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Are we listening to the lessons taught in the first year of Covid-19?

The pandemic revealed the precarious state of India’s informal sector. Localised production, trade and markets offer a better alternative to existing paradigm of development.

Another wave of COVID, another round of lockdowns, another long journey back home for migrant workers. If there is one lesson we are learning after a year of COVID-19, it is that we have not learnt any lessons, at least not the crucial ones.

2020 exposed the abysmal flaws of an economic system that drives tens of millions of people into insecure jobs that they can lose overnight, with no alternative or safety net. This is the fate of a majority of the 90 per cent of India’s workforce that is in the unorganised sector. Over the last few decades of “development”, economic policies have created a massive pool of cheap labour for the state-dominated or capitalist industrial class, adding to the already large numbers of landless agricultural labourers caught in traditional caste, class and gender discrimination. Since 1991, about 15 million farmers have moved out of agriculture, many because the economic system simply does not make farming (including pastoralism, fisheries and forestry) remunerative enough. And 60 million people have been physically displaced by dams, mining, expressways, ports, statues, industries, with mostly poor or no rehabilitation. Meanwhile, exploiting such people desperate for any kind of job, and also nature, a minority becomes wealthier by the second. The richest 5 per cent of Indians now earn as much as the remaining 95 per cent.

As Aseem Shrivastava and I showed in Churning the Earth, the Indian government’s capitulation to global financial forces in 1991 significantly increased the vulnerability of hundreds of millions of people and caused irreversible damage to our environment. Of course, not all of India’s unorganised or informal workforce is necessarily insecure; farmers, fishers, pastoralists, forest-dwellers, craftspersons, entertainers, are relatively secure if their resource base (land, nature, tools, knowledge, clientele) is intact, or if they have guaranteed access to a security net like the MNREGA. But then they are not available as cheap labour, so they or their livelihoods must be displaced in the name of “development”. The three farm laws introduced by the government last year will further hand agricultural control to corporates, creating an even bigger pool of exploitable labour. Farmers realise this, which explains the intensity and resolve of their prolonged agitation.

It is true that agriculture alone cannot provide full employment in villages. And that the youth do not necessarily want to remain in traditional occupations, especially if they are also associated with caste and gender discrimination. But these realities result from our collective failure to tackle these issues at their roots. In any case, since 1991 there has been, for the most, “jobless growth” in the formal sector, meaning those leaving villages end up in some other informal work, mostly very insecure.

But there are alternatives to such a trajectory, and they provide clear lessons. Since mid-2020, we have compiled dozens of examples of what we call the Extraordinary Work of “Ordinary” People — Beyond Pandemics and Lockdowns. In the midst of COVID-19, several communities have had enough to eat, dignified livelihoods to sustain themselves, community solidarity systems to help the most vulnerable, collective health systems to ensure the virus does not run rampant, and alternative methods of learning their children could enjoy.

In Telangana and Nagaland, respectively, Dalit women of Deccan Development Society (DDS) and tribal women of North-East Network ensured complete food security for dozens of villages throughout 2020. Community health systems in Sittilingi panchayat, Tamil Nadu and in Kunariya panchayat, Kutch, denied COVID any chance of gaining a foothold. In Assam, Farm2Food worked with several thousand students to continue local food growing in schools and communities. In Kolkata, the youth group Pranthakatha created a local neighbourhood safety net for 32 widows who had been forced to beg for a living. In the western Himalaya, Titli Trust, Birds of Kashmir, CEDAR, and Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust continued nature guided activities with local communities, to build capacity for when tourism returns. Beejotsav Nagpur, the Gurgaon Organic Farmers’ Market, village self-help groups facilitated by Navadarshanam in Tamil Nadu, Samaj Pragati Sahayog in MP, and Mahila Umang Samiti in Uttarakhand were able to ensure that farm produce reached a (mostly local) consumer base, averting economic collapse for thousands of farmers.

These and over a thousand other stories of alternatives (www.vikalpsangam.org), provide crucial lessons. The biggest is that local self-reliance for basic needs, and localised exchanges of products and services, are far more effective in securing people’s livelihoods than are long-distance markets and jobs. Rather than incentivise big industry to take over most production, virtually all household needs — soaps, footwear, furniture, utensils, clothes, energy, even housing, food, drinks — can be produced in a decentralised manner by thousands of communities. The shortage of purely agriculture-based livelihoods can be made up by crafts, small-scale manufacturing, and services needed by their own or surrounding populations. As Suresh Chhanga, sarpanch of Kunariya in Kutch told me when I visited in January, “if we can produce most of our household items locally, we not only save the Rs 40 lakh we spend every month buying these from outside companies, but we also create full local livelihood security.” The women’s collective Maati in Uttarakhand showed how farming and crafts must also continue along with community-led ecotourism so that there is a buffer, should one of these fail.

Unfortunately, the government’s most recent packages, ironically labelled “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India), are actually increasing the control of distant markets and companies over people’s lives, and increasing ecological damage (for example, coal mining in areas of central India where communities are still relatively self-reliant on land and forests). Where some government initiatives have learnt the lessons, as in the case of Kerala’s Kudumbashree programme that enables dignified livelihoods to several million women, we saw a visible difference in how COVID was dealt with. Many of these examples of rural revitalisation also display significant reduction in outmigration, and even the return of people from cities to villages.

Local self-reliance has to go along with worker control over the means of production, more direct forms of democracy (swaraj), and struggles to eliminate casteism and gender discrimination. Again, there are many examples of this. In central India, communities that have successfully claimed collective legal control over surrounding forests, and mobilised towards adivasi swasashan (self-rule), survived the COVID lockdown much better than those who did not have such control. In Spiti, as soon as COVID hit, a Committee for Preventive Measures and Sustainable Development was set up by local communities to ensure full health safety and encourage greater self-reliance in food and livelihoods. Dalit women farmers of DDS have shown how to resist gender and caste discrimination.

But governments have been most reluctant to enable such political and economic empowerment. It threatens their power, and their ability to hand over lands and resources to corporations as they please. Both the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, meant to empower village and city assemblies, or laws like the Forest Rights Act, have been only half-heartedly implemented. The current government has even tried weakening them or programmes like MGNREGA, which has been a life-saver for millions during the lockdown.

An economy that promotes mass vulnerability only increases social strife, creating an atmosphere ripe for communal, class and caste violence. This will eventually engulf all of us, other than the super-rich who will escape to some safer part of the world.

Many millions would not have to go back to insecure, undignified jobs in cities and industrial zones if they could have economic security in their own villages and towns. Alternative pathways that provide this are available, and have been demonstrated to work in the COVID crisis. But are we listening to their lessons?

This article first appeared in the print edition on April 23, 2021 under the title ‘Lessons Covid taught’. The writer is with Kalpavriksh, an environment research and advocacy group in Pune.

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