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Rethinking Our Economy

Can Gandhi help?

S. Sanjay Aathreyasa (2009C2PS709)
Birla Institute of Technology & Science Pilani, Pilani Campus

Current global socio-economic reality characterized by unequal wealth
distribution and blatant consumerism is posing a serious and imminent
threat to people and planet alike. Time has come to rethink the way we
think about societies, economies and reset priorities, values and
functionalities. In this context, this paper argues that techno-centric
solutions which stand at the forefront of global sustainability debate are
not going to help us much in crossing from crisis to sustainability. It
suggests the need for a radical change in our economic thinking and later
presents Gandhian economic philosophy as an attractive option, not as a
ready-to-go model but as a guiding light, as a paradigm, by discussing its
relevance, practicality and application. However, this paper doesn't
elucidate upon the principles of Gandhian economic philosophy. An
attempt has been made to redefine existing socio-economic ideas like
family, philanthropy, microfinance, deploying Gandhian economic
paradigm. It also highlights potential of alternatives built in Gandhian
spirit such as local currencies and energy farming.

This paper is prepared and submitted as a partial fulfillment for the
course HSS F345 - Gandhian Thoughts during first semester, 2014-15 at
Birla Institute of Technology & Science - Pilani, Pilani Campus. I
sincerely thank Dr. Harikrishnan Gopinadhan Nair for his inspiring and
engaging lectures throughout the semester. I couldn't have imagined a
better introduction to Gandhi: the Man, his thought and actions. I also
thank my fellow classmates for their insightful comments during the
classroom sessions. I should also thank Schumacher Centre for New





resourceful online publications which helped me gain in depth

understanding of what it means to alter economic thinking. I alone am
responsible for the shortcomings.
Samudrala Sanjay Aathreyasa

Table of Contents
Table of Contents




Constructing Alternatives - What is needed?



Gandhian Economic Paradigm Relevance



Gandhian Economic Paradigm Practicality



Gandhian Economic Paradigm Application









Joint Family Institutions



Local currencies



Energy from Agriculture



Concluding Thoughts





Capitalism has sure lifted millions of people out of poverty but at the
same time, capitalism has also resulted in unequal wealth distribution,
significant debt at both individual and governmental levels. Events like
Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Los Indignados stand as a testimony for the
anger of those marginalized from system benefits. Not to mention,
terrorist upsurge in various parts of the globe is also a consequence of
skewed wealth distribution and growing unemployment defining
features of current socio-economic reality.

Figure 1: Gini Index1 World Map as per World Bank data 2014.2

More importantly, corporate and economic interests have gradually

taken away the sense of community and responsibility towards local
ecology. Current must-have, must-buy economy has triggered a perpetual
1 . Gini index is a measure of income inequality. Higher Gini index for a nation means higher
income difference between its people.
2 . 2014 Gini Index World Map, income inequality distribution by country per World Bank.svg,
Hunter, Tracy, CC BY- SA 3.0

assault on the ecological capital of the planet, depleting it at a rate much

higher than the regeneration capacity. Today, we use the equivalent of
1.5 earths to give us the resources we need, and also to absorb our
waste. Several future scenarios suggest that if current business as usual
trends continue, we will need the equivalent of three earths by 2050. (See
Figure 2)

Figure 2: Ecological footprint of humanity3

No sensible global development agenda can be prepared without

attributing paramount importance to sustainability and inclusive growth.
It should be noted that, current environmental crisis is as much a threat
as it is an opportunity to gain control over global financial system. In
such context of increasing adversity on people and planet due to micro
3 . World Footprint, Map courtesy of Global Footprint Network. Retrieved 22 November, 2014,
from Global Footprint Network

and macro level economic activities, we as humanity have an imminent

need to rethink our economic arrangement and construct alternatives redefining priorities, values, scale and technology. We have both moral
obligation and practical reasons to do so.

Constructing Alternatives What is needed?

Renowned French economist Thomas Piketty, in his latest work Capital

in the Twenty First Century, scientifically demonstrates that there is no
reason to believe that capitalism can ever solve the problem of
inequality.4 That said, uprooting Capitalism with its roots and replacing it
with an alternative socio-economic system is a daunting task. With all its
flaws, in my opinion capitalism is the only game in town. What we need
to do is to build on its strengths and do away with its weaknesses. This
might require a radical change in our economic thinking.
As an example, consider global sustainability debate as it is happening
today, led by governments, think tanks, corporate players, multi-lateral
organizations etc. Technology is put at the forefront of sustainability
solutions. No doubt, technology capitalisms favorite child has
transformed many lives over years. While this is true to an extent,
technology alone cannot be an all answer domain for sustainability- as
global sustainability debate suggests today. Mobile manufacturing
industry is a case in point.
4. Thomas Piketty and Arthur Goldhammer, Capital in the Twenty First Century (Cambridge
Massachusetts : The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 109-116.

Within a time period of two decades, mobile phones have made a

transition from novelties to central objects of our lives. Despite the
know-it-all behavior we share for mobile usage, we know amazingly little
about the impact mobile phone usage is having on our planet. Figure 3
outlines mobile manufacturing industry from environment impact

Figure 3: Critical Areas of Environmental Impact in Lifecycle of a Mobile phone5

Environmental impact of mobile phones is of significant magnitude if

viewed across its entire life cycle. As per United Nations Environment
Programme, manufacture of a mobile phone produces about 60kg of
CO2 and usage of a mobile phone for a year produces about 122kg of
CO2. Despite these startling statistics, research focus of mobile phone

5. Tom Berry and James Goodman, Earth Calling, Environmental Impact of Mobile
Telecommunications industry (Forum for the Future, United Kingdom, 2006) 5-6.

industry is on consumer experience driving factor of the demand,

rather than on reducing its ecological footprint.
Similarly, the IT revolution in
past few decades has largely






phones, wearables etc.) and

little use of it is made in




Figure 4: Eco efficiency of mobile phones6

These two cases drive the point that technology needs direction and
current day capitalism has given it all wrong. Further, latest disruptive
technologies like autonomous driving, 3D printing can result in much
larger damage if not strategically regulated. Technology can be both a
barrier and enabler in welfare economy. Hence, designing sustainability
solutions needs a more fundamental approach than a techno-centric
one. Solutions to some of the serious problems that arise due to
economic behaviors perhaps lie outside economics.

6. Groupe Speciale Mobile, Environmental Impact of Mobile Communications Devices,, 8 May, 2009. Accessed 4 November, 2014.



Gandhian Economic Paradigm Relevance

Sustainable development may not be possible by considering economic

parameters alone. The cause and potential for significant renewal might
well lie much deeper. So lets ask ourselves a very fundamental question.
Whats an economy for?
Textbooks define economics as the study of how to optimize the use of
our scarce resources to satisfy our unlimited human wants. Human
wants, not needs are considered unlimited. Why should this be the case
always? Do we have the same penchant in other domains of human
inquiry? If we accept the prudent limiting of human wants as we do the
limiting of other human proclivities, economics as we know it would
have to change in a fundamental manner.
The problem of economics was famously formulated by Paul Samuelson
as - What to produce, How to produce, and For Whom to produce. 7 However,
classical economics with it free market mantra failed to recognize the
central problem as spiritual one.
The central problem of economics is a spiritual one because we can only
answer the What, How, and For Whom in a holistic way by asking first What would be in keeping with human dignity? and second, What would further
the inner lives of the people involved? Based on these questions it is clear that
the How of production the first and most important economic problem
7 . Samuelson, Paul A, Foundations of Economic Analysis (Harvard University Press, 1947), 21-24.


becomes - How do we work? What do we bring to our work? How do we work

with others? How meaningful is our work? These are the central problems,
from this flow - What and For Whom. What is worth wanting? How is it
worth producing? Who is it worth distributing? - These questions provide a
fresh framework to construct alternative economic paradigms.
Classical economy has divided humans into producers and consumers.
By reducing organic relationships between people who engage in
commerce to supply and demand, classical economy traditionally has
dehumanized commerce. Over time, commerce has evolved into a huge
and complex web of interaction and interdependence with dehumanized
character which in a way explains current global socio economic reality.
The current state of affairs calls for a new economic model or rather a
redefinition with human face that shall humanize economy than
materialize human beings. It is here where Gandhian economic
philosophy finds its space. In Gandhian scheme of things, it is the
individual that is central figure as far as societal benefit is concerned.
More importantly, his economic philosophy treats all of creation not just
as means but also ends.
He once said,
Now when we talk of brotherhood of man, we stop there, and feel that all other
life is there for man to exploit for his own purposes. But Hinduism excludes
all exploitation. There is no limit whatsoever to the measure of sacrifice that
one may make in order to realize this oneness with all life, but certainly the


immensity of the ideal sets a limit to your wants. That you will see is the
antithesis of the position of the modern civilization which says: 'increase your
wants'. Those who hold that belief think that increase of wants means increase
of knowledge whereby you understand the infinite better. On the contrary
Hinduism rules out indulgence and multiplication of wants as these hamper
one's growth to the ultimate identity with Universal Self. 8
This suggests Economics as the study of how to use our abundant resources to
limit our wants and satisfy them overtime in a way that enriches both the resource
and us making self realization possible.

Classical Economics


Marx critique of classical economy


Gandhian Economics




M+ Enhanced Money



Enhanced Person

Table 1: Mainstream vs. Gandhian economic thought

Gandhian economic philosophy is understandably tagged utopian owing

to its anti-utilitarian ethics and a rigid moral framework. But, what needs
to be observed is the credibility of his ideas and its impact. Consider
George Soross Open Society Foundation or the open source software
movement or development of indicators such as GNHI (Gross National
8. M. K.Gandhi, Harijan, December 26, 1936, p363-364.


Happiness Index) in Bhutan. All these successful and unconventional

initiatives carry though not explicitly - Gandhian economic
philosophy, embedded in them. More recent example is the sensational
decision of Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla Motors, to free all of his companys
patents for other firms to build on his technology 9 . This remarkably
signifies scope for alternative thinking even at the core of capitalist
realm. We require more such innovations for us to cross from crisis to
sustainability and Gandhian economic thinking can be a potential
guiding light in this regard.

Gandhian Economic Paradigm Practicality

Tim Jackson, Economics commissioner on United Kingdoms

sustainable development commission, candidly calculated how much
carbon dioxide human beings will be allowed to emit in 2050 to
stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gases at 450 parts per million. 10
According to him, producing $1,000 worth of goods and services
today emits half a metric ton of carbon dioxide. Adding it all up, some
28 billion tons are currently emitted and that must be reduced to only
5 billion tons by 2050. Assuming 9 billion people by 2050, that means
that each person can emit only 0.6 tons of carbon dioxide annually,
which is lower than the average emissions in India today. In fact, if
one divides the 1360 pounds of carbon dioxide annually allotted in
9 . Elon Musk, "All Our Patent Are Belong To You", Blog, June 12, 2014. Accessed November 16, 2014.
10 . Ted. "Tim Jackson: An Economic Reality Check." YouTube Video, 2:21. October 5, 2010.
Accessed November 11, 2014.


2050 to each person by 365 days per year that means each person
would be allowed to emit only 3.6 pounds of carbon dioxide every
day. That is the equivalent of burning less than a quart of gasoline.
Situation gets even worse when we consider global economic growth
in coming years.
Calculation made by Jackson clearly suggests that we cannot rely on
renewable technologies alone to help us avert climate change without
sacrifice to our lifestyles. This message is something Gandhi has
advocated throughout his life. On the eve of India's independence, a
British journalist asked Gandhi whether independent India would follow
the British model of industrial development. In his famous response,
Gandhi said,
It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve prosperity. How
many planets will India require for its development?
It underlines the deep eco-consciousness of Gandhian economic
thought. But, practicality of what can be called control of wants theory by
Gandhi has always been questioned. A clue regarding the answer can be
found from Professor Kenneth Bouldings statement,
"Man requires both heroic and economic elements in his institutions, in his
learning process and in his decision making 11
which in a way explains conspicuous consumption spending of money
on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display
economic power and the Veblen effect. Veblen effect implies
11 . Wilfred Dolfsma, Stephan Kesting. Interdisciplinary Economics: Kenneth E. Boulding's Engagement
in the Sciences. (London: Routledge, 2013), p123.


abnormal market behavior where consumers buy higher priced goods or

services even though lower price substitutes are available.
The Veblen effect is often considered as negative externality of a welfare
economy. The argument here is if the consumers can be influenced by
generating the Veblen demonstration effect, then Gandhian effect too
should find place i.e. Gandhian effect can be a positive externality.
Gandhian effect here implies that after certain levels of consumption
have been reached, additional income does not give rise to any new
demand including leisure. The task here is to internalize Gandhian effect
in the welfare economy. By doing so, we can effectively address unequal
wealth distribution and unsustainable resource consumption two
major challenges of todays global economy.

Gandhian Economic Paradigm - Application

This part of the paper attempts to redefine certain existing socioeconomic ideas deploying Gandhian economic paradigm. It also
highlights potential for alternatives built in Gandhian spirit.


There are over 10,000 microfinance institutions serving over 150 million
poor people. Global demand is estimated at 500 million. (See Figure 5)12
The untapped market gives reason enough for us to critically review
12 . responsAbility Investment AG, Microfinance Market Outlook 2014, (Zurich: responsAbility
Research Department, 2013.), p1.


working of MFI13s and take necessary corrective measures to effectively

meet the challenge of global poverty eradication.

Figure 5: The Global Microfinance Market

Source: Microfinance Market Outlook 2014 by responsAbility Investments AG.

Despite the novelty of the idea, Microfinance industry is struggling to

increase their reach. This situation can be attributed to GLP Globalization, Privatization, and Liberalization. Microfinance as an idea
took birth as an instrument of development but disorganized
commercialization has crippled its impact. Private players like SKS
(India) 14 , Compartamos Banco (Mexico) 15 entering Indirect Public
Offerings (IPO) is an illustrator. IPO benefits the organization but puts
it on trajectory away from pro development lending. Also, policy
environment surrounding microfinance institutions has literally rendered
several microenterprises run by microfinance beneficiaries unviable.
These are nothing but consequences of a purely market based operation
of MFIs coupled with unfavorable macro policy environment.
13 . MFI Microfinance Instiutions.
14. Greg Chen, Stephen Rusmussen, Xavier Reile, Daniel Rozas, Indian Microfinance Goes
Public: The SKS Initial Public Offering, The Consulative Group to Assist the Poor, September 1,
2010. Accessed November 9, 2014.
15. Compartamos: From Nonprofit to Profit, Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine, December 12,
2007. Accessed November 9, 2014.


Gandhian economic philosophy can help us resolve this paradox.

Gandhis concept of development is Sarvodaya through Antyodaya
welfare of all through the weakest of the society which suggests that to
eradicate poverty, purchasing power must be put in the hands of the
poor. Consider microcredit as a case, instead of subsidizing MFIs for
prolonged periods, subsidizing agencies including private actors can
support viable microenterprises that provide the poor either wage
employment or self employment, thereby helping them graduate from
survivalists to entrepreneurs. These soon will be considered as future
market incentivizing further support. Similarly, appropriate technologies
that can tap the low/semi-skilled labour of the poor should be
incubated, because by doing so labour of the poor becomes their major
Also, micro-insurance institutions needs to innovate product lines
targeting the poorest, especially in health and agriculture so that they get
assistance in avoiding poverty traps and progress economically.
Insurance function undeniably contributes to inclusive growth at a very
fundamental level. At the same time, exclusive focus on innovations in
financial space of microfinance does not help. Methods should be
devised to harness other forms of capital social, institutional, cultural formed in the process of microfinance delivery. This would eventually
create a multi dimensional approach to combat poverty.




Philanthropy in current capitalist society has definitely improved lives of

many but it is more a palliative than cure. As much generous and
gracious it may appear to be, it has its limitations. It reinforces the
difference between the giver and the receiver. It breeds dependence. It
As philanthropy took shape as large global industry, it turned into
business of benevolence. Most of the philanthropic activities as they are
today put heavy weights on quantum of philanthropy than impact of
philanthropy. Significant focus is on How much to give. Where and How
to give are often ignored. This is evident from disproportionately
concentrated donor focus. 16 Donor efforts and mindshare as well as
efforts of operating entities viz. NGOs, Corporate CSR Departments
are heavily concentrated on just few sub sectors. Little attention is paid
to designing impact delivery mechanisms that are likely to bring in
sustainable transformation at scale in chosen area of philanthropy.
Philanthropy sector though not as large and recognized as for-profit
market, is an important component of economic strategy. Hence reperceiving philanthropy in Gandhian light can be of help in restructuring
it for greater benefit of humanity. In Gandhian scheme of things, it is
the individual that is the central figure as far as societal good is
16. Ramesh Mangaleswaran, Ramya Venkatraman, Designing Philanthropy for Impact (New York:
Mcksiney & Company, October 2013.) p13.


concerned, which means that the end user needs to be at the centre of
planning and execution design.
User-Centered Design (UCD) rightly fits the bill. UCD is an approach to
design that grounds the process in information about the people who
will use the product. UCD processes focus on users through the
planning, design and development of a product. There is an international
standard (ISO 13407: Human-centered design process) that defines a
general process for including human centered activities throughout a
development lifecycle (See Figure 6). For years, businesses have used
this concept to develop innovative solutions. Why not deploy same
approach to overcome challenges in the philanthropy sector?

Figure 6: User Centered Design Process

Source: Usability Professionals Association

Further, Gandhis concept of bread-labor sets appropriate directive for

philanthropy. Gandhi felt that a man earns his dignity by working and
earning his bread and livelihood. Therefore, philanthropy must
essentially provide trade, not aid so that people in need will seize the


opportunity to earn a living and integrate into society with self reliance
and pride. The result will be a sustainable working system.
Similarly, Gandhis idea of Swaraj carries a vital insight to reshape the
way philanthropy is done. Although the word swaraj means self rule,
Gandhi gave it the content of an integral revolution that encompasses all
spheres of life.17
At the individual level swaraj is vitally connected with the capacity for
dispassionate self assessment, ceaseless self purification and growing self
In other words, it is sovereignty of the people based on pure moral
authority. This asks us the question, why should we perceive
philanthropy as an instrument for few rich individuals or foundations?
Why not democratize philanthropy?
Wikipedia is an outstanding example for democratized philanthropy. It
signifies the potential power of the philanthropy of every individual.
Power of mass collaborations has many advantages - time, effort, money
and ideas. Online philanthropic marketplaces, crowd funding platforms,
innovation funds and impact investing etc. are few other innovations in
philanthropy space, if sustained and developed in line with Gandhian
economic philosophy, can potentially drive inclusive growth a pre
condition for sustainable development.

17. M.K.Gandhi, Young India, June 28, 1928, p772.


That said, we should also remember that how we make money in the
first place is more important than how much we give away.

Joint Family Institutions

Almost all ideas of Gandhi for social welfare emphasize compassion for
fellow being. Also for society to transcend from material pursuit to
spiritual pursuit, individuals must cultivate spiritual lifestyles. It requires
a great deal of effort to truly understand the dynamics of community
living and subtleties of human relationships.
Joint Families being major social institutions can play a key role in
promoting spiritual lifestyles by training and development of faculties
necessary for spiritual living. Ashrams built by Gandhi are great
examples that demonstrate the role of social framework in nurturing
spiritual lifestyles. Pyarelal aptly describes the nature of the joint family
and the human qualities it requires.18
Where so many people with diverse habits, tastes and temperaments are
cooped up day and night in a narrow space from week to week, month to
month and year to year, it requires no little diplomatic skill, delicacy, tact,
especially on the part of the head of the family, to maintain a healthy and sweet
atmosphere. The members on their part have to develop the attitude of mutual
help and regard, the capacity for give and take, and adjustments to one
anothers idiosyncrasies. A single tactless remark, a slip of oversight, an
uncouth habit, heedlessness or disregard of anothers feelings may set peoples
18. Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi The Last Phase, (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, Vol I,
February 1956.) p193.


nerve on edge and make life hell for the whole family. Competition in this
narrow world is keen; even the youngsters feel the edge of it; little things assume
big proportions; the slightest suggestion of unfairness or partiality gives rise to
petty rivalries, jealousies and intrigues. To smooth them requires infinite
patience, resourcefulness and knowledge of human nature. Delicate and
conscientious care in the minutiae of everyday life or its lack can make in the
narrow confines of the joint family all the difference between peace and
discontent, happiness and misery.
The important point here is that joint living not only requires negotiating
skills but also a basic capacity to caring, loving, giving and forgiving. It is
this capacity to love, to give and to serve that is necessary for spiritual
life. If we were to align our social and economic behaviors with current
sustainable agenda, we should begin with building more joint family

Local Currencies

Economist E.F. Schumacher, on whom Gandhian economic philosophy

had profound influence, argued in his famous work Small is Beautiful:
Economics as if people mattered, that
From a truly economic point of view the most rational way to produce is from
local resources, for local needs.19
This thought of Schumachers can potentially redefine the way we
envision regional economic development. It suggests that the prime
19. E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if people mattered, (Random House, 2011) p43.


agenda of regional economic development should be to expand local

employment on a long term basis by creating local markets for locally
produced goods and services.
Local currencies can be a step forward in this direction. Current
centralized banking system is depriving local population of their
purchasing power as money from small local banks move away to urban
centers where higher interest rate can be demanded from money
markets through which big corporations and governments borrow.
Local currencies can bring back the purchasing power. As they circulate
locally and do not leave the region, they bring business to local
businesses. More importantly, credit instruments can innovated with
effectively lesser interest rates than currently affordable by small scale
business owners. Thus, when regions begin assuming power to support
their business needs by issuing their own currency, regional economy
that is more self reliant and secure can be seen developing.
Practicality of such exchange instruments can be established from the
performance of those already in use. The Swiss WIR complementary
currency has an annual turnover of 1.2 billion Swiss Francs, serving
62,000 SMEs and supported by the central bank, the Brazilian Banco
Palmas currency and community bank has been replicated over 100

20. Community Currencies in Action, New Economics Foundation. Retrieved November 12,


Commodity based currencies i.e. currency whose value is indexed against

a real commodity can be equally beneficial. But, the choice of the
commodity is important. It should hold significant relevance to the

Energy from Agriculture

With increasing food requirements of growing population, and adverse

environmental impact of non renewable energy usage there is an
imminent need to alter the relationship between agriculture and energy.
Apart from focusing on improving energy efficiency of food production
and distribution, developing alternative energy sources that can meet
energy requirement of agriculture is necessary.
Agricultural residues which are currently being disposed as waste can be
turned into tremendous source of energy with technologies such as
lignocelluloses conversion. India itself produces 572.106 tons of
agricultural residues per year which if turned to biomass based power
plants, around 80,000 MW of electricity can be produced- which is
nearly 50% of Indias total installed capacity.21
Besides increasing energy independence, biomass energy production as
an industry has huge scope for rural employment. Moreover, if the
energy products pricing is right, farmers can get substantial income out
of the residue which effectively makes agriculture more remunerative.
21. Anil K. Rajvanshi, Sustainable Development the Gandhian Way, in Timeless Inspirator
Reliving Gandhi, ed. Raghunath Malshekar (Pune: Sakal Papers Ltd., July 2010.)


This can potentially revitalize rural economy. Farming for food and
energy increases the utility of farms manifold creating wealth and
employment in rural areas and thereby enabling us to push the
development agenda in Gandhian way.

Concluding Thoughts

We have an imminent need to create a new economic reality from

bottom up and redefine rules to support values and institutions of the
emergent new reality. Gandhian economic philosophy can be a major
enabling condition, working as it does within consciousness itself, for
the change we envision. While Gandhian economic thought cannot be a
readymade model in strict sense, it can be a beacon to redefine and
restructure economic activities that we engage in today.
More importantly Gandhian economic thought intrinsically puts Planet
First approach, which is a prop for any kind of economic system to
prosper. We have had enough discussions and debates as countries and
currencies, its time we have one as species. After all, as Albert Einstein
once said, A problem cannot be solved with the same level of consciousness that
created it.



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