Swadeshi Works!

Editor’s Note: Lorin Peters attended the recent Pacific Life Community gathering in Las Vegas. During the retreat he made several references to Gandhi’s vision of “swadeshi”, the self-reliant world Gandhi was trying to build. Lorin wrote the following reflection about a Thai village that has carried out such a project.  He feels that “Gandhi’s vision has many connections to the vision at the core of the Catholic Worker movement.”

Swadeshi Works!

Lorin Peters
2014 Jan 29

Ban Lao was a traditional village in Northeast Thailand. Like most Thai villages of that era (1965-69), it had a Buddhist temple, and an elementary school, but its roads were dirt (the “highway” was gravel), and it had no running water (the system I helped them build was only the second in any village in Thailand). Due mainly to unsanitary conditions in the village well, infant mortality was 50%, as it was in most villages. People went to the provincial hospital only to die; otherwise they consulted the local spirit doctor.

More affluent than most Thai villages of that time, it had one pickup truck, and limited electricity several hours each evening, but no television (there were no TV stations within range). There were high schools 10 km down the road in the provincial town, but no one had ever passed the national matriculation exam. It was affluent because a number of the villagers worked in the provincial offices, or as teachers in other villages.

In India, after the Salt March and the Salt Works Raid (1930), millions of Indians realized they were free to ignore the British colonial power. But Gandhi realized they were not ready for freedom. Many wanted to become capitalists or communists, and replace British domination with their own domination over each other. So Gandhi retired from the independence movement and devoted his next 12 years to developing a culture based, not on power, but on swadeshi (self-reliance, including cooperation and sharing).

He understood that this is the real revolution, not just changing the faces in government. Civil disobedience and defying the government is exciting. But it does not change the culture of domination. Changing culture is not sexy or exciting. But it is the real work of revolution. He developed a comprehensive 18-point “Constructive Programme” to create swadeshi, self-reliant villages which could not be controlled or exploited by any system of colonization or centralized domination, foreign or domestic.

Ban Rai Gong King is a smaller village of 1200 souls near Chiang Mai in North Thailand.
When the Thai economy collapsed abruptly in 1997, due both to irresponsible lending within Thailand and to financial manipulation by foreign investors (see “A Siamese Tragedy” by Walden Bello), many government-financed programs shut down. Most of the villagers lost their jobs. All the local banks, from whom the villagers had always been able to borrow money, immediately stopped lending also.

Then something extraordinary happened in Ban Rai Gong King. The villagers decided to pool their resources and set up a community fund, under the leadership of their headman, Somsak Inthachai, and his wife, Suphaan. I do not know of this happening in other Thai villages. Somsak (Thais always use first names) and Suphaan appear to be college-educated, and to be deeply respected and trusted by their fellow villagers.

The villagers’ goal is a self-sufficient village, including growing and threshing rice, growing vegetables, raising livestock, farming fish, and processing their own agricultural products. They followed a community development approach based on participation by every household and every villager, beginning with community analysis through meetings, agendas, presentations and brainstormings. They identified eight “development areas” for a holistic village (not quite Gandhi’s eighteen), for each of which they created an independent committee and funding scheme. All programs are community initiated, and mostly community funded.

Gandhi’s programme began with khadi (spinning of cotton thread and weaving of homespun cloth) to provide employment and modest income for every family, and freedom from English cloth mills. Ban Rai’s first development area is economic planning, to provide modest income, and freedom from centralized debt institutions. They created a “Village Fund Network Office” where the villagers pool their “savings funds,” and which manages and administers those funds. Fifty percent of the dividends go to the fund members. Fifteen percent go to administration. But the other 35% go to welfare, including the disabled and the underprivileged, health services, scholarships, sports programs, children’s activities, the elderly and the environment.

A second part of Gandhi’s programme was village improvement. Ban Rai’s second area is village environment, including planting trees, sweeping and washing their streets, and restoring their creeks. They promote village pride with the slogan “Love your birthplace.” They organize festivals, tour groups, youth groups, and teenager groups.

A third part of Gandhi’s programme was health education. Ban Rai’s third area is health screening and early detection, including blood pressure and blood testing, body weight and waistline charts, and vision testing.

Ban Rai’s fourth area is classes in health, safety of food (preventing food-borne diseases), baking, and local cuisine. They offer help with newborn children, the injured, the handicapped, the elderly, and hospice.

Ban Rai’s fifth development area was constructing a health service center, in 2007. The center includes maintaining an exercise chart for each villager, a number of treadmills and other exercise machines, a sauna, a number of massage beds, and health foods and medicinal herbs sections. They also sponsor football (soccer) teams and other youth games.

Other sectors of Gandhi’s programme include the eradication of social evils, especially of untouchability, of alcoholism, and of leprosy. Ban Rai’s sixth area is the eradication of vices, especially drugs and alcohol (mostly men), and gambling (mostly women).

Two more of Gandhi’s sectors were uplift of women, and adult education. Ban Rai’s seventh area is social safety, including domestic violence, bodily assault, and theft, and also automobile safety, including traffic rules, seat belts and “driving under the influence.”

Three more of Gandhi’s sectors were uplift of peasants, development of cottage industries, and labor unions dedicated to the well-being of all, including owners. Ban Rai has set up savings groups for those who process herbs, make artificial flowers, make food safe, do composting and organic farming, or Thai massage. They have community funds for wholesale buyers, and for other occupations. They have support groups for those raising cattle, or pigs, doing agriculture, alternative energy (biomass), or developing their own health products, eg, honey shampoo, lemongrass oil (mosquito repellant), butterfly (purple) tea.

Gandhi’s final sector was communal unity across religious lines, especially Hindu and Muslim. Ban Rai’s eighth area is psychological well-being, including emotional, spiritual, and cultural well-being, including their folk music. They have set up groups for grandparents to share their wisdom with the young, for education in democracy, or in traditional medicinal herbs, for training in community leadership, or in “worshipping” (respecting) their monarch. When there is a dispute in the village, they use mediation, not the courts. They use community rehabilitation, not prison.

Except for being located in a tropical forest, Ban Rai could be anywhere in America. Everyone has running water and electricity. The streets are well-paved and clean, the houses are neat and well-maintained, the trees and yards are green. I saw only one old gray house, but the unpainted teak was more than a century old, and the roof tiles were far more subtle and beautiful than any roof tiles in America. Everyone has a cell phone, most have computers, the village has its own website.

As I was admiring one man’s elaborate fence this morning, he came out to greet me. But he was French, not Thai. This is his paradise. If I could handle the Thai seasons – hot, hotter, hottest – I too would consider moving to Ban Rai.

At the end of Headman Somsak’s presentation to our field trip, I said to our whole class, “You have just seen Gandhi’s dream of swadeshi, of self-reliance! This is exactly his vision, what he tried to create, to prepare his people for freedom from exploitation, both capitalist and communist.” Somsak was grinning widely – he spoke to us only in Thai, but he obviously understood my English.

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