Looking to Gandhi for the Garbage problem

Mohandas Gandhi once asked a Polish engineer if he could make a spinning wheel that would be light and portable. He did. But Gandhi wasn’t happy. He felt the mechanics of the new wheel was too complex for the village folk of India to comprehend. But a simpler wheel wouldn’t give as much output, protested the engineer. “I don’t care about the output. I want everyone to be employed”, Gandhi said. This quaint narrative is based on the oral testimony of  Maurice Frydman, a Polish engineer, who Ved Mehta met for his biography of Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles.

The ‘in your face’ practicality of Gandhi’s methods would have ensured that an individual life did not have to be lived for lifetimes, many times over. Everything – from envelopes to excreta would have been re-used. You wouldn’t need government intervention to put systems in place to carry all your waste – from cooking and partying excesses to night soil. With each individual household being a self-contained unit that generated negligible waste, the garden city, the Silicon Valley of India, Bangalore, would not have found itself splashed across global newsprint in its new avatar as garbage city.

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2 thoughts on “Looking to Gandhi for the Garbage problem

  1. Thanks for the article, Revathi. I wonder which year did the dialogue between Gandhi and Frydman occur? Gandhi announced two open challenges one in 1919 and the other in 1929. Their primary focus was to improve the output which was two annas per day. In fact, the prize money attached to the 1929 design challenge was Rs. 1 Lakh, a large sum.

    Having said that I agree that the insistence of Gandhi of creating self-sustaining communities / villages seems to be the need of the hour. I am an enthusiastic participant of the waste management initiative in our apartment complex. Let’s see how far it goes.

  2. Thanks for your input, Vinay. Maurice Frydman must have been in India in the mid-1930s, I think. I have given below the extract where the incident referred to in my blog post appears in Ved Mehta’s book, Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles. It is interesting to note from your comment that Gandhi had earlier invited ideas for designing an output-oriented device. There could be many reasons for this: for instance, he might have wanted more people to take to spinning and zeroed in on the idea of a competition to get people involved. In any case, Gandhi doesn’t appear to have shied from being open to change at any point: some may see this as a streak of self-contradiction; it could also be seen as being open-minded to ground-level dynamics and realisms.

    I went to Gandhiji’s ashram in search of more spiritual enlightenment, and he asked me if I could build him a light, portable spinning wheel. I made a simple eight-spindle spinning wheel. He said that it looked too complicated — that he needed something much simpler for Indian villagers. ‘But a simpler spinning wheel wouldn’t give you the output,’ I said. ‘I don’t care about the output. I want everyone to be employed,’ he said. He believed that the work available in any society was limited and static, and that if one person produced more than his share, it would cut into the work of another person. I, as an engineer, had a dynamic view of work and society. We didn’t see eye to eye on practical matters,although I embraced him as my guru.”

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