What is a ‘Nonviolent Economy’ and How Can We Get There? An Activist Explains

Dr Jill Carr-Harris speaks to The Wire about discovering rural India, supporting local economies, and the need for economic decentralisation.

Dr Jill Carr-Harris is a member of the International Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence and Peace at the Center for Socio-Cultural lnteraction’s campus at Madurai, Tamil Nadu. She is an activist with the Nonviolent Economic Network, and partner of the prominent Gandhian and social activist P.V. Rajagopal.

In an interview with The Wire, she talks about the implications of the transition from a growth-based economy and the principles of a nonviolent economy.

Could you tell us about the circumstances that led you to come to India from Canada and become involved in social activities? 

I came to India from Canada in 1985 as part of a forestry project by the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], which is an agency of the United Nations. This was a time when wastelands and areas affected by drought and desertification were included in multiple afforestation projects in India. At that time, T.N. Seshan was the Secretary of the then-Department of the Environment, and was collaborating with the Wasteland Development Board by supporting land conversion.

It was while working on this initiative that I realised that the stated goal of the project was to provide marginalised populations with labour and access to forest produce. Instead, it was benefiting the big landowners because the land lease was for five years and the fruit, fodder and fuelwood resources would only be available after eight years. At this point I took the decision to resign from the UNDP and start my own voluntary organisation in India. This was founded in 1986, and named as South-South Solidarity because it carried out civil society exchanges across the global south.

Can you share the key experiences you had when you started living and working permanently in India?

 For the first ten years, that is up until the mid-1990s, I was attracted to India’s pluralism, because it was a mixture of so many cultures, languages and religions. After the partial demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, I began to worry that the introduction of communal violence would affect this diverse social fabric.

With the rise of majoritarianism, I decided to go out of India for four years. I spent two years as an international consultant on a Land Reform project in the Philippines, and subsequently two years on a gender mainstreaming project in Bangladesh.

In both these countries, I saw the majority population unfairly treat the minorities: in the case of Philippines, a Christian majority and Muslim minority; and in the other case of Bangladesh, a Muslim majority with a Hindu minority. So when I returned to India, majoritarianism seemed common, and I believed India would lose its pluralistic nationalism as part of this trend.

How did Gandhian ideas become a part of your life?

I spent the first years living in Delhi and working in the countryside. After marrying P.V. Rajagopal, a Gandhian leader and community organiser working at the grassroots level in 2000, I began to get to know the countryside from closer quarters.

When I started working in the villages, I realised that I had a lot to learn from that community, and I came to understand that Gandhi had had a profound impact on village development and civil society. Initially I had been familiar with the donor-recipient relationships, but it is only later that I got to see the dynamics of a self-reliant community development.

As I gained more insight into Gandhi’s ideas and practices, I saw how it had contemporary relevance to addressing the larger structural violence in society. The economic liberalisation policies that India adopted as part of its integration into the global economy had the adverse impact of a small percentage of the population accumulating so much wealth that tens of millions were left in abject poverty.

This led Rajagopal and I to organise a global peace campaign in 2019 called the Jai Jagat March. It was a march from New Delhi to Geneva with 50 persons walking more than 10,000 kilometres over one year. Although we managed to cover half of the countries, the march had to be aborted due to the onset of the Covid pandemic.

How was the Nonviolent Economy Network conceived?

During these actions, it was self-evident that without changing the existing economy, there was no possibility of altering politics to be more just for those at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. The latest effort has been to develop a Nonviolent Economy Network. I strongly believed that only when people can explore and implement alternative lifestyles that the overall economy will shift to become more humane.

We live in a time where the majority of people have given up sharing, cost-cutting and simple living in favour of the pursuit for endless material gain. But the fact remains that we cannot continue our current way of life in the midst of environmental disasters, including what has now been called the climate emergency. That is why I focus on working towards a nonviolent economy.

Can you talk about the goal of a nonviolent economy?

The Nonviolent Economic Network recognizes the importance of providing support to small producer groups. Equally important, it is consciously building responsible consumers whose support to the producers is vital.

A lot of changes can be made if we consciously buy and use local products. It will help the local economy go forward. The current capitalist economy is resource-intensive and operates without any concern for tomorrow, so it can survive only by looking at profits. Keeping it out of our mainstream is the larger goal of a nonviolent economy. We must decide that our lives are not controlled by a few corporate entities.

What are the main principles of a nonviolent economy?

Nonviolent economics is based on ideas developed by Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave and J.C. Kumarappa.

Although Kumarappa never used the phrase nonviolent economy, he created the architecture. He showed that the mainstream economy was violent and profit-oriented, while the nonviolent economy shaped economic behaviour that was (a) human, (b) inclusive, and (c) consistent with nature’s laws.

This nonviolent economy resonates well today when we recall how difficult it is to gain human cooperation in dealing with the climate crisis today. It calls for a transformation in the world economy.

A nonviolent economy is not limited to the material needs of man. You could say there’s a spiritual element to it, right?

Of course. It can be said that while considering basic human needs such as food, clothing, shelter, etc, it also satisfies non-material needs and spiritual levels. The peace, happiness, love, and contentment that your mind desires can only be fulfilled through an appreciation of spiritual needs. That is why it emphasises social needs rather than simply individual needs.

Isn’t it important to distinguish between value and price here?

That is one important thing that Kumarappa talks about. The value of a forest has nothing to do with the money that can be made by cutting down the trees within it. Moreover, we cannot value the services provided by a forest ecosystem in monetary terms. The same is true of the joy, love, and security that comes when you live in a community of interdependence and sharing.

Perhaps if Gandhian ideals were considered after independence, do you think India could have set an example of self-sufficiency for the world?

Today we can only speculate. I understand that a possibility of that was eliminated from the beginning of Independent India. Impressed by the model of the Soviet Union, Jawharlal Nehru gave priority to mega-projects and industrialization. He did not support the concept of gram swaraj as proposed by Gandhiji.

The reality is that Gandhi and Kumarappa’s criticisms of the European models of urbanisation and industrialization were ignored even though even though most Indians were small and marginal farmers. But we can see that the importance of the economic policies proposed by Gandhi has relevance today. That was the main factor that motivated me to stay and work in India.

Is it easy for alternative movements across the world to emerge as a strong model against the existing development framework and the existing economic system?

It is not easy, but many alternative economies are emerging because the mainstream economy is making a few people richer and tens of millions poorer. It is also detrimental and leads to a climate emergency.

Today, when we talk about development, it usually refers to infrastructure, mining, and industrialisation. The reality is that this minimally affects the quality of life of ordinary people. We need decentralised activities that can bring marginalised communities from subsistence to having a surplus.

Don’t you think the limitations and problems of human-centric intervention exist even in the case of a nonviolent economy as absolute nonviolence in the true sense is impossible in our daily life?

Of course. I don’t think there can be a completely nonviolent economy. It cannot be considered purely nature-friendly as a human intervention. But it has to be understood as a way of dealing with the utmost violence, injustice, and inequality. Or even one that can provide motivation and encouragement for a nonviolent human life. Or that at least to alleviate the various conflicts that human society is facing today, such a change is necessary for us.

Moreover, it is an area where more possibilities arise through practice. We cannot fully define it or frame it theoretically. Therefore, a nonviolent economy can develop according to each social, cultural and environmental situation.

In ‘Economy of Permanence’, Kumarappa talks about different systems like parasitic economy, predatory economy or economy of enterprise, economy of gregation and economy of service. He says that the best model is the economy of service. Does this sound like an idealist’s fantasy?

The secret of nature’s existence lies in the cycle of life-death-fresh life which continues endlessly. If this cycle of life is broken at any point it results in violence, which interferes with growth and progress and ends in destruction and waste. Therefore, Kumarappa advocates abandoning the narrow view of selfish interest and self-preservation and surrendering completely to the ways of nature to maintain stability in the cycle of life. He could see that the capital-intensive economy was destroying indigenous peoples and their ways of life during the era of colonialism when natural resources were greatly wasted.

It is in this context that he talks about the four types of conditions you have mentioned. I think he wrote the book ‘Economy of Permanence’ with an emphasis on human characteristics similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In it, many features of human nature and the intricacies of nature come into play.

It seems that Kumarappa is looking for how to achieve a higher level of consciousness from a life that is made up of so many layers of experience and realities. I believe that is also the quest of each of us. It can be said that Kumarappa tried to create a man who is the opposite of Machiavellianism, which implies cunning, the ability to deceive, and the urge to use whatever means necessary to gain power. And as a follower of Gandhi, it is not surprising that J.C. Kumarappa puts the means as more important than the end.

A.K. Shiburaj is an independent journalist and researcher from Kerala.