One year on, no lessons learnt?

By Ashish KotharionApr. 30, 2021in Perspectives

This is a Longer version of the recently published article Are we listening to the lessons taught in the first year of Covid-19?

Another wave of COVID, another crisis of hospital beds and oxygen supplies,  another round of lockdowns and curfews, another long journey back home for migrant workers, another period of no earnings for daily wage workers, street vendors, and small business-holders. If there is one lesson we are learning after a year of COVID19, it is that we are not learning any lessons. At least none of the big ones.

Others are better equipped to deal with the failures of our public health system (none of which are surprising given how miniscule a percentage of total budgetary outlays go into this), and whether the vaccine story may be an exception; or with the breathtaking hypocrisy of election rallies and Kumbh melas and IPL cricket matches being allowed while not-so privileged citizens are told to stay at home (if they have one). My gaze is on the abysmal flaws of an economic system that compels tens of millions of people to be in insecure jobs that can be shut down overnight, with no alternative or safety net to speak of. We ought to have learnt by mid-2020, seeing millions of people trudging back home, that such a system is simply not capable of providing dignified and secure livelihoods to the  majority of those occupied in the unorganized sectors, which comprises over 90% of the workforce. Well, actually, we should have learnt this long back, but COVID should surely have forced our eyes open even if we were earlier pretending not to see.

Millions of Indians are living precarious lives, and ‘development’ does nothing for them; photo Vipul Sangoi

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. The numbers are not small. Since 1991, about 15 million farmers have moved out of agriculture, many of them forced out because the economic system simply does not make farming (including pastoralism, fisheries and forestry) renumerative enough. And then there are the 60 million or so people who have been physically displaced by dams, mining, expressways, ports, statues, industries, and other projects built on forest, farm, grazing, and village lands these people lived in or depended on. Most of these people were never adequately rehabilitated and would have ended up as industrial and construction labour, domestic ‘servants’ and chowkidars of gated colonies (whose demand for construction minerals may well have been the cause of their displacement in the first place!), sex workers and child labour, and people who die cleaning city drains.

This phenomenon of physical or livelihood displacement is global; it is required for a process of economic globalization that enables some regions and people to accumulate incredible amounts of wealth by exploiting the rest of the world. In colonial times this was done by militarily occupying territories; now it is done mostly using financial clout, pliant governments using their power to ‘acquire’ (polite term for grab) community and farmers’ lands, and the occupation of people’s minds with the promise of never-ending wealth and prosperity if only they jump onto the capitalist bandwagon. As Aseem Shrivastava and I showed in detail in our book Churning the Earth, the Indian government’s capitulation to global financial forces in 1991, and the subsequent policy shifts significantly increased the vulnerability of hundreds of millions of people and irreversible damage to our environment. As always, women and children are worst hit.

The ongoing farmers’ agitation is a recognition of the fact that if even the woefully inadequate Minimum Support Price safety net is removed, millions more will be forced to leave agriculture. But then that is precisely the aim of the three farm laws, handing agricultural controls over to corporates, and creating an even bigger pool of exploitable labour. It is important to note that not all of India’s workforce that is in the unorganized or informal sector is necessarily vulnerable and insecure; farmers, fishers, pastoralists, forest-dwellers, craftspersons, entertainers, and the like have been and can be 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 Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). But then this makes them unavailable to industrialists, and hence we see policies that push them out of such secure livelihoods or physically displace them from their lands.

All of this is justified in the name of ‘development’ and providing jobs. It is argued that there are simply not enough jobs in rural India, that agriculture cannot sustain India’s rising population. That people willingly leave villages to become workers in cities and industries, and that the youth do not want to remain in ‘primitive’ occupations especially if they are also associated with caste and gender discrimination. These realities cannot be denied. However, these arguments hide a deeper reality: the failure of Indian society and in particular its governments, to tackle these issues at their roots. In any case, what we have seen in the decades since 1991 has been, for the most, ‘jobless growth’, with the formal sector displacing as many jobs through automation as it creates.

Are we doomed to follow the same trajectory, and stumble from one crisis to the next? Today it is COVID, tomorrow it will be another global financial meltdown, day after another pandemic, and for many years to come we will also have so-called ‘natural’ disasters accompanying the climate crisis, which is all-too human-made. Are there no alternatives to help us be better prepared for these, or indeed, avoid them altogether?

This is where community and individual action in many parts of India (and the world) provides us 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 ( These are stories of how people have not only coped, but thrived, in the midst of COVID19, having enough to eat, secure and 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 to of learning their children could enjoy.

In Telangana and Nagaland, the women-run groups Deccan Development Society and North-East Network ensured complete food security for dozens of villages throughout 2020. In Tamil Nadu, Sittilingi panchayat and in Kachchh, Kunariya panchayat, ensured that community health systems were in place to deny COVID any chance of gaining a foothold. In Assam, Farm2Food worked with several thousand students to continue local food growing in schools and communities, and reach relief packages to those in need. In Kolkata, the youth group Pranthakatha created a local neighbourhood safety net for 32 widows who had been forced to beg for a living, and ensured that they had access to food and health services; now some families and organizations want to host these women to look after children. In the western Himalaya, groups like Titli Trust, Birds of Kashmir, CEDAR, and Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust continued nature guide activities with local communities, to build capacity to take on tourism when it returns. Beejotsav Nagpur, the Gurgaon Organic Farmers’ Market, village self-help groups facilitated by Navadarshanam in Tamil Nadu, Mahila Umang Samiti in Uttarakhand, and Samaj Pragati Sahayog in Madhya Pradesh were able to ensure that farm produce reached a (mostly local) consumer base, averting what would have been an economic collapse for thousands of farmers.

Village mapping at Kunariya Panchayat (Kachchh), showing how real self-reliance can be achieved; photo Kunariya Panchayat

The 50-60 stories in this series of compilations build on an even bigger repository ( of over 1000 stories of alternatives that have provided economic, social, political, cultural security while also being ecologically sound. What all of them provide are crucial lessons. The biggest is that local self-reliance for basic needs, and localized exchanges of products and services, are far more effective in securing people’s lives than are long-distance markets and employment opportunities. In the nearly 75 years since Independence, we could have geared economic policies that facilitated and encouraged such self-reliance. Rather than incentivize big industry to take over most production, virtually all household goods and needs – soaps, footwear, furniture, utensils, clothes, energy, even housing, and of course food and drinks – could have been produced in a decentralized manner by thousands of communities. Communities that have diversified in this manner demonstrate that 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 Kachchh told me when I visited in January, “if we can produce most of our household items locally, we not only save the Rs. 40 lakhs we spend every month buying these from outside companies, but we also create full local livelihood security.” Over the last few years Kunariya has built a thriving local governance system, and sustained its economic activity while safeguarding against COVID infections throughout the 2020 lockdown period. 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, not only has government policy not supported such localisation, but the most recent packages ironically labelled ‘atmanirbhar bharat’ (self-reliant India) are actually increasing the control of distant markets and companies over people’s lives, handing over even what can be produced locally by communities to the national and global corporate sector, and increasing ecological damage (e.g. by 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 in their own villages and towns, we saw the visible difference in how the COVID period was dealt with. The same with the examples of community initiatives documented in the ‘Extraordinary Work’ series. But the central and most state government’s COVID recovery plans and budgets continue to compel job-seekers to come back to undignified, insecure jobs … only to lose them again with the fresh COVID wave. 

Another crucial lesson is that local economic self-reliance has to go hand in hand with worker control over the means of production, more direct forms of democracy, and struggles to eliminate casteism and gender discrimination. In central India, communities that have successfully claimed collective legal control over surrounding forests, and mobilized towards adivasi-swasashan (self-rule), survived the COVID lockdown much better than those whose resources and decision-making were still in the hands of the government. In Spiti, as soon as COVID hit, a Committee for Preventive Measures and Sustainable Development was set up by the local communities as an act of self-governance; comprising of all sections of society, it ensured full health safety and encouraged a move towards greater self-reliance in food and livelihoods.

But governments have been most reluctant to enable such political and economic empowerment, because it threatens their power, and their ability to hand over lands and resources to corporations as they please. Only about 3-% of the forest lands that ought to have been in the hands of communities under the Forest Rights Act, 15 years after it was promulgated, have been so recognized. Both the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, meant to empower village and city assemblies, have been only half-heartedly implemented, with governments retaining most financial and all legal powers. The current government has even further centralized powers, for instance by diluting community role in the clearance of projects requiring land, forests and water.

There is nothing ‘smart’ about an economy that promotes mass vulnerability to shocks and crises – unless you are a corporate giant intent on making short-term profits and making sure you have enough businesses and homes in other countries to run away to if it gets too troublesome here. But for the rest of us, social strife will only get worse as discontent amongst unemployed farmers, workers, and youth rises, ecological catastrophes claim more lives and livelihoods, and India continues to slip in global rankings of hunger, democratic freedoms, and life satisfaction.

Many millions don’t want to go back to insecure, undignified jobs in cities and industrial zones, if they could be enabled to get livelihoods in their villages and towns. Alternative pathways that provide full food and livelihood security while sustaining our ecological base are available, and have been demonstrated to work in the COVID crisis. A national network to promote dignified livelihoods, Vikalp Sutra, has been initiated, and can be supported. There is much that can be done … but are we listening?

Ashish Kothari, the author, is with Kalpavriksh, Pune.

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