Swaraj and How the World Must Resist the Forces of Hunger

Swaraj (swa”self” raj “rule”) can mean generally self-governance or “self-rule”, and was used synonymous with “home-rule” by Mahatma Gandhi, but the word typically refers to Gandhi’s concept for Indian independence from foreign domination. Swaraj lays importance on governance not by a hierarchical government, but self-governance through individuals and community building with a focus is on political decentralization.  

Swaraj warrants a stateless society; according to Gandhi, the overall impact of the state on the people is harmful. Gandhi called the state a “soulless machine” which, ultimately, does the greatest harm to mankind. The raison d’etre of the state is that it is an instrument of serving the people. But Gandhi feared that in the name of molding the state into a suitable instrument of serving people, the state would abrogate the rights of the citizens and arrogate to itself the role of grand protector and demand abject acquiescence from them. This would create a paradoxical situation where the citizens would be alienated from the state and at the same time enslaved to it, which according to Gandhi was demoralizing and dangerous. (Wikipedia)

George Kent on Swaraj or self rule in India

Professor George Kent

In his essay Swaraj Against Hunger, Professor George Kent examines how India’s approach to dealing with its massive problems of poverty and malnutrition has been dominated by the view of government-as-provider. People are articulate about what government should do for them, but have little to say about what they could do for themselves, either individually or in community with others. Gandhi-Home-Rule-First-Edition Gandhi's SwarajThere is a need for a change in our collective mindset, to one foreshadowed by Gandhi, one hundred years ago when he penned his famous book, Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule). Hind Swaraj served then as a basis for building self-reliance, and thus resisting the British raj. It could now serve as the basis for resisting the rule of hunger in India and the world. From George Kent, Gandhi Marg Volume 32

Swaraj and Swadeshi

It is true that India now produces enough food to feed its entire people, but millions are not fed adequately. Despite India’s growing wealth and its agricultural successes, India still has a huge number of malnourished people, more than any other country. What is there to celebrate in this supposed self-sufficiency?

Many people concerned with nutrition issues are preoccupied with the idea of self-sufficiency, meaning local production for local consumption. Some focus on self-sufficiency at the national level, while others at more local levels. Some want this even at a family-level, and promote household food production. These movements are often sensible, but at times they go too far. Is it really a problem that London imports most of its food? If cities start producing all their own food, what are the rural areas to do?

How far should any family or community go in pursuing economic independence? We can go to Mahatma Gandhi for guidance. He was among the first to challenge the globalising imperatives of the industrial revolution, advocating self-rule (swaraj) and economic independence (swadeshi) in its place. He argued that systems for providing life’s basic needs should be understood as human, social systems, and not simply as industrial or economic systems whose efficiency must be maximised in a mechanical way.

When Gandhi was asked, “Is the economic law that man must buy in the best and the cheapest market wrong?” he replied, “It is one of the most inhuman among the maxims laid down by the modern economists.” However, he was not completely opposed to purchasing food, clothing and other things in the market place. Instead, one should make carefully considered judgements about what to buy and what to produce.

In particular, it is important to consider the impacts of one’s economic decisions on the well-being of other people, and not just the impact on oneself. Gandhi explained, “The economics that disregard moral and sentimental consideration are like wax-works that being life-like still lack the life of the living flesh.” Thus, in contrast to many advocates of the so-called free trade, he would have welcomes taking human rights into consideration (e.g., was child labour used in the product’s manufacture?). He supported favouring products from members of one’s own community just because they were a part of that community.

In this understanding, trade is free when you can trade as you wish; forced trade is not free trade. No country should be pressurised to accept another’s exports in a way that Haiti, for example, has been pressured to accept rice imports from the US, or Mexico has been obligated to accept corn imports from the US, undermining its own small producers.

Gandhi said swaraj “means complete freedom of opinion and action without interference with another’s right to equal freedom of opinion and action. Therefore it means India’s complete control of sources of revenue and expenditure without interference from or with any other country.” This can be understood as a form of sovereignty, independence. It implies active decision making as action, as opposed to passivity.

Gandhi clarified the meaning of the swaraj “by introducing a distinction between swaraj as self-government or the quest for home rule or the good state, and swaraj as self-rule or the quest for self-improvement.” Thus, the concept can be meaningfully applied governments or to individual people. It may be compared to concepts of development and empowerment, understood as the increasing capacity of individuals or groups to define, analyse, and act on their own problems. This is a much richer understanding than the suggestion that the development of nations is nothing more than growth in aggregate income.

Swaraj emphasises increasing power over oneself, as distinguished from power over others. As Gandhi put it, “It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves.”

Some people take swadeshi to mean owning land. Their idea is that families should have small plots of land so that they can provide for themselves. Gandhi placed great emphasis on the importance of spinning one’s own cloth. However, subsistence farming and making one’s own clothes, and ignoring other possible ways of providing for oneself, could be a way of ensuring perpetual poverty for all. Having every family isolated in its own plot of land, producing mainly for itself, can weaken community ties. Instead of suggesting this, we should welcome having each of them make carefully considered decisions about what to accept and what to reject from the outside. They should be encouraged to seek or to create greater opportunities for themselves. And they should live in strong communities, acting with concern for one another’s well-being.

Swaraj and swadeshi might mean similar, but the difference is important, especially for India today. Self-reliance emphasises local control, but allows for exchange with outsiders. Self-sufficiency refers to local production to meet local needs. Self-reliance is about autonomy, self-rule or what Gandhi called swaraj. Self-sufficiency is about autarky, or economic independence, swadeshi.

The prusuit of self-reliance calls for mindful attention to possibilities for working out good relationships with others. The pursuit of self-sufficieny suggests maintaining independence of others, even if it means forgoing potential benefits.

The major objective should be self-reliance in the sense of local control over policy (swaraj), not self-sufficiency in the sense of localising production (swadeshi). Self-sufficiency means little if it allows people to go hungry. Importing and exporting is fine, as long as local people have made a fair and informed judgement about what serves their interests.

To be more precise, decisions should be made locally provided there is a reasonable democratic decision-making procedure and a sense of community that ensures that the interests of all are served. Where local politics are undemocratic, local self-reliance doesn’t make much sense. For example, when the Rajasthan government agreed to devote local pasture lands to produce biofuel, displacing the Gujjar tribe whose livelihood depended on those pastures, it certainly was not acting in their interest.

How far should one go in pursue economic independence, whether at the level of the individual, the community or the nation? The answer comes from the understanding that swadeshi is important as a means to swaraj, and not as an end in itself. One should limit one’s dependence on others, but does not mean one must cut off all relationships. Whether communities produce their own things or buy products from outside is upto them, but this is an issue that should addressed thoughtfully, with regard for the impacts on oneself, others, and the environment, currently and in the future.

Outsiders should not be allowed to come in to plunder one’s markets and resources under the guise of free trade. The powerful are the strongest advocates of free trade because they are most capable of taking advantage of unconstrained opportunities to reach into others’ markets.

Self-sufficiency in some degree can protect a family or a community from exploitative outsiders and from unpredictable changes in weather, prices, and other external conditions over which one has little control. However there are local risks as well, such as crop failure. It is best to assure food security by diversifying one’s sources, and not depending on any one source. As Vandana Shiva put it, “Localisation does not imply isolation from the larger world, but self-determination with interdependence.”

When applied to food and nutrition issues, swaraj  foreshadowed the modern call for food sovereignty. According to International Planning Committee on Food Sovereignty, a non-governmental organisation:

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies which are ecological, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It includes the true right to food and to produce food, which means all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food-producing resources and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies.

The need to build de-centralised resilience is becoming increasingly clear, not only with regard to nutrition, but with regard to all kinds of security issues.

Localised decision-making is essential to swaraj. Thus, it meshes nicely with the principle of subsidiarity, “the principle that each social and political group should help smaller or more local ones accomplish their respective ends without, however, arrogating these tasks to itself.”The task is to work out an appropriate division of responsibilities, with the localities taking the leading role. The principle of subsidiarity could be used as the basis for the central role of local self-reliance in ending hunger worldwide.

Facilitating Vs. Providing

Paragraph 15 of General Comment 12, a UN document with the most authoritative interpretation of the global right to adequate food, mentions:

The obligation to fulfil (facilitate) means the State must pro-actively engage in activities intended to strengthen people’s access to and the utilisation of resources and means to ensure their livelihood, including food security.

Whenever an individual or group is unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to adequate food by the means at their disposal, States have the obligation to fulfil (provide) that right directly. This obligation also applies for persons who are victims of natural or other disasters.

The major obligation of government is the obligation to facilitate, which means governments must establish enabling conditions under which people can facilitate for themselves. This means they are obligated to support self-reliance, swaraj. It is only when that proves inadequate that governments should provide food directly. Thus, the importance of self-reliance is implicitly recognised in the human right to adequate food as it is understood globally.

It is important for social service programmes of all kinds, including nutrition programmes, to make this distinction, and to help people build their self-reliance rather than keeping people dependent and weak. Micro-loan programs, generally, are empowering while in contrast the programmes that provide free food without end can keep people down and lead to their dependence.

Right to food advocates in India, do not make this strong distinction, and take, unfortunately, the right to food to means free or heavily subsidised food. This weakens people, makes them dependent and submissive. It is sad that millions of Indians’ greatest aspiration is to be categorised as Below the Poverty Line so that they can be allowed to purchase subsidised benefits. Indeed, it has been estimated that 40% of those holding the BPL cards are not really qualified for them.

The social service programs should be reviewed in terms of their capacity to help build swaraj, self-reliance. The most effective programs, are likely to be those designed to reinforce and reward the climb out of poverty, not poverty itself. They should empower, not disempower. These programs (Integrated Child Development Services, Mid-day meals) could be modified so that beneficiaries are more actively engaged in their operations.

Swaraj and Accountability

The mothers could be more actively engaged in ICDS by letting them know exactly what their children are entitled to under the programme, inviting them to evaluate and letting them know what they could do if they don’t get it. Good arrangements for receiving complaints about the quality of services could be created. The students and parents, or school committees could be involved in assessing whether the meal meets the standards set by the government or themselves.

In any well-developed rights system, there are three major roles to be fulfilled: the right holders, the duty bearers, and the agents of accountability. The task of the agents of accountability is to make sure that those who have the duties carry out their obligation to those who have the rights.

The most fundamental among different mechanisms of accountability is that available to the right holders themselves. Their rights should be enforceable not only by lawyers, government officials and organisations, but also on their own, through means that are appropriately designed and readily available to them. Right holders must know their rights, and they must have appropriate institutional arrangements available to them for ensuring their realisation. They must have a role in shaping the world in which they live.

Plans for improving the ICDS were presented in the document Strategies for Children under Six. While it offers a number of excellent recommendations, it could be improved. There is a call for entitlements regarding food, but not with regard to child care or health services. The term entitlement is used but its significance is not explained.

There are some accountability mechanisms in place, like School Meal Monitoring Committees. Commissioners to the Supreme Court of India regularly write letters to the Supreme Court on the violations of the food and employment schemes. But, having recourse mechanisms available directly to the right holders for voicing their complaints is very different. Right holders should fully understand their entitlements, and they should have safe and effective mechanisms through which they can complain if they do not get the same.

Children and their parents should know what they are entitled to, and they should be assisted in making their own clear judgements about whether they have in fact received it. They also need to have some place to take their complaints. This is the key missing piece in India’s social service programmes.

Providing suitable recourse mechanisms and encouraging people to stand up for their rights can be a means for building self-reliance, swaraj. Such systems could be instituted locally on a small scale.

Students, parents and teachers could be involved in assessing the different aspects of the mid-day meal. The educational value in this would lie in students’ obtaining new information about nutrition and about their rights, but more importantly, it would empower them, helping them to understand what rights mean and how they can be used.

Engaging students in this way would make them more capable of standing up for their rights. Swaraj grows out of this sort of standing up and speaking out. Swaraj grows with practice.

Community-based nutritional security

In India and worldwide, efforts to deal with problems of malnutrition generally are conceived in terms of intervention from outside. This top-down approach is based on the assumption that there is some sort of deficiency in those who are malnourished, and not in the social system in which they are embedded. Hunger is viewed mainly as a technical problem, not a political problem. In India, as well as abroad, this top-down approach to malnutrition has not worked well.

India’s poor suffer being treated by bureaucrats in a way that echoes their ancestors’ maltreatment under the British Raj. Swaraj is as important now, as it was then. Now, as then, top-down thinking should be replaced with a decisive community-based approach.  The advantage of localised decision making ensures that local interests are the highest priority, and people are protected from outsiders who always have other interests.

In India, advocates for the right to food call for more funding from the national government, but have little to say about what local communities might do for themselves. Unquestionably, interventions by outsiders are sometimes needed, but why start with that? Why not begin by asking what the people could do for themselves, with their own resources?

Where there are calls for assistance from outside, they should be for assistance that is enabling, empowering, capacity-building, and not one that is disempowering and demoralising.

There is convincing evidence for the effectiveness of community-based efforts in dealing with nutrition and other health issues. For example:

UNICEF is collaborating with Indian government to increase effectiveness of ICDS by demonstrating low-cost community-based solutions to improve health care delivery. The specific interventions supported include strengthening the management and supervision system, improving the knowledge and skills of anganwadi workers and increasing the time and attention they give to infants, improving community involvement through joint village situation analysis, identifying village volunteers and providing them with basic training in infant care, and increasing the number of home visits made by anganwadi workers and volunteers in order to increase the caring behaviour of parents and improve the outreach of health services.

The approach has proven effective in six states in which it was tested. However, these efforts have emphasised engaging the local people only in implementation of programmes while the basic decision-making and design of the programmes come from outside the states and the villages.

Some people think of heavy reliance on home gardens as a basis for community-based food security, but if the people do not connect with one another, this would be community-based only in a geographic sense. As understood here, a community is not simply a cluster of people who happen to live at the same spot on the map. In strong communities, people have special concern for, and act to improve, one another’s well-being, and they are involved together in active decision making at the community level. In this view, a programme that is managed mainly by outsiders with little guidance from local people should not be viewed as genuinely community-based.

The Hunger Project (THP), an NGO, provides an example of true community-based programme because it is based on local planning and control. THP defines the three pillars of its work as:

Mobilizing people at the grassroots to build self-reliance.

Empowering women as key change agents.

Forging partnerships with the local government.

THP has designed a specific methodology for building self-reliance, based on conducting village-level workshops in which people create their own vision for the future, commit to achieving it, and outline the actions that are needed to succeed. In Karnataka, it has launched a federation of 5,000 elected women leaders who “will now have a platform from which to speak, and the strength and support that comes from that solidarity.” Thus THP’s orientation is based on building swaraj, even if it does not use that term.

Gandhi’s insight regarding the importance of swaraj, not only for his time, but also for ours. Recalling its historical roots, India needs to build self-reliance for its people, communities and the nation as a whole. The social service programmes should be modified so that they systematically build self-reliance. In the long run, the people do not need to be fed, they need decent opportunities to provide for themselves.

Globally, hunger cannot be explained simply as a problem of poverty. There is something radically wrong with the social structure. We need to recognise that in many social relationships, people either exploit one another, improving their own situations at the expense of others, or they may show massive indifference to others’ well-being. However, in the state of Kerala, and in the sarvodaya experiments done in Sri Lanka, India, and else where, demonstrate that people in small communities do treat each other well. Few people have recognised the potential of strengthening communities as a means for addressing serious malnutrition. Strong communities are those, in which people have a high level of concern for one another’s well-being.

The weak need to reduce their dependence on the strong. How far should they persist in pursuing self-sufficiency, swadeshi, as a strategy? Till the time they can build up their strength enough to resume relationships with others on a more equal basis. China presents a good example, by withdrawing for many decades, and then resuming from a position of strength.

The strategy of self-sufficiency can serve as a foundation for home-rule, swaraj. Rather than having to accept the terms of engagement dictated by foreigners, the newly emergent China became capable of standing up and saying no to foreigners. It has become able to negotiate from a position of equality, rather than a position of servitude.

The same principles apply at the village level. Local poors must find alternative means of livelihood and break their dependence on the owners of large farms which offer meagre wages. Dependence means vulnerability to exploitation. As Vandana Shiva says,” We need to build the levels and kinds of relationships that allow communities to feel as one.” People who are not in strong communities should work to strengthen them or, if necessary, move to them, or create them.

Increasing local self-reliance with respect to nutrition is just one part of the much broader challenge of achieving real development based on local empowerment. Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai spoke about this in relation to Africa:

At both the top and the bottom, all Africans must believe in themselves again; that they are capable of walking their own pathand forging their own identity, that they have a right to governed with justice, accountability and transparency, that they can honour and practise their cultures and make them relevant to today’s needs and that they no longer need to be indebted-financially, intellectually and spiritually- to those who once governed them. They must rise up and walk.

This message is meaningful for all people who have been living in poverty and hunger. In any community, genuine development, the increasing capacity to define, analyse and act on one’s own problems, is about building self-reliance, swaraj.

To exercise swaraj there is a need for clearly identifiable local bodies that study and advise on issues based on local interests. The major function of the higher levels of governance would be to provide support to local councils, based on the principle of subsidiarity. A multi-level system of nutrition councils could be established along these lines, through legislation. If each community had decent opportunities to address its own nutrition problems, had reasonable resources to support the work, and was encouraged to take responsibility, probably most would address the issue with great vigour.

People need the opportunity, and a bit of guidance, and in time their capacity to manage malnutrition will grow. Nutrition programs need to be designed to build that competence, building swaraj  at family, community, and national levels. As Gandhi’s talisman suggests, hunger should be addressed not by feeding the poor, but by making sure that they have increasing control over their own destinies.

Serious problems of malnutrition should be owned by the local community. Higher levels may only help, and serve as backup in case of local failures, but they should not take away that responsibility. We should not steal people’s problems from them.

Just as strong communities would not allow any of their people to go hungry, strong nations would not allow any of its communities to be so weak so as to allow hunger to persist. A well-governed world would support all of its nations in supporting all of their communities in ensuring that no one anywhere goes hungry, ever.

What does it take to build string communities? What could they do for themselves? And what could higher levels of governance do to support them? These are fundamental questions that should be addressed as India formulates its new Right to Food Act. Strong communities based on swaraj  might provide the breakthrough that is needed. This might be the best means available for ending hunger in India and in the world.


George Kent on Swaraj and Hunger in India with Arun gandhiGeorge Kent is a professor of Political Science in University of Hawaii, Honolulu. He has worked extensively on issues relating to human rights, international relations, peace, development and environmental issues with special focus on nutrition and children. He was co-convener of the Commission on International Human Rights of the IPRA, consultant to FAO, UN children fund consultant.  E-mail: kent(at)hawaii.edu


  1. Sylvester Kelley says

    There are many options for improving healthy food access, each with a unique set of advantages to residents and community health. Farmers’ markets ( http://www.localharvest.org ) provide a public space that supports social interaction and can help support small-scale farmers while providing fresh, high quality food to residents, and can serve as small business incubators when the markets provide opportunities for residents to sell items such as baked goods or other products. Community-supported agriculture ( http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/csa ), where participants purchase shares for a portion of the crops from a farm at the beginning of a growing season in exchange for regular deliveries of produce, supports small farmers and provides high-quality produce. Community gardens ( http://www.communitygarden.org ) provide opportunities for environmental education and can improve neighborhood green space.