Gandhi: The Environmentalist

Suman Khanna Aggarwal  

“The earth, the air, the land and the water are not an inheritance from our fore fathers but on loan from our children. Sowe have to handover to them at least as it was handed over to us.” Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi is well known for being a revolutionary leader of a unique kind of peaceful protest – satyagraha, which harbours no ill will for the ‘wrong-doer’ but is based on love and self-suffering,  so that the latter eventually comes to see his ‘wrong- doing’, resulting in a win-win situation for all parties. His legacy – especially of nonviolent conflict resolution – is a gift to posterity. Tagore, therefore, christened him with the title of Mahatma – Great Soul.

“But very few people know that Gandhi was an environmentalist too. This is primarily because the environmental problems have surfaced largely in the post-Gandhian era and as such, the concern for the environment has assumed importance only in recent years.”2Gandhi’s austere and simple life-style, his embrace of voluntary poverty/reduction of wants, his ashrams (community living), his views on development, technology, self-sufficiency, village swaraj, Sarvodaya (welfare of all), trusteeship (includes stewardship of the Earth), conservation of resources, etc. reveal his care for the environment. Prof. Shreekrishna Jha, Director of the Gandhian Institute of Studies, Rajghat, Varanasiobserves:

“Gandhi is the propounder of a kind of life, culture and society which will never lead to environmental problems. … Gandhi tried to carry his message to the masses through the life he himself led. This is what made him an environmentalist with a difference. ”3

T N Khoshoo calls Gandhi, “An apostle of applied human ecology.”4Indian environmentalists such as Vandana Shiva, Anil Agarwal, Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha have acknowledged their debt to Gandhi’s ideas. Guha calls him, “an early Environmentalist and the single most important influence on the environmental movement.”5Gandhi’s economist, J C Kumarappa, developed his ecological views. His book, Economy of Permanence, has often been cited “as an example of green thought and sustainable development couched in a Gandhian framework.”6 Gandhi made the following observation in his Foreword to Kumarappa’s book:

“He (Kumarappa) tackles the question – shall the body triumph over and stifle the soul or shall the latter triumph over and express itself through a perishable body which, with its few wants healthily satisfied, will be free to subserve the end of the imperishable soul? This is ‘Plain living and High thinking’”.7

Gandhi’s famous much-quoted insight, is a telling statement on the plunder of our natural resources and mother Earth, for acquisition of wealth at all cost:

“Nature has enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but not to satisfy anybody’s greed” 8

In his perceptive article, Gandhi And Deep Ecology,9 Thomas Weber, analyses the Mahatma’s contribution to the intellectual development of Arne Naess, who coined the term, deep ecology, and who readily admits his debt to Gandhi.10Weber argues that those who want to make an informed study of deep ecology, should go back to Gandhi for a fuller picture, because,

“The new environmentalism in the form of deep ecology, very closely mirrors Gandhi’s philosophy.”11

In a prayer meeting in Delhi in 1947, Gandhi suggested water harvesting for irrigation purposes to protect against famines and food shortages.12  Prime Minister Modi in his first edition of ‘Mann Ki Baat’ radio programme after assuming office, while urging  citizens to unite for conserving water and share their efforts on social media using the hashtag ‘JanShakti4JalShakti, told his listeners:

“If anybody gets a chance to visit Porbandar, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, behind his house there is a 200-year-old water tanker and still, there is water in it. There is a system to preserve rainfall water.” 13

The Gandhian approach, including his life-style is Holistic. This is in line with human ecology which visualizes human beings and their environment as constituting an integrated whole. All life – human, animal, plant, the elements – are inter-connected. Gandhi was well aware of the inter-relatedness of the different aspects of our lives. He maintains:

“I do not divide different activities – political, social, religious, economical – into water-tight compartments. I look upon them all as one indivisible whole each running into the rest and affected by the rest.”14

“I believe in Advaita (non-duality), I believe in the essential unity of

man and, for that matter, of all that lives.”15

As stated above, environmental issues were not significant during Gandhi’s lifetime. But Gandhi was prophetic, as John S Moolakkattu points out, in anticipating most of the environmental problems facing us today:

“Gandhi’s description of the modern (industrial) civilization as a ‘seven-day wonder’ contains a prognosis and a warning. He envisaged an ecological or basic needs model centred on limitation of wants in contrast to modern civilization that promoted material welfare and profit motive.”16

Conservation was a part of Gandhi’s day-to-day life. He would use water most sparingly. It could be said of money and other personal resources also. He wrote history-making decisions on the back of used envelopes. He is known to have used a pencil right up to its stub! There is an interesting story of how his pumice stone (he was very particular about clean feet!) got left behind while moving camp; is insistence on retrieving it – totally against buying a new one! No wonder then Sarojini Naidu quipped about him:

“It takes a great deal of money to keep Bapu living in poverty!”17

The mad rush for exploitation of our natural resources has resulted in global warming. Gandhi refused to get on amotorcycle, during the Dandi March, brought to him by one of his followers, asking when you can walk, why use the motorcycle? His opposition to urbanization has implications for the environment.

To conclude, I share with you 2 Models of Development:

Contemporary & Gandhian


Shreekrishna Jha,  Mahatma Gandhi – An Environmentalist with a difference,

Sourced on 11 07 -2020.


T N Khoshoo, Mahatma Gandhi: An Apostle of Applied Human Ecology, TERI, New Delhi, 1995, p.9.

Ramachandra Guha, ‘Mahatma Gandhi and Environmental Movement in india’ in Arne Kalland and Gerard Persoon (ed), Environmental Movements in Asia, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies & Routledge, London, 1998, p.67. on 23.07.2020.

Sourced on 23.07.2020.   Sourced on 23.07.2020.

Sourced on 23.07.2020.

Naess himself admits in a brief third-person account of his philosophy that,“his work on the philosophy of ecology, or ecosophy, developed out of his work on Spinoza and Gandhi and his relationship with the mountains of Norway.” (Devall & Sessions, 1985: 225).



Uday Agarwal, Gandhi, Environmental Swaraj And Us, Times of India, June 5, 2020, p. 16.

Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986, Vol. I, p. 408.


Sourced on 25.07.2020.

Suman Khanna Aggarwal (editor) 50 years of Independence: 1947-97, Status, Growth & Development, B.R. Publishing Corporation,New Delhi, 1997, article on, Models of Development, p. 28.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here