In recent decades, the world has become more interconnected than ever before. An unprecedented movement of goods, money and information across great distances has been celebrated as the triumph of globalisation. But there is also a dark underbelly to these networked flows on a grand scale.
The rapacious nature of contemporary economic growth and consumption has meant the dilution of workers rights, a sharp increase in economic inequality and the destruction of ecosystems across the globe. At the same time, many countries have come to suffer from the pernicious political implications of dense connectivity offered by social media and the internet.
The explosive growth of fake news and demagoguery has been highly injurious to the well-being of many democracies. And, as we have all come to viscerally recognise in recent weeks, the shrinking means to effectively maintain distance between people due to global travel is a perfect recipe for a pandemic.
But being connected in a global village does not mean that everyone shares a common fate. While the benefits of a networked world are largely harvested by a global elite, the burden is disproportionately shouldered by the poor and the dispossessed. Nowhere has this fact been more strikingly demonstrated in recent days than in the cities of India.
The callous manner with which a nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 24 is yet another indictment of a negligent government. But the hijrat (exodus) of labourers from urban India offers a stark and shameful lesson. As numerous news reports have repeatedly pointed out, for millions of urban poor, the spectre of hunger is a far greater threat than the fear of an illness due to a virus.
More than seven decades after independence, they are unable to sustain themselves in their villages and millions move to work in urban India. But even in the city they only manage to eke out a mere somatic existence. With no financial reserves to fall back on, all it takes is a small misfortune – an accident or an illness – to tip people into destitution. In the normal course of things, such disasters are visited upon individuals and their families but remain invisible to the larger world. It took an unprecedented calamity to give us an undeniable demonstration of the precarious existence of millions of migrants in urban India.
The consequences of the economic choices of the past two decades apart, there have been more long-term, secular aspects of the Indian economy that have contributed to our present dismal state of affairs. Since the 1930s, the debate surrounding India’s economic future has been dominated by two broad ideas – growth driven by industrialisation and an impulse towards urbanisation.
The unstated corollary to this view has been systematic and chronic neglect of the needs of the village. While every government in independent India has been guilty on this count, it has been considered impolite and electorally impolitic to say so. It is for this reason that many still recall the breach of etiquette by former finance minister P. Chidambaram when, in a 2008 interview, he candidly stated that his vision for India was for 85% of its population to live in urban areas.
While admittedly the Indian village is plagued by many ills, it is now undeniably clear that our cities offer no salvation for the poor either. It is in the present context of the implosion of the economy and the resultant devastation faced by millions that one is reminded of a significant dissenter against conventional economic wisdom. In recent days, as hunger stalks the land, Gandhi’s talisman of thinking of the last individual has been invoked by a number of commentators. But the ethical principle of antyodaya extended beyond compassion for a fellow human. Gandhi and his colleague, the economic philosopher and environmental thinker J. C. Kumarappa, argued that it was imperative to orient society and its economy to address ethical objectives.
Going against the consensus of their time – indeed of ours as well – Gandhi and Kumarappa argued that an economy has to be organised around the needs of the individual and not the other way round. The fundamental challenge was to address the basic needs of people through forms of work that provided a viable livelihood.
Arguing that there was no distinction between economics and ethics, in a famed 1921 response to Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi wrote that “To a people famishing and idle, the only acceptable form in which God can dare appear is work and promise of food as wages”. A century later, this still rings true.
But if the economy was to be made for man, it had to take into account a number of fundamental constraints. Work had to be made available wherever people lived. In Gandhi’s times, this led him to focus on the village. But Gandhi was also acutely aware that the vast reserves of rural unemployed could not be absorbed by agriculture alone. Moreover, if work had to be a means of distributing wealth, it had to afford the poor a participatory role. This was not possible with large-scale or expensive industries which needed large amounts of capital and technical inputs.
These were the reasons for the introduction of khadi and village industries in Gandhi’s economic agenda. Taking this argument further, Kumarappa held that a fundamental problem of the current economic order was that economic production was delinked from consumption. The challenge, then, was to build a localised economy where, for the most part, production and consumption took place within a small region. Apart from being economically more equitable, a local economy would be more resilient to external shocks compared to ones that depended on using resources from distant regions and sold products in far-away markets.
The economic impact of the pandemic is bound to severely affect all classes of our society. But decades of chronic neglect of rural India has meant that it will bear a huge burden in dealing with a crisis that is not of its making. Even without a pandemic, the economy of the Indian village has been in dire straits for a long while. Owing to skewed policy choices and a broken market for their produce, India’s farmers have been in the grip of an unending crisis.
These problems are compounded by water insecurity, poisoning of arable land by pesticides and diminished soil fertility. Now, to make matters worse, the millions who toiled in the cities and helped tide over bad times back home are out of work. Thus, many of the issues that animated Gandhi’s approach to economic questions hold true in our times as well.
In response to his critics, Gandhi had characterised the exploitative relationship between the city and the countryside as “organised violence”. This can be seen to be demonstrably true in the manner in which the lockdown and the subsequent response of the state has simply ignored the existential realities of the millions of workers who have helped build and sustain our cities.
But the current crisis also provides us with an opportunity to build a new order of economic relationships. Apart from addressing the injustices of the past, investing a large proportion of our resources in India’s villages would help stimulate demand and revive the economy along healthier lines. Such an economy would afford the ordinary individual a more equitable share in our fortunes and not be scarred by the monstrous inequalities of our times.
At the same time, one can aim for an economic order that is less harmful to the ecosystems that ultimately sustains all of life and its riches. Addressing these challenges will seriously challenge our societal and political will to do the right thing. Improbable as it may seem under present circumstances, demanding a Green New Deal for rural India is the ethical imperative of our crisis-ridden times.
Venu Madhav Govindu is working on a thematic history of Gandhi in the 1930s.