Gandhian economist sees hope in young Indian innovators

Mar 22,2018

As a historian of modern India, Mark Lindley has largely concentrated on the freedom struggle and Mahatma Gandhi.

The American scholar, now a sprightly 80, was in Bengaluru recently and spoke on 'Which parts of Mahatma Gandhi's message about health care are useful today?' at St John's Medical College.

Anila Kurian of Metrolife asked him what it was like to be a Gandhian in today's world.

How has the perception of India changed for you since 1994, when you first came here?
I came to help write a book about Mahatma Gandhi and religion. I remember being astonished that I could ride a motorcycle and see a cow on the road at the same time. There is a lot of prosperity and a great Indian middle-class today. But destitution still exists and the country is a lot more crowded than it was 20 years ago. The issue of the environment is becoming serious. There's going to be a shortage of fresh water in Bengaluru. No city in the country has changed as much as this one. When I came here in 1998, there was no hint of a shortage of fresh water. There will be serious weather crises, floods, storms and droughts. We're beginning to see that and it's only going to get worse. The only question is, how much worse.

Back in the day, the Congress used to be great but now they are just pathetic. India has become a big player in world politics. I suspect India will never catch up with China in manufacturing. India fell far behind because she did not include universal primary and secondary school as a fundamental right in the Constitution. China beat India with that and that's why I think 'Make in India' will not succeed.

What's it like being a Gandhian in today's world?
You've just implied that I am Gandhian. But Gandhi was very clear that he did not expect his followers to agree with him. He was very open-minded and I criticise him when I think he made a mistake. In that sense, I guess I can be called a Gandhian. But of course, he died a while ago and the circumstances are different now. There is no Mahatma today; so what do you do without the Mahatma to inspire you? He was a glorious figure. We don't need glory today, we need good common sense and good morale. The world is happier when you don't need glory. When you need glory, it means that the times are really bad. We can solve problems with cooperation and good morals.

What do you feel about millets being back in fashion?
The Green Revolution prevented famine in the 1970s. It should have wound down after about five years. But the rulers didn't have long-term vision. And one of the problems was that millets were pushed aside. It's tragic that if people had more brains in the '60s, they would have understood that when the monsoons are nasty, you can still harvest a decent millet crop. Growing millets in the plateau of Maharashtra should have been a part of the farmers' portfolio.

Our current lifestyle is the result of decisions our leaders took then?
You have to understand that the 20th century American way of life is not feasible in the 21st century. The automobile is a very 20th-century invention. In the 21st century, petroleum is going to run out. So the automobile is the wrong direction to go in now. But now that the youth is going to school, there are going to be smart Indians who can help lead and come up with 21st-century solutions. For example, the only polio vaccine that worked was created in India. Solar panels are another thing India can look into since there is strong sunlight here. In fact, solar is more relevant than wind here.

Is obesity catching on in India?
The American Medical Research was trying to understand whether obesity was caused by starch, fat or sugar. We now know that the sugar industry had paid the professors at Harvard University to publish scientific articles that reached an incorrect conclusion about the role of sugar. In the US, people are reducing their intake of soft drinks high in sugar, but the country still has an obesity issue. It is even declared an epidemic.

The Indian middle-class is beginning to be obese now. I often see Indian grandmothers at airports who are obese but it's the younger generation joining in now. As chief minister, N T Rama Rao had a big programme to give rice at Rs 2 a kilo. But if he had limited that to whole-grain rice, he would have done better for the poverty-stricken people of the state. Apart from the country being obese, it is also vitamin deficient. Gandhi served only brown rice at the ashram even though he didn't eat rice. He was ahead of his time!

Who is Mark?
Mark Lindley is a noted economist, musicologist and historian. He studied at Harvard University, Juilliard School of Music and Columbia University. He is a visiting professor at some Indian universities. He is the author and co-author of about 15 books and more than 100 scholarly articles. He has given musical lecture-demonstrations in Bengaluru and Hyderabad.