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Gandhi's mistake, Gunnar's too; and a response - The Indian Express

Sauvik Chakraverti ()
10 December 1996

Title : Gandhi's mistake, Gunnar's too
Author : Sauvik Chakraverti
Publication : The Indian Express
Date : December 10, 1996

Going through Gandhi, one sees how his mind was working
on the confusing question of technology - boon or bane?
In Young India, November 13, 1924, he attacked machinery:
"Helps a few to ride on the backs of millions". He warned
that 'the machine should not tend to make atrophied the
limbs of man'. And he made an 'intelligent exception' of
the Singer Sewing Machine because it had 'love at its
back': Mr Singer saw his wife labouring over her sewing
and invented a device that would save her trouble! Gandhi
approved.

And he was honest about his confusion a long time later:
In Community Service News, September-October 1946, he
said: "As a moderately intelligent man, I know man cannot
live without industry. Therefore, I cannot be opposed to
industrialisation. But I have a great concern about
introducing machine industry. The machine produces too
much too fast, and brings with it a sort of economic
system which I cannot grasp."

Why is it so difficult to grasp what machinery does?
Only because we look at immediate - and not long-term
consequences. Industry - Gandhi agrees - is a basic
human impulse: we all strive to do whatever we do such
that we save effort. Machines do the same. If they were
bad, we would all be unemployed, our limbs atrophied, and
we would yearn to be back in the Stone Ages, when we
could have been much more active. But the obvious fact is
that machines have raised production, wages, the standard
of living and the sum total of human life on Planet
Earth.

To examine the question, we look, like Henry Hazlitt did,
at what happens when a new machine enters the factory of
an overcoat manufacturer. Since it raises productivity,
it displaces, say, 25 per cent of his workforce. This is
more than what has been employed in manufacturing the
machine itself. But look at the long-term consequences.

In a few years the machine `pays for itself. It has
saved more than it was worth. These excess savings come
to the man who bought it, who can either reinvest in his
business, invest elsewhere or spend it thereby adding to
employment. Further, the machine would probably have
reduced costs in manufacture, giving the leader in intro-
ducing it an edge over his rivals.

Today, technophobic arguments are still heard all over
the world. The anti-word is 'automation'. It is bad, and
it reduces employment. The automobile industry is one in
which automation is greatly opposed. Here is an industry
which has mechanised itself greatly, and the statistics
are telling. In the US: 1910 - 140,000 workers; 1920 -
250,000; 1930 - 380,000; 1973 - 941,000.

Evidence indicates that the khadi philosophy is seriously
wrong. It cannot be a way of either increasing employ-
ment or national wealth. It can, at best, create a
constituency. What it will not offer this constituency
is a means by which their produce gets treated as art -
as hand-work should be considered - instead of a subsi-

dised, protected something that needs the state to shelt-
er it from the machine. It does not call for the artis-
tic pride of the weaver. It asks for his submission to
state patronage under the aegis of Gandhians whose only
claim to fame is that they worship their God without
original - or even critical - thinking.

What is surprising is that a Nobel Laureate in Economics
(1974) is committed to the same error. Gunnar Myrdal,
shortly before he won the prize, wrote that machines
which increased output should not be introduced into
underdeveloped countries because they 'decrease the
demand for labour. Can this be for real? At a time when
Malaysia has decided it will be 'developed' by 2020
(Mahathir drives a car numbered 2020!), how can we langu-
ish between socialism, and the unintelligent economics of
a Nobel Laureate who has been hugely felicitated by the
Indian state.

We live in times when even the existence of an intellec-
tual-moral elite is doubtful - forget its capacity to
guide the destiny of millions. Good economics and sound
political science can offer some respite. This will
never happen unless we are willing to sift through the
heap of ideology we lug around and discard whatever is
false.

______________________________________________________

Response

From:
V Merchant
9-B, Suvas,
Rungta Lane,
Mumbai 400 006.

December 10, 1996.

Sir,

This has reference to "Gandhi's mistake, Gunnar's too" (Dec 10) by Shri
Sauvik Chakraverti. It is manifestly unfair to blame Mahatma Gandhi for
thinking that mechanisation is bad. The Mahatma was trained as a lawyer, not
as an economist. His thinking was based on a particular period of time, when
the British colonial masters used their industrial revolution to enslave
India in the economic sphere as well. However, it needs to be recognised
that while the Mahatma propagated the Charka, he encouraged Indian
entrepreneurs to set up composite textile mills.

Blaming Shri Myral Gunnar at least has some justification. But, given the
intellectual environment at the time, it is not surprising. We have had the
'small is beautiful' theory of Schumacker. At a popular level, Charlie
Chaplin made a film making fun of the assembly line. Even today there is a
thinking that machines demean human beings, and ways and means must be found
to make work enjoyable.

The Mahatma should be understood as being relevant at the time that he lived.
It also needs to be understood that he was not fetish of the charkha as some
of his so-called followers make him out to be. He used native intelligence
to look at problems, and tried to suggest his solutions. However, if his
followers make mistakes in his name, then it is not the Mahatma who is to be
blamed.

However, the larger thesis that the most appropriate technology is the one
that produces quality goods at the least price (i.e. value for money) holds.
This will ensure that there is sufficient demand for goods and the higher
production will more than make up for the loss of production opportunities on
a per unit basis. It is this that Shri Chakraverti should have developed
further, and found out why India did not follow this path. And the blame
would have rested with Nehru and Mahanalobis. They pushed India onto the
path of heavy mechanisation, without creating the infrastructure to support
even the basic industry. They ignored the theory of comparative advantage,
and instead got so enamoured with the Russian planning model that they wasted
large sums of money of the country in creating the huge white elephant of the
public sector.

Yours sincerely,

(Viren Merchant)

To:
The Editor, The Indian Express,
Express Tower, Nariman Point,
Mumbai 400 021.


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