Gandhi of the Waldviertel (The Statesman)
The Statesman (Calcutta) 20 October 2013
Gandhi of the Waldviertel
Heinrich Staudinger, in one important aspect, is not a Mahatma Gandhi at all ~ he is not an ascetic. He loves life and the good things of life. He shows us that this is possible while at the same time living simply and in exemplary solidarity with the people around him and with the earth ~ MARTIN KÄMPCHEN
“You are my brother”, he wrote to me a year ago after reading my book on rural poverty in India. I replied to Heinrich Staudinger, “If we are brothers, then let us meet.” When I visited Vienna last summer, one morning I took the train to the Waldviertel, the region close to the Czech border. This is Austria’s most neglected rural area ~ no industries, few roads, few trains, scarce employment opportunities. Mile after mile I passed through forlorn, flat fields and woods. For over two hours no towns, just some nondescript villages ducking under trees. I disembarked at one of them, Schrems. At the almost empty platform “Heini” was waiting for me with a big smile. An energetic sixty-year-old man with long, wavy hair and clad in jeans and a baggy jacket, he took me by car to a village a few kilometers off the railway tracks. Here was his shoe factory, the centre of his life.
Two decades ago, Heini had bought up this moribund factory which then employed ten, twelve people. Now he gives work to 130 men and women, mostly from the surrounding villages. Up to this point, it is just a story of successful capitalism and as such not really noteworthy. Is there more to his story? Shoes are imported mainly from China where leather is cheap, Heini tells me. On an average, Austrians buy four pairs of shoes every year. Far too many, a waste of material and labour, he proclaims publicly. His advice: Buy one pair of shoes annually or every second year, but buy it from me! That means, buy locally-made products using material from local resources. This is swadeshi up in arms against a powerful globalised market.
Of course, this is cheap advice that is bound to fail unless the producer is prepared for financial sacrifices. Heini’s employees possess various skills, one more useful than others in the production line. Even then, the highest income earner in his factory is paid just double of the lowest income. And he, instead of creaming off a good percentage of the profit, gives himself just an average income. The rest is ploughed back into the development of the factory and into welfare projects in Africa. For example, Heini spends a considerable amount every month to provide his employees with fresh vegetables and fruits from the local markets. As long as the supply lasts everybody can take home free whatever he or she needs for the family. Very early he has begun to install solar panels on every roof space available at his factory and on the neighbouring houses, with the result that he produces not only enough energy for his factory but he can feed his surplus into the electricity lines of a power company.
Heinrich Staudinger shows me around in his factory. With an apologetic smile he confesses that he has never been much good in his studies. He began various courses without finishing one. He preferred travelling across the world, for example taking a bike around Africa. He has a practical bent of mind, he is a man of action and a communicator. While moving from workplace to workplace with me, Heini spends time sharing a few words with several people and introducing each one to me. He knows everybody by name and is aware of their personal situation. Observing the camaraderie between employer and the employees, I realize two things ~ the affection and trust he receives from them and the informal and easy relationship they enjoy with each other. At the cafeteria we have lunch with other employees. Of course, Heini stands in line like all others to receive the food on his tray. Vegetarian food. I ask whether this is the fare everybody gets daily. No, but they aim at being totally vegetarian. While eating at my side, he continues to interact with several employees cheerfully. Nowhere is the drudgery of factory work.
Heini lives alone, without family, in two rooms adjacent to the factory hall. One room is his office, the second his bedroom. His office is chaotic. He laughs out aloud watching my baffled glance across the heaps of files and books and assorted magazines. However, his office makes one thing clear: Heini is not the anti-intellectual he joyfully shows off to be. He reads books, he studies, he reflects and ponders. He is not merely a man of action. Further proof is provided when he introduces me to Sylvia Kislinger, one of his assistants who works on a magazine called Brennstoff, which Heini brings out regularly. It advocated “right living” ~ that means, an ecologically sound lifestyle which combines the protection of the environment with a philosophy of tolerance, peace and wisdom. All this is not pompous, but peppered with typically Austrian joviality and genial charm. Sylvia slips two magazines in my bag, one on the theme of water, the other on death. These magazines are distributed free in Heinrich Staudinger’s thirty-plus outlets in Austria and Germany, his GEA shoe-shops. Gea is Greek for “Earth”, a name which again is not merely a smart advertisement ploy, but a clarion call. Its meaning becomes even clearer when he gifts me one of his T-shirts with Gast auf Erden embossed on it. These words, borrowed from an old, popular church anthem, mean, “You are but a guest on this earth”: You are not to vandalize this earth, but to lead a life which preserves the riches of this world for future generations of humans and for every living being.
To bring home this message of ecology combined with an equitable lifestyle, Heini founded an academy at his factory which offers courses and weekend seminars. This charismatic “good-for-nothing” shoe-manufacturer without a university degree ~ and Austrians are ever so conscious of titles! ~ brings together some of the most original thinkers on ecology and environment-friendly economy, on religion and international affairs to this lonesome place. Why? Because Heinrich Staudinger has created a business model which protects the earth and at the same time provides a modest profit. He does not only preach, but he practises right living successfully. It is a glimpse of the future.
Last year, Heinrich Staudinger got into the media for reasons which are typical for his style of functioning. From the beginning, he had avoided borrowing from banks. Instead, he asked his friends to lend him some money. Heini told me that he has above one thousand people willing to give him money at a moderate interest rate. All of a sudden the Austrian government woke up to this “crime” of bypassing the banks. It threatened with jail. Staudinger mobilized the media which started a campaign of solidarity. Many now chuckle with mischievous joy about the discomfiture of the banks, and Heini of course is not one to give in. Jail would be splendid, he lets us know, “I need some rest”.
When I told Heini that I saw a lot of the Mahatma Gandhi in his actions, he laughed incredulously. But indeed, his swadeshi attitude, his sacrifice in favour of equality among his staff and of simple living, his fearless attitude face to face big business and government have a touch of the Mahatma. But Heini in one important aspect is not a Mahatma Gandhi at all ~ he is not an ascetic. He loves life and the good things of life. He shows us that this is possible while at the same time living simply and in exemplary solidarity with the people around him and with the earth. Congratulations, Heini!
The writer is a Tagore scholar based in Santiniketan. He can be reached at email@example.com