The Art of Getting by – COVID-19 and Self-reliance

By Abhijit Dey, Arunima SikderonJan. 29, 2022in Economics and Technologies

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

‘Let’s have a thought experiment! One fine morning you wake up, only to find that all types of monetary transactions have stalled. All economic activities just succumbed and money stopped rolling. Will humanity, as we know it, survive? Will it be a doomsday but of a different kind?’
Confused and amazed at the sheer unworldliness of the proposition, we replied, ‘you are setting up a plot of a dystopian Hollywood flick, Sir!’

Things had changed and settled back again, but the entire episode of the pandemic and lockdown still takes us back to this conversation years ago.

He, our statistics teacher, who was also an economist, laughed, claimed his royalty on that potential
movie plot (don’t forget, he was an economist!), and ‘professed’, ‘an anarchy will engulf the urban economy as we know it today. But village life will continue with a barter economy and may also be on credit where people still know each other and value the individuals. And the Jarawas will continue with life as it is.’

Now while going through the third wave with sporadic lockdown here and there, reminds us of the lockdown that had been slammed upon the country for the first time. While the economy at the national level took a nosedive and countless migrant workers drenched the national highways with their blood, sweat, and tears to find a way back ‘home’ – the thought experiment of our college days didn’t seem to be other-worldly anymore.

In fact, in the villages of rural India, a few alternatives were blooming here and there and we ‘heard’ one such story of hope in the midst of despair.

In mid-April, 2020, after a few days of imposed lockdown, feeling sorry, anxious, worried – we called up Alam, one of our acquaintances, in Dongajora village of South of 24 Parganas, West Bengal – a tiny, quaint village, bordering the Sundarbans delta, where mangroves first show up.

Mangrove forests surrounding the Dongajora village in Sunderbans, Photo credit: Manas Mukul Pal

Alam – a fourteen-year-old energetic chap – a ‘boatboy’, a fisher, and most importantly a self-taught bird enthusiast who assists tourist-birders to spot and click, and takes other tourists for a boat ride. Anticipating zero tourist activity due to lockdown, we called him to know how they were surviving the current conditions and if we could help.

We still remember the excitement in Alam’s voice. It was quite startling! When the news of the lockdown hit the village, everyone was shaken, perplexed. ‘How will they survive now if all their livelihood activities come to a halt’ – this was the question at everyone’s face. But then, within few days, things started to change and Alam unfolded the story of their resilience with much pride. He was happy and still amazed by the unexpected prospect offered by the lockdown.

Paddy and vegetable farming, and fishing in the rivers and ponds are the primary sources of income in Alam’s village along with a few other basic occupations. He described how the entire village switched to a barter economy after sustaining an initial upheaval – just as my stats teacher had predicted.

A fisherman in Sunderbans, out for work in his ‘Dinghi’ (boat), Photo credit: Authors

Though the demand for vegetables and fish from nearby towns persisted, transportation was the primary challenge, as it was difficult to get fuel for the motorized rickshaw-vans. The cogwheel of the economy had got jammed!

But astonishingly, a mix of barter plus credit system emerged as the saviour.

Farmers exchanged vegetables with fishers, and both offered their produce to rickshaw-van pullers on credit of free rides in the future. Households with cattle arranged for milk, whereas hen and duck owners provided eggs. Even the relatively well-off handful of kirana shop owners agreed to barter their stored rice and other cereals. The entire village worked as one community – as if a ‘superorganism’. This particular state of economics in this village has reminded me the idea of ‘swaraj’ – one of the core ideas propagated by Mahatma Gandhi while visualizing an independent India.

Well, we are neither experts on Gandhian philosophy, nor economists, but what we understand of the ‘swaraj’ is that it cannot be achieved without a self-sustaining model of the economy, without inculcating inter-personal relationships between the individual members of a community – the ‘social capital’ as we’ve termed it.

As Dr. Aseem Shrivastava, an economist and ecological thinker, has put it, without “finite, face-to-face neighborhood assemblies … swaraj cannot function.” It is much more than mere democracy.

It has to do with individuals and communities making their own choices rather than surrendering to the choices made by others / the corporate world for them or passively accepting the options they have been brainwashed with.

The ‘self-governance’ that Gandhi had spoken about is not only a political agenda but also a psychological struggle, where an individual transcends her or himself for the service of the community and in the process carves out a self-reliant system – becoming truly ‘atmanirbhar’ – not dependent on orders for our industrial products and services from abroad, as our PM often pitches so vigorously.

We are more than aware of the impacts of the lockdown by now but maybe in a few pockets of India, or someone may prefer ‘Bharat’ to emphasize rural India – the economy took a different path altogether. As and when the choices force-fed by the invisible hands of the market got relaxed, communities forged their own way.

As a democratic state, the Government’s cardinal duty should be to provide structural arrangements at the policy level and nudge for it politically, socially at the local level. In a truly self-reliant India – Atmanirbhar Bharat – we may not have to witness the reserve army of struggling, impoverished, choiceless migrant workers, as most of them will be able to have a meaningful life in which they can hold on to their values and strive for realizing their aspirations in their own villages.

This example of the Dongajora village that has moulded itself almost overnight may have caveats. But it is not impossible that it may evolve into a more equitable and efficient system, given enough space and opportunity. However, one thing is clear – change is possible. The reified globalized model of the economy is not the ultimate.

There are many such inspiring stories, teeming with hope, scattered throughout India. When our PM addressed the nation with Unlock 1.0, he might have given a clarion call for a radical change in the economic structure with his mantras like ‘vocal for local’, but the stimulus package announced to revitalize the country’s economy, and the majority of the policies are hardly in line with the spirit of the PM’s words.

Mere industrialization alienates the product from the producer, individuals from social relations, the soul from the body, turns livelihoods into ‘deadlihoods’. What the state needs to do is to acknowledge the other possibilities and revive the gravitas in rural livelihoods.

The COVID-19 lockdown had ‘exposed’ this possibility of a decentralized, self-sustaining village-based economic model. But the state, moreover the mainstream economic worldview, are carefully feign ignorant of that possibility. Although the juggernaut of corpocracy is always running amuck to crush alternatives, these seeds of hope dare to germinate by cracking the concrete!


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