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Imagining a sane economy

Imagining a sane economy

The Living Stream

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Last Updated : 29 June 2024, 22:24 IST
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Discussions of reviving India’s democracy tend to focus on the ways of widening the appeal of constitutional ideals and of a social ethos that is accepting of the country’s religious diversity. The task of building democracy in India though will be incomplete if it does not reimagine the dominant vision of development.

Here’s an instance of how the dominant vision of development works. When political figures promise to address unemployment through job creation, they usually think of inviting investments from abroad or from big Indian business houses to set up new production units. Are the infrastructure and design standards of these new units ecologically sound? Will they recruit workers themselves even at the lower rungs, and not through manpower agencies who take a big cut from their salaries and hardly offer them health or work security? Such questions often go missing in global investor meets.

The policy obsession with “shifting the surplus population” from villages to cities is yet another sample of the dominant development model. The reasoning behind this view usually goes thus: since agriculture’s share of the GDP is slipping, rural youth must be given skill training and absorbed in the expanding cities. This smug logic presumes many things: that agricultural incomes can never improve, that rural youth are willing to become plumbers and electricians in cities, that cities will only grow and grow. A robust policy commitment to rebuilding the rural economy alongside providing good quality school and hospital services in rural and tribal areas will show each one of these presumptions to be false.

Ensuring that rural and tribal livelihoods remain economically viable is a saner way of addressing the unemployment problem than to uproot youth from their families and communities and then find them employment in already congested cities. An ignorance about the sophisticated knowledge and skills behind farming, artisanal work and forest-based occupations alone helps explain why the urban-bred, city-based planners view rural and tribal youth as people in need of skilling. In thrall of capital-intensive and new technology-led economic growth, these planners devise policies for the entire country or state. The unwisdom of this top-down planning approach as well as of their development models in the massively diverse socio-economic universe of India has been called out for decades, but in vain.

A development model for Karnataka, for instance, cannot be arrived at without district by district – if not taluk by taluk -- consultations with a cross-section of locally engaged individuals: the agro-ecological and cultural variation within the state is such. Responsible men and women from across various occupations with a keen sense of local problems and of constructive remedial measures should be invited to participate. A deliberative process of this kind is absolutely essential to help understand what the local people want. There might be differences among them, of course, but considerations of fairness and ecological wisdom should help work through them. If in the interests of supporting local livelihoods and minimizing energy expenditure, the government commits to securing most of the daily needs of people of a district from within that region, this commitment can then help navigate these differences.

The Karnataka Milk Federation (KMF), a co-operative of dairy producers founded in the mid-70s by the state’s Ministry of Co-operation, enabled lakhs of rural households across the state to supplement their incomes by selling milk. This means of finding additional incomes did not disrupt their sense of a meaningful life. The KMF is living illustration of the viability of well-managed co-operatives with the autonomy to make newer and newer milk-based products.

Local co-operatives in other areas -- millet crops, healthy food items, craft wooden, iron, clay and paper products, handwoven fabric, to name only a few that will be welcomed by those who care for healthy goods and for revitalizing the lives and skills of local farmer and craft communities. Initiatives like these and others which value local skills, build respectful ties among local producers and buyers and promote ecologically kind practices point at a new moral ethos that we should all help create.

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