Gandhi Engineering?

Just as Japan popularized kanban (just in time) and kaizen (continuous improvement), so Tata may export to the world what may perhaps be called a ‘Gandhi Engineering’ – a mantra that combines irreverence to established ways with a scarcity mentality that spurns superfluities.

quote from the article on the Nano, which, given my bias towards the word ‘Gandhi’, caught the eye. This was quite an interesting thing for me to reflect and read upon, and see whether the statement holds water. The validity of the article by and large does not rest on this statement, but the validity of the statement is what interested me. There is a PhD. thesis by Dr. Shambu Prasad, which is probably one of the first few critical assessments of Gandhi’s view of science and technology. Quite an interesting read, and I went back to it to get justifications or rebuttals to the above statement.

Ratan Tata, when asked for the inspiration to make the Nano, referred to the unsafe modes of transport like the two wheeler carrying four people which is so common in India, and wanted to make something more safer. Whether the Nano is the answer (instead of, say, better public transport) is another thing, but the thought in itself seems to be quite in line with Gandhi’s view that technology and technologists must be sensitive to the problems of the people and try and solve them. It was also Gandhi’s view that scientists must immerse themselves in the actually prevailing living conditions of the people and see if they can do incremental changes using newly discovered techniques, which people can relate to, and actively participate in the development and use of. It was his opinion that there was plenty to be learned even from the unlearned villager which could lead to progress in science. In this view, the Nano can hardly measure up. It is a solution “given from above”, so to speak, and cars can hardly be called the daily staple of transport for the majority of the people. The public transport holds that place, and anyone who has travelled in a village bus or the passenger compartment of a train will know how ill-designed these modes of transportation actually are. The way to make public transport attractive is somehow thought to lie in introducing Volvos, which cater to the taste of the people who hardly use public transport (Bangalore, from experience, not included. Mysore is a nice glaring example of AC buses running with 2-3 people onboard, when I have seen women waiting for hours together to get a single bus upto their village, in the unsafe hours of the late evening).

About ‘irreverence to established ways’, lots has been written about Gandhi’s critiques of the Industrial Civilization and Western science. However, the reason behind this is not that he was against industries or science, but what they stood for, and what world-view they imposed. Natural sciences have looked at nature as a mass of atoms clumped together which fortuitously resulted in what we call today as life. Value, or meaning of life, is essentially zero, since we were after all composed by random coupling of matter. This was what irked Gandhi particularly and this facet of his attitude toward western science taken up to show his irrelevance in modern day life, branding him as anti-modernist and anti-progress. However, he was very much impressed by the method of science and the spirit of enquiry that western scientist were imbued with, and lamented at the lack of the same in practitioners of Indian systems like Ayurveda and Unani, whom he perceived to be resting on the laurels of past greatness and were too self-satisified to build upon the innovations of their forefathers. I had commented on what the Nano’s world view was in the previous post, and it is unlikely that Gandhi would endorse such a view by lending his name to what is being called ‘Gandhi Engineering’.

‘Scarcity Mentality that spurn superfluities’. Gandhi was of a scarcity mentality, having travelled across the country and realising that there was not much here in terms of material abundance. He enjoined scientists to voluntarily donate their talents for the upbringing of the masses, knowing that a poor people can offer very little in terms of material benefit but they are the ones who most need the effort of the scientists. Abstinence from superfluities are also something that comes naturally from this outlook. However, one should look at what is being called superfluities in the Nano. One read of the article would tell you that longevity is what is being considered ‘superfluous’, in the author’s terms. One can scarcely imagine how this can be reconciled with Gandhi’s view of cheap, reliable and user-friendly technology. ‘Innovation’ with pure cost cutting in mind, and then spending large amounts on advertising to generate a market is completely crazy to my mind. If a person is willing to endanger the life of his/her family by taking them on one two wheeler, then how spending a lakh on a car that will give half the mileage of his two wheeler and is not expected to last very long is not a superfluity in itself eludes me. The market for the Nano is more likely to be yuppie climbing-the-social-ladder types rather than the family that Ratan Tata so endearingly points to in his interview. If one reads a sampling of the interviews with people, asking them about the Nano, the ones most enthusiastic about the Nano comes from the former group, not the latter.

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4 thoughts on “Gandhi Engineering?”

  1. “cars can hardly be called the daily staple of transport for the majority of the people.”

    I feel if you ask a person who use public transport daily. He (at least most of them) will be happy with car and will be ready to make it daily mode of transport. The reason that may drive him away from Public transport are many…It is the feeling that he will go by his own vehicle wherever he wants at his will, can boast of it,hype created

  2. It is not whether he/she _wants_ to. I also want a private jet, but unfortunately that is not feasible. A majority of the public transport users are there bcoz they cannot afford a vehicle, maintenance, fuel.

    You cannot expect people to eat cake when they cannot afford bread, so to speak.

  3. Yes many cant afford fuel,…etc and cars cannot be called daily staple of transport for all the people.
    But employees(Middle class) who have scooters(say Bank employees) will think of buying chepaest car.

  4. Is that not what I mentioned in the blog as well ? only the rising middle class can afford this vehicle. I mean, if you rather prefer to put your family’s life in danger by carrying them in one vehicle rather than buying two, you definitely are not looking at the Nano.

    A low end motorcycle is 30K, second hand for 15K. If you are telling me that a person who goes in for such a bike will opt instead for a Nano, you are kidding yourself, methinks.

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