel manner in which Gandhi and Kumarappa sought to reconstitute a new economic order based on village industries. While today’s Indian elite are beginning to recognize the virtues of cold-pressed cooking oil, Kumarappa and his colleagues were a tiny minority of constructive workers who relentlessly—and with little effect—argued against the licensing of oil mills. Along with the reduced nutritional value of oil pressed using industrial extraction methods, every mill deprived many oil-pressers of a legitimate livelihood which, in turn, rendered idle the bullocks used in traditional oil presses. Unable to afford tractors for ploughing their fragmented landholdings, most Indian farmers necessarily had to maintain bullocks to provide the motive power required in their fields. Since ploughing was a seasonal activity, without the work of the oil press or for pulling bullock carts, most communities found it economically unviable to maintain their animals. While the modernists viewed the use of bullocks in the fields and for oil presses as quaint and outmoded, Kumarappa perceptively recognized that with the limited capital available in the hands of Indian farmers, neither the bullocks nor the ghani could be dispensed with. Having recognized the indispensability of the traditional ghani, he and his colleagues set about improving their designs to make them cheaper and more efficient. The Maganvadi team carefully studied many traditional designs from around the country and settled on a simplified design that was christened the Magan ghani and was adjudged the best design in the country.


Kumarappa was far-sighted with regard to the relationship between human activity and the environment. Amongst the earliest of thinkers to clearly distinguish between finite resources and renewable ones in nature, his was a lone voice ranged against the enthusiastic advocates of large-scale industrialization. In his own lifetime there was little recognition of these views as our contemporary ecological crises were far into the future. In more recent times, Kumarappa has been correctly identified as an early preceptor of environmental thought in India. Now that many of the problems he had warned against have come to pass, there is far greater acceptance of the wisdom in Kumarappa’s views. However, his ecological insight and attendant prescriptions are only one manifestation of a deep and original philosophical vision that translated the moral basis of ahimsa into a decentralized economic order. To put it differently, Kumarappa’s environmentalism was a logical derivative of his universal touchstone, the Natural Order.

Thus, as early as 1930, he argued that in studying human institutions we should never lose sight of that great teacher, Mother Nature. Anything that we may devise if it is contrary to her ways, she will ruthlessly annihilate sooner or later. Everything in nature seems to follow a cyclic movement. Water from the sea rises as vapour and falls on land in refreshing showers and returns back to the sea again. All creatures consume inorganic substances and by the process of nutrition build their organic bodies out of them. But by death, disintegration and dissimilation such organic matter is returned to the inorganic world again. A nation that forgets or ignores this fundamental process in forming its institutions will disintegrate. Our economic situation in India today is largely due to the absence of this natural order.

 Kumarappa held that the scientific character of any course of human action was to be judged by the extent to which it conformed to nature and ‘where we deviate from nature, to that extent we are unscientific’. As a result, he argued that ‘the real producers of wealth are those who cooperate with nature and through the operation of natural forces’ produce things for human use.  Viewed from this vantage point, Kumarappa’s ideas do not appear as stand-alone ecological prescriptions. They remain firmly embedded in a context of a rich interplay of philosophical ideas, political economy, and painstaking experimentation. Consequently, it would be incorrect to conflate his ecological vision with the instrumental calculus of ‘green’ public policy and advocacy that one encounters in our contemporary times. At the same time, one may not divorce the ecological truth of Kumarappa from his concern with the fate of the individual. Specifically, Kumarappa’s ecological thought did not view the natural environment as devoid of human intervention. Thus, he argued that India’s developmental ‘projects have to be scientific in the sense that the needs of our people and the resources at our disposal should be co-ordinated with restrictions under which nature has placed us’.  Indeed, this is also the burden of an influential argument on the typological differences between different modes of the global environmental discourse.


Excerpted with permission from Oxford University Press from The Web of Freedom: J. C. Kumarappa and Gandhi's Struggle for Economic Justice by Venu Madhav Govindu and Deepak Malghan, a brilliantly well-researched biography of freedom fighter, economic philosopher, environmentalist, and Gandhian Economist, J.C Kumarappa. The book is available online at Amazon.

The New India Foundation