Monday, 7 November 2011

Necessity, Gandhi And Invention

                             NECESSITY, INVENTION AND GANDHI

“Hind Swaraj” published by Mahatma Gandhi in 1909 continues to be relevant and draw attention even today. The book has become a sort of benchmark in politico-philosophical discourse in India. There are many thoughts advanced by the Mahatma in the book that are difficult, rather impossible to follow in the modern day. Such as that the railways are not necessary. Let us not judge it on the face value. Gandhi himself frequently used the railways. The basic point is to understand if any limit can be fixed for the human needs?

Tolstoy is often referred to as Mahatma Tolstoy in India. Mahatma Gandhi was deeply impressed by him. In one of his famous short stories he brings the reader to face the stark truism that what a man really needs is just a small piece of land for his burial. The majority of Indians is cremated rather than buried and doesn’t need even that. Yet, we have come to live in a social atmosphere where ‘Per Capita Consumption’ has become the yardstick to measure progress.

Seen from this angle, India is and will be considered a backward nation, unless it reaches parity with the US, UK or Japan in terms of per capita consumption of energy, coal, steel, wood, water etc. If there were 20 million computers in the US and the same number in India, it would still be called underdeveloped as eighty percent population would not have this toy of the new age. Ditto with the mobile phone and similar gadgets.

The countries of the Northern Hemisphere face long spells of cold weather. One can understand their need for heavy warm clothing. But when a warmer place like Colombo or Chennai starts emulating them then does it not become a matter of concern? In India a lot many people think nothing about wearing a three-piece suit even in hot summer days. There is any number of college teachers that wouldn’t take a class without sporting a tie. In my town I see that even in government schools, where children come mainly from poor families, wearing tie has been made compulsory. No responsible politician or bureaucrat or newspaper is bothered about it.

Of late, two inventions have come in vogue in India. One is the ‘Inhaler’ for Asthma and another is the road fly-over. The two have a direct connection with the increasing number of automobiles on roads. The smog generated by diesel/petrol is responsible for the increase in incidence of Asthma and therefore the use of the inhaler. Frequent traffic jams have generated the demand for building of fly-overs. But was it all that necessary for India to have so many automobiles? More vehicles have meant more expenses, more crowded roads, more pollution, and consequently more wastage of time and more diseases. If only we were little more careful, we would not have so much necessity for these inventions.

Similar is the case of water. Does anybody has the idea that how much water goes waste in the WC system. In the name of necessity we waste precious water and then invent grandiose schemes to bring it to the cities from long distances. The city of Indore cheered when it started getting water from River Narmada, more than a hundred kms away. But the scheme brought real happiness to contractors, builders, suppliers, officers and politicians. Now plans are afoot to bring Ganga water to Delhi from faraway Tehri Dam. It will also bring happiness to some more people who matter. But should not we stop and ponder if the invention of the Water Closet (WC) was really necessary or there is an alternative to it!

I recently saw in Japan that sofa set or dining table is not a necessary fixture in an average household. For sleeping a foldable bamboo mattress is preferred to a cushioned bed and tea or supper is usually served on a low-height teepoy. How about us! I presume that at least one tree per household is killed for providing furniture in India. Additionally, it occupies precious space in the house. Such furniture items might were invented to fulfil some specific needs, but over the times it has become more of a prestige point than a real necessity.

My article was intended to open discussion on mobile phone and computer. But I digressed. A few days ago I read somewhere that the persons who spend long hours with computers slowly start suffering from sexual disorders. If the research in this field is to be believed than an absurd question may be asked whether the computer could be used in India for population control! May be people will soon start exchanging SMS jokes about this!

The computer technology has brought a new trade opportunity in the form of ‘Call Centre’ to India. Thousands of young Indians working in them stay awake throughout the night as they observe working hours according to US Standard Time. They seldom see the light of the day and survive on junk food like oily pizzas. This life style is giving rise to depression and other disorders. The mobile phone users are also getting regular warnings about ailments seldom heard before. This is a peculiar situation. Invention of a machine is supposed to bring comfort in the human life but in these cases it has brought only misery. Why is it so?

I realise that gadgets like mobile phone or computers are here to stay. I myself have started using them. But I wish to ask several questions about necessity, utility and desirability of the gadgets. Such as when the day would come when every household, if not every person, will have a computer? Obviously, this will remain a distant dream even after a hundred years. In that case, what would be the impact of social division created by the machine?

At some given time in history, man (or woman) invented the script, followed by the wooden type and then the printing press. In the early age tree bark was used for writing of books. It was replaced by the writing paper. This immensely benefited the society, as it became possible to preserve the treasure of knowledge. But in the process, those who could not read or write were left out from testing the fruit of collected knowledge. A vast chasm got created between those who could write and those who could not. Those who were able to write started controlling destiny of those who could put only thumb impression. Was it not the reason that ledgers of moneylenders were burnt in Naxalbari? (Here readers may remember the scene from the epic film ‘Mother India’). Moreover, those who could not buy books were also by default denied access to knowledge as printed.

This has created a situation where a political system like Democracy has been reduced to the position of a wage slave of the elite. This is the reason that the demand to de-franchise illiterate masses is raised again and again. If the capability to buy books and knowledge of letters can create such a divide then just think of the scenario likely to emerge in the future. There may come a day when Bill Gates will prepare the voter lists of India and all candidates in the elections will be his customers!

Inventions will continue to take place. It is in human nature to explore new horizons. But we need to ask ourselves that to what extent an invention might serve interests of the mankind and the world. The explosion of the atom bomb had fascinated eminent physicist Rutherford. New inventions and new gadgets often enchant us- the common men and women. The important thing is to remember that a machine is to be used only as a mean in a judicious way. We should not allow it to become our mission, our purpose, our end, and our destiny.

Note: This article is being published on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. If we are interested in exploring the dichotomy between necessity and invention, then there is no better touchstone than the Mahatma’s thoughts.

Written and translated by Lalit Surjan


Published in Deshbandhu, Raipur on 2nd October 2003

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