Some 30 years ago, while reading a selection of Gandhi’s writings published under the title, Industrialize and Perish, I came across these striking remarks, first published in the issue of Young India for December 20, 1928: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

It is tempting to read these words in environmentalist terms, as a war­ning against the excesses of resou­rce-intensive, energy-intensive industrial development. Indeed, by adopting these methods of (Western-inspired) economic exploitation, India and China are today truly threatening to strip the world bare like locusts.

As a critic of human greed, as an advocate of a decentralised, village-centred (and hence less rapacious) economy, as a pioneer of non-violent protest against harmful or destructive state policies, Gandhi has long been claimed as an ancestor by the environmental movement. The most celebrated of Indian environmental initiatives, such as the Chipko and Narmada Bachao Andolans, have been led by individuals who proclaim themselves to be, in thought and deed, following in the footsteps of Gandhi.

Gandhi had also been invoked as an exemplar by Western environmentalists, such as the late economist, EF Schumacher (the author of Small is Beautiful), and the ideologues of the influential German Green Party.

In this column, I want to strengthen the case for Gandhi the precocious Green by speaking of some other aspects of his thought which appear to have anticipated our current concerns. In particular, I wish to focus on some little-known remarks he made about the importance of trees and tree cover.

In November 1925, Gandhi went to the desert region of Kutch in western India where the scanty rainfall and the lack of a perennial river had led to a scarcity of vegetation. His host was a social worker named Jayakrishna Indraji, whom Gandhi described as “a gem of Gujarat”, and whom one online source describes as an “ethnobotanist”. Born in 1849, 20 years before Gandhi, Jayakrishna was a self-trained botanist who later worked with Porbandar State (whose rulers Gandhi’s own forefathers had once served). The botanist was dismayed by the lack of interest Indians took in plants and trees, remarking: “Europeans placed in their countries know and write about the plants of this country, and my countrymen would not know about the plants in their courtyard and those trampled under their feet.”

To combat this ignorance, Jayakrishna wrote a landmark study of the flora of the Barda hills of Porbandar which attracted the attention of the Maharao of Kutch, who then invited him to his own territory, where the ethnobotanist promoted reforestation in the deserts while researching and writing a book on the plants of the state.

Raising a beautiful forest

After meeting Jayakrishna, Gandhi wrote that “he knows each tree and each leaf in Barda. He has such great faith in planting trees that he accords it a place of prime importance. And he believes that a great deal can be achieved by these means. His enthusiasm and his faith in this matter are infectious. I have long ago been infected by these. Both the ruler and the subjects can, if they wish, take full advantage of the presence in their midst of such a wise man and raise a beautiful forest.”

Jayakrishna made Gandhi plant a tree in “a lovely open space”, which the celebrated visitor thought was “the most pleasant function I performed in Kutch.” On the same day, a society for the protection of trees was founded, which Gandhi hoped would be “crowned with success.”

The efforts in Kutch of the botanist, Jayakrishna, made Gandhi recall the transformation he had witnessed in the once arid and desolate town in South Africa where he had practised law and cut his teeth as an activist. Thus Gandhi wrote:

   “Johannesburg was a similar region. Nothing but grass grew there at one time. There was not a single building. Within forty years this place had become a golden city. There was a time when people had to pay twelve annas for a single bucket of water and sometimes had to make do with soda-water. Sometimes they had to wash even their face and hands with the latter! Today, there is water there and there are trees also. From the very beginning, owners of gold mines converted the region into a relatively green belt and increased the amount of rainfall by enthusiastically bringing over saplings from far off places and planting them. There are other such instances also where the amount of rainfall has been reduced by deforestation and where it has been increased by afforestation.”  

One evening in his Sabarmati ashram some years later, Gandhi wanted to card cotton and make some slivers before going to bed. His devoted disciple, Mira, asked a young ashramite to bring from the garden a few leaves of the babul tree to apply to the gut of the bow. The boy brought a very large bunch, with each leaf tightly folded up. Mira, in relating the story, recalls her telling Gandhi wistfully, “the little leaves have all gone to sleep,” and Gandhi answering, “with indignation and pity in his eyes,” that “trees are living beings just like ourselves. They live and breathe, they feed and drink as we do, and like us they need sleep. It is a wretched thing to go and tear the leaves off a tree at night when it is resting!”

Gandhi, according to Mira’s telling, was upset that the boy had brought such a large bunch, just as he had been upset at a recent public meeting where he had been greeted with huge garlands, with “masses of delicate blossoms” flung in his face and hung around this neck.

In an article simultaneously published in Gujarati and in English, Gandhi rendered this story in Mira’s words and then added this extensive gloss of his own:

   “Let not the reader call this sentimental twaddle, or accuse me or Mirabai of hopeless inconsistency in that we swallow a camel when we eat vegetables by the cartload and strain at a gnat because we would not care to pluck a leaf from a tree having its night’s rest. Even a butcher may be to a certain extent humane. Because a man eats mutton, he does not slaughter a herd of sheep when they are asleep. The essence of [humanity] consists in showing the utmost consideration to all life, animal as well as vegetable. He who in search of pleasure shows little consideration for others is surely less than [hu]man. He is thoughtless!”  

After thus making the case for restraint in resource consumption, Gandhi then eulogised the place of trees in Indian culture. Thus, he wrote: “India has cultivated no small respect for trees and other sentient beings. The poet describes Damayanti going from tree to tree in the wood bewailing her lot. For her companions, Shakuntala had trees as also the birds and beasts. The great poet, Kalidasa, tells us how her separation from them all was painful to her.”

We now know, as an article in The Guardian last year put it, that “with their natural capacity to sequester carbon – to draw it from the atmosphere and lock it up as wood – trees are a simple, easy-to-understand way of tackling the climate emergency.” Gandhi himself was writing decades before the evidence of global warming and climate change induced by human activity became known. He advocated the planting of trees on other – and no less worthy – grounds: namely, that they would help in providing shade and shelter, aid in stabilising soil and water regimes, and display a human concern for non-human life. But of course, the climate emergency makes his words that much more prescient.

This column is being published shortly before World Environment Day, which falls on June 5. We may remember Gandhi’s words and warnings on that day, but also on every other day of the year. Better known for his pursuit of non-violence in settling political disputes, for his commitment to inter-faith harmony, and for his struggle to abolish untouchability, Gandhi’s legacy is also compellingly relevant if we wish to resolve the deepening environmental crisis that confronts us today.

This article first appeared on The Telegraph.

The updated edition of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is now in stores. His email address is