In July 2000, the Concorde in Paris was tragically brought down by nothing more extraordinary than pieces of its own tire sucked into its engine. Possibly Concorde, one of the greatest technological wonders of our age, was an anachronistic, uneconomic bauble from the day it was launched—it consumed more fuel, made more noise, carried fewer passengers than other jets, cost 10 or 20 times the ordinary fare so that the rich could cross the Atlantic in half the time of ordinary passengers, and, still, could keep flying only with the subsidies of the British and French governments. Technology has been a great source of liberation for the human spirit. It has liberated us from slavery, from constraints of time and space, and made life immeasurably enjoyable for people who live in the industrial societies. But, as far as we know, it cannot improve on human beings whose wishes and fantasies seem to know no limits. Indeed, the tragic conflagration of the Concorde in Paris should remind us that the more advanced technology is, the more anachronistic it might be, in the sense that it outstrips our current needs and means. What with more and more people in the world wanting, as W.H. Auden put it in 1940, “A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire,” can six, eight, or however many billion people there may be in this century, all have these necessities, to which we now also must add a telephone, a television, a computer, and electricity, oil, and water to keep them and us running?
Since I left India, the country of my birth, some 50 years ago, the population has more than tripled. The standard of living has jumped up; there is more of everything for people who can afford it—more mobile phones, more televisions and television channels, more cars (so many of them in Delhi alone that it now has the distinction of being one of the three most polluted cities in the world).
When I was growing up, there wasn’t one town or village, with the exception of Calcutta, where one couldn’t drink the water. Now, I doubt if there is any part of India where one can drink the water without filtering or boiling it. The government can’t provide safe water, but it’s busy building atomic bombs. After 50 years of independence, at most 15 percent of the population uses lavatories; the rest use streets, rivers, fields, or railway tracks, and women with modesty must wait until it gets dark to relieve themselves. Our civilization as a whole, in spite of all its great technological triumphs, while providing Auden’s “necessities” in abundance, has failed to look to the most basic of amenities, like sanitation, as if human dignity and human decency were below its concern.
Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, has all but been forgotten in his own land in its headlong dash toward acquiring the latest symbols of progress and modernity. Yet, I wonder whether the path of progress for a poor country will ultimately be lit more by the latest inventions like the Concorde than by what Gandhi called “the constructive programme,” his means for economic development and for a nonviolent agrarian revolution in a poor country like India. Through it, Gandhi wanted to provide Indians, and, by extension, other poor people in the world who were going naked and hungry, with food, clothing, and useful occupation, so that they could live modestly but with dignity and decency. He wanted people, instead of being a burden on society, to become self-sufficient: spin their own cloth; raise their own cattle so that they would have milk for nourishment, dung for fuel; keep beehives for honey; make their own pottery for utensils; make handmade paper for schoolbooks; promote universal elementary education through local work-and-study group; run their own affairs through village assemblies; promote hygiene and sanitation by carrying a spade to the field and burying their own excrement, and so on. Gandhi has been dismissed everywhere as a Luddite and a romantic visionary. But are we so sure that the Western way of life can be sustained even in the West, based as it is on faster and faster consumption of Earth’s resources, and the pollution of our environment?
Many of my undergraduate friends and I at Oxford in the late 1960s would have spurned the spiritual side of Gandhi’s socialism, but we were socialists of one stripe or another because we believed that governments could follow rational policies, even imagined that we could get along without many worldly possessions ourselves. As we got jobs, got married, had families, and acquired houses, we inevitably accumulated possessions. Whatever our politics, we settled into the life of privilege and raised children as consumers with unlimited appetites. Along the way, we lost our ideals and became good, middle class gents and ladies. Now we find ourselves trapped, much as the world is trapped, by the accumulation of wealth and technology.
Even Gandhi found it difficult to renounce the benefits of Civilization—as one of his disciples, Sarojini Naidu, said, “It costs a great deal of money to keep Gandhiji living in poverty.” I doubt if people would voluntarily ever call a halt to technology or invention. In doing so, we might forestall the invention around the corner that might save us. But, at the same time, we are not simply victims of blind market forces. Surely governments can set priorities for things that are more necessary, say Gandhi’s spades, than for atomic bombs. If not, the pace of technology will make them do it for us. Before the Paris crash, Concordes were kept flying only to satisfy the pride of British and French governments and the whims of a handful of the rich. Now at least the governments will have to reset their priorities.
Copyrighted by Spectator, London, 2000.
VED MEHTA is the author of 24 books. His latest book All for Love will be published this June.