Gandhi vs. Gandhi

Guest post by NEERJA DASANI

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ‘Dilli Darbar’ on Wednesday reaffirmed this government’s unyielding belief in the trickle-down theory. Let a select few be given the pie and eventually they’ll share it byte by byte. One of the hand-picked senior editors at this super-exclusive meeting said Mr. Singh came across as “totally relaxed, confident and jovial” even as they confronted him with ‘very embarrassing questions’.

The life-altering titbits flashed repeatedly on our TV screens. “I am not a lame duck PM” – Arre wah! “I have full support of Sonia Gandhi – What more could we possibly ask for? “This is not a puppet government” – Hear, Hear! “I can come under Lokpal” – Or the Lokpal can come under you, same difference. “Inflation will come under control by March 2012” – No rush, we’ll just quietly wait in a corner, maybe eat a meal or two less, work three jobs, drop out of school…anything for the nation.

But hidden deep within all this rhetoric was a misquote of great magnitude, one that reveals a lot about the man at the helm and the dodginess of the boat we are all currently rocking along on.

When asked about Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s statement about having to reverse many previous decisions under pressure from the PM, his curt response was “I think he is right.” When pressed further he said “As Gandhiji said, poverty is the biggest polluter. We need to have a balance.”

So far the media has faithfully reproduced this quote as being that of MK Gandhi. But it isn’t. And anyone who has made the slightest effort to acquaint themselves with Gandhi’s philosophy should have immediately caught this.

Could the man, who called poverty ‘the worst form of violence,’ condemning in no uncertain terms the systemic failures that force people into a life of bondage, ever have blamed poor people for a wrecked environment? If anything he believed the opposite: “Every palace one sees inIndiais a demonstration, not of her riches, but of the insolence of power that riches give to the few, who owe them to the miserably requited labours of the millions of paupers of India.”

The words in question were in fact spoken by a politician at the other end of the ideological spectrum, one whose most (in)famous slogan was ‘garibi hatao’ (remove poverty) – a campaign which included among other things the displacement and resultant homelessness of thousands of poor people and forced sterilisations and vasectomies in the name of birth control.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, made this statement at the Stockholm environment conference in 1972, even as poor women from her country were inspiring the world with their ‘forest satyagraha’ (  Some analysts suggest that this was just a poor choice of words on Indira Gandhi’s part and that she actually meant only the richer and more ‘developed’ countries can afford pollution control mechanisms.

Without indulging in our favourite pastime of dissecting, only to further deify, our ‘great leaders’, there can be no doubt about what Manmohan Singh meant by his choice of scripture this week.

Singh’s former Finance Minister had quoted these exact same words while being cornered by a relentless Shoma Chaudhury in 2008. That segment is worth reproducing:

“Poverty is the worst polluter. If you are poor, you live in the most polluted world. The sanitation is poor, the drinking water is poor, the housing is poor, the air you breathe is poor. Everything is polluted. Poverty is the worst polluter. It’s our right, our duty, to first overcome poverty. In the process, yes, we will be sensitive to concerns expressed by other countries but not at the cost of our growth and our goal of eliminating poverty in our lifetime.” (

This is doublespeak at its best. The poor have to live with the pollution caused by the rich and therefore poverty is the cause of pollution. The logic seems to suggest that we must continue down this destructive path of ‘growth’, so that the poor can become rich and polluting too. But how do the poor become rich if they’re dying from gas leaks, oil spills, waters poisoned by industrial effluents, cancers caused by pesticides, collapsed lungs as a result of illegal mining and so on? They don’t. They’re not meant to. All this is just a highly toxic smokescreen.

So was this misquoting a deliberate attempt by a wily but beleaguered politician to further blur the bounds of dynastic politics? Indira Gandhi becomes MK Gandhi becomes the end of ideology in Indian politics (what little of it is left anyway). Or should we just add this onto his ever-growing ‘errors of judgement’ list, while simultaneously praising his ‘impeccable honesty and integrity’? As for the biggest source of pollution, perhaps Percy B. Shelley could help clear the muddled minds of our ‘overworked’ overlords: “Power, like a desolating pestilence,/Pollutes whate’er it touches.”


 Further references:

 1. (Yamuna – Poverty is not the biggest polluter)



 UPDATE: Someone at the Prime Minister’s Office seems to have noticed the gaffe and a ‘corrected transcript’ of the interaction is now available at

7 thoughts on “Gandhi vs. Gandhi”

  1. There used to be this ‘funny message board’ people used to keep around in their houses – “I am the boss of this house, I have my wife’s permission to say so.”

    Manmohan Singh’s – “This is not a puppet government” and “I have full support of Sonia Gandhi” seems to be in the same vein. If he really wasn’t a puppet he would have said he has the full support of the parliament or Lok Sabha because that is where a PM gets his legitimacy from (Well from the people really but at an operational level).

    Thank you very much for pointing out the flaw in the “poverty is the worst polluter argument” . My mother told me about it when I was twelve. I believe everything my mother tells me and believed this also though I felt that this was illogical and that just because they poor people are bearing the brunt of pollution they aren’t responsible for it.

  2. wait a minute.. poverty isn’t the polluter. it is the VICTIM of the polluter. it is the rich (and middle class for that matter) that pollute..
    i’ve NEVER seen a beggar drive a fuel guzzling SUV. for that matter i have never even seen a person of the bpl category throw plastic bags on the surroundings.

    can ANYONE explain to me (even sarcastically will do) how the poor are polluters?

    1. Here goes my explanation. What is pollution? Pollution is the introduction of a contaminant into the natural ecosystem which causes dicomfort and other harm to the beings therein. So you take any natural ecosystem like a DLF City, or a UNITECH Enclave or some serene gated community. Now you will see some poor people (contaminants) entering this now and then. They can’t live here (god forbid) but they sometimes pass by here sometimes on work sometimes just wandering. Firstly they are a bloody eyesore in your natural ecosystem. Secondly they are the type who will snatch your chain/burgle your house at the first opportunity/even snatch your kid if possible. Who knows what all they do. They often cause discomfort to you as they come in front of your car and all. Your cocker spaniel which has a very sensitive nose always barks at them. They probably stink like hell. Eww. Thus poor person = polluter. Then there is the fact that all these firangs think bad of India because of these poor people. They are potential investors man. How will we keep up our emerging superpower status if this goes on?

      Probably irrelevant here but I’ll say this all the same. I recently moved to Delhi and I must say I am impressed by the way this city treats it’s domestic helps. In my home town we pay them a peanut (I know the right term is ‘peanuts’ but what we pay them amounts to ‘a peanut’ only) This peanut wage is maintained here in this city which is expensive as hell and there are additional measures also. Every day in the newspaper I see a an ad by the Delhi police saying domestic helps are to get police verification. The ad says “If a domestic help is hesitant he/she may have a criminal past” Wah. This is a new one I tell you. What if my lawyer who handles my will defrauds me. Is he required to get a police verification? What about me, a white collar employee coming to this city. Do I need police verification?

      What was the need for this rule? Do the police around here not get enough haftas from the usual sources like in other places in India? Don’t they get to harass enough people otherwise? They’ve to come up with some innovative method like this?

      1. okk. that makes some sense. poor = pollutants (not polluters)
        thanks. (i still hope and pray all politicians rot in hell for all eternity)

  3. The entire debate revolving around ‘poverty and pollution’ tends to be bit farcical- At least as farcical as viewing the grama swaraj and idyllic Indian villages as abodes of virtues.
    Those who talk of poverty and yet keep silent on the system that not only causes the gap between rich and poor but also pollutes the minds and bodies of humans and the whole planet, are best escapists.On the worst side of it, they are apologists of the unjust world order of loot and wars.
    That’s why often they are able to preach non violence to those trying to resist worst state violence and yet be the people endorsing brutalities by their conspicuous silence.

  4. What a great article, and very interesting comments. I thought the whole debacle over the use of Ghandi’s quote to be as intreaging as “falling down the rabbit hole” was in Alice In Wonderland. The layers to the poverty issue in India have many facets to say the least. As an educated American, I asked several of my colleagues to weigh in on this issue.I was taken aback by how insulated their lives are. One friend got all his opinions on the poor in India from an episode of,” Sienfeld,” while the others blamed the poor for the physical blights of their neighborhoods on a ,” lazy pride,” and ,” dirty upbringing.” I hope to continue to learn more on this issue as it seems pivotal to India’s future. Forget Rising China, I feel India is the real Contender.

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