BICYCLES IN A WORLD OF "PROGRESS"
Ivan Illich reflects on life and bicycles upon visiting Mahatma Gandhi's hut
THE WHEELS OF COMMON LIFE. I read through a piece written by Ivan Illich after he contemplated Bapu Setu, the rural home of Mahatma Gandhi near Sevagram, India. In the context of speaking to the simplicity and commonness of life in India, Illich wrote of the important role of bicycles in Indian society. There, bicycles are not for recreation as they are for most of us in America. In India, bicycles are the common person's basic means of transportation. Our 2,000-mike bicycle ride through India indicated that in most places in India, bicycles are more numerous on the roads than cars and trucks. Here's an excerpt of Illich's reflection,"The Message of Bapu's Hut":
PARADOX OF PROGRESS. "The paradox of the situation is that those who have more such conveniences are regarded as superior creatures. Will it not be considered an immoral society where illness is given more importance and those who use artificial legs are considered superior? While sitting in Gandhiji’s hut I was grieved to ponder over this perversity. I have come to the conclusion that it is wrong to think of the industrial civilization as a road leading towards development of man. It has been proved that for our economic development, bigger and bigger machines of production and larger and larger number of engineers, doctors and professors are not necessary. I am convinced that such people are poor in mind, body and life-style who would want to have a place bigger than this hut where Gandhi lived. I have pity for them. By doing this they surrender themselves and their animate self to the inanimate structure. In the process they lose the elasticity of their body and vitality of their life, they have little relationship with nature and closeness with their fellowmen."
RIGHT MEANS, RIGHT ENDS. "When I ask the planners of the day, why they do not understand this simple approach which Gandhiji taught us, they say that Gandhiji’s way is very difficult and that the people will not be able to follow it. But the reality of the situation is that since Gandhiji’s principles do not tolerate the presence of any middleman or that of a centralized system, the planners and managers and politicians have very little attraction towards it. How is not being understood? Is it because people feel that untruth and violence will take them to the desired objective? No. This is not so. The common man fully understands that right means will take him to the right end. It is only the people who have some vested interest who refuse to understand it. The rich do not want to understand."
TRUTH AND SIMPLICITY. "When I say rich, I mean all those people who have got conveniences of life which are not available to everybody in common. These are in living, eating and going about. Their modes of consumption are such that they have been deprived of the power to understand the truth. It is to these that Gandhi becomes a difficult proposition to understand and assimilate. They are the ones to whom simplicity does not make any sense. Their circumstances unfortunately do not allow them to see the truth. Their lives have become too complicated to enable them to get out of trap they are in. Fortunately, for the largest number of people there is neither so much of wealth that they become immune to the truth of simplicity nor are they in such penury that they lack the capacity to understand. Even if the rich see the truth they refuse to understand it. It is because they have lost their contact with the soul of this country."
PRODUCTIVITY WITHIN LIMITS. "It should be very clear that the dignity of man is possible only in a self sufficient society and that it suffers as they move towards progressive industrialization. This hut connotes the pleasures that are possible through being at par with society. Here, self sufficiency is the keynote. We must understand that unnecessary articles and goods that a man possesses reduce his power to imbibe happiness from the surroundings. Therefore, Gandhi repeatedly said that productivity should be kept within the limits of wants. Today’s mode of production is such that it finds no limit and goes on increasing uninhibited. All these we have been tolerating so far but the time has come when man must understand that by depending more and more on machines he is moving towards his own suicide."
SUFFICIENT FOR THE NEED. "The civilized world, whether it is China or America, has begun to understand that if we want to progress, this is not the way. Man should realize that for the good of the individual as well as of the society, it is best that people keep for themselves only as much as is sufficient for their immediate needs. We have to find a method by which this thinking finds expression in changing the values of today’s world. This change can not be brought about by the pressure of the governments or through centralized institutions. A climate of public opinion has to be created to make people understand that which constitutes the basic society."
VEHICLE OF THE COMMON PEOPLE. "Today the man with a motor car thinks himself superior to the man with a bicycle though, when we look at it from the point of view of the common norm, it is the bicycle which is the vehicle of the masses. The cycle, therefore, must be given the prime importance and all the planning in roads and transport should be done on the basis of the bicycle, whereas the motor car should get a secondary place. The actual situation, however, is the reverse and all plans are made for the benefit of the motor car giving a second place to the bicycle. Common man’s requirements are thus disregarded in comparison with those of the higher ups..."
Read the full article, "The Message of Bapu's Hut".