Research in India: What Would Gandhi Do?

Research in India: What Would Gandhi Do?


For three months in 2005-2006, Pacific Institute Program Director Meena Palaniappan will be conducting research in India. This article is part of a series of diary entries in which Palaniappan will elaborate on her experiences abroad.


I am always thoroughly impressed and humbled by the dedication and commitment of my NGO colleagues and concerned residents who are involved in the struggle to make Chennai more sustainable. The city seems chock full of retired engineers and scientists who are making their own homes more sustainable by building comprehensive rainwater harvesting systems, separating out garbage, recycling the greywater (wash water) from their homes, and trying to spread these practices to others.

Every few years I come dashing through Chennai or hereabouts on some environmental project, to learn from and to provide assistance to the NGO community. Yet, each time I come, the same core set of people seem to be tirelessly working on improving things in Chennai. They are getting older and wiser, and they are not giving up. It’s a wonderful, heartening thing to see.

Luckily, some new energy is often inserted into the mix and younger folks are giving new life and new strategies to the old guard. There is definitely a difference in attitude and strategy. Younger ones seem more activist oriented, more suspicious of government and corporates, and less willing to work within the system or accept compromise.

Young, old, rural or urban, there is a phrase that always seems to cause many to pause, “What would Gandhi do?” or what some have shortened to WWGD. More than 50 years since his assassination, the pedestal that the Mahatma occupied has only grown taller. And for those that are engaged in variations of the same social and political battle that Gandhi waged, there is no better model or guide than the original himself.

What would Gandhi do? It is a question that many have wondered about. How would India have been different if we had Gandhi for a few more years? Perhaps he would have provided a counter to the big infrastructure/industrialization bent of our equally revered first Prime Minister Jawarhalal Nehru. Are we living as Gandhi intended? Probably not. Mega cities that only keep growing are not the India of a thousand villages that Gandhi had hoped for. Nor is this race after Western-style development what Gandhi had intended when he envisioned the Third World defining a new path to development.

Yet, these social activist Indians are doing their best to live and to create projects in the Gandhian ethic. Whether it is creating self-reliant villages in tsunami-effected areas, or fighting for decentralized options for basic needs instead of mega-projects, the Gandhian ethic is alive and well in India.

One man I met in Chennai has turned his entire house into a fully water self-sufficient building, using rainwater harvesting and greywater reuse, with disinfected rainwater used for drinking. His family performs tasks in such a way as to not introduce too much food or chemicals into the grey water; for example, the first wash of kitchen dishes is separated to use in the compost. The above picture shows his in-home disinfection system.

Another man I met is a builder with the best reputation in Chennai, earned by building quality apartments and not giving or taking bribes. Years back, he was upset about a letter to the editor accusing apartment developers as being the reason for water shortages in Chennai. He decided to implement systems in his apartment complexes that would save all greywater from bath and washing, treat it, and reuse it for flushing toilets and landscaping. Recently semi-retired, the builder has self-published the book Self Reliance in Water: The Alacrity Experience detailing the specific designs to install rainwater harvesting and greywater reuse systems in the home.

“These designs are not things one can patent, and they are critical for the future of water in our city,” he told me. “So, I thought why not publish this manual and distribute it widely so that everyone will have what they need to solve the city’s water problems.”

To propagate and not patent good ideas—this is what Gandhi would have done. Hopefully with many more like him, a new India can emerge… one that the Mahatma would be proud of.

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