Prime Minister Modi in his speech to the nation on May 12, 2020, invoked the concept of self-reliance; a way out of the Corona virus crisis for India. “Eshopanth,” he called it; the only way out, of what appears to many, asa possible dead end. 20 lakh crores, 10 percent of India’s GDP, the ability to produce all the PPEs and N95 masks needed, is how Mr. Modi defined the scale of the problem. But what of the human dimension of the peoples’ predicament wherein they are unable to continue to stay where they have habitually earned a living, and unable to reach where they can be assured of basic food and shelter. What does national self-reliance mean, if not the capacity of the government to anticipate the consequences of its hastily formulated policies and the peoples’ confidence in the fact that when individual and family efforts are not commensurate with the social conditions, the State will take matters into its own hands, as it does in times of natural disasters.
When was the last time a government dealt with the human dimension of a comparable problem? Images of people walking across the subcontinent, with their meagre belongings, on their heads, in 1947, come to mind. We may have found an easy scapegoat in the then departing British government’s indifference to the human dimensions of displaced populations’ needs. It is unclear whether the then incoming Indian government (or the Pakistani government, for that matter) did much planning for these mass exoduses in opposite directions. That human tragedy took place nearly 75 years ago. Since then India has built an extensive network of roads and rail lines between major cities. Alas these roads and rail lines were designed for trucks and trains carrying cargo from production centres to consumers everywhere, not for people to walk long distances, even in a once-in-a-lifetime emergency.
The PM’s speech had two distinct and perhaps contradictory messages. On the one hand, commentators have underscored the themes of India’s economic self-sufficiency, grasping at keywords like “vibrant demography,” and “quantum rather than incremental change”. This audience is heartened by thefact that commitments made to international alliances will be respected in the post pandemic world. The World Bank has already agreed to a loan to India to tide over these cataclysmic times.
The other theme that the PM spoke of can be detected in concepts rarely discussed in political discourse: manav kendrit, vasudhara kutumbh and vishva-kalyan. Taken together, these concepts of human centric growth, rather than capital generating growth; an eco-centric global family of beings that while extracting the resources of the earth also simultaneously replenishes the environment; and lastly, global welfare, rather than competitive national interests, are the tenets of an alternative model of economics called degrowth. Recently a group of eminent economists, sociologists and futurists worldwide have issued a call for a “political economy of degrowth” arguing that if we as a civilization are to circumvent the ravages of late capitalism and to reverse the diseases of hyper individualism through collective action, we have to reverse course.
In other words, the PM is concurrently promising both accelerated growth and degrowth in order to build a movement of self-reliance, sustainability and human welfare in the post pandemic world. If his comment on the “mazdoor ke paseene ki khushboo” is to be anything other than a cruel joke at the expense of migrant labour trekking for hundreds of kilometers just to be able to get two square meals a day for the foreseeable future, let us resolve to hold the PM accountable for these promises. We should pay homage not just to the brawn but also the brains of our citizens. We need a knowledge economy, not just an economy of goods and services.
If after 50+ days of the lockdown, there is no clear plan for how the migrant labour-force and the dependent families will return to the cities, let us demand that such a plan be submitted as soon as possible. If there is a strategy for decongesting the cities as the degrowth agenda stipulates, let us hear of newly created employment and leisure opportunities in the villages and small towns of India. Please show us what the housing and mass transport geographies for this degrowth plan looks like. What would this transformation toward the manav kendrit economy mean for the semi-skilled construction worker who sleeps at the construction site and moves from one assignment to another; the domestic worker who adjusts her needs and family obligations to the lifestyle of the middle-class family of two professional adults and school going kids, that she works for?
What does a daily wage-earning rickshaw puller understand of the smooth operations of the demand-supply chakra and his role in these unrelenting processes? Free market forces introduced to India some 30 years ago, only considered the economic factors of vikas. The ecological, psychological and sociological impact of development in India remains to be calibrated for the PM’s vision of India leading the way for vishwakalyan. All that the workers of the informal economy gather from Mr. Modi’s speech, if they had a chance to hear it, are catch phrases like sanskriti and sanskar that, to their way of thinking, signal that to be atmanirbhar is to rely on God and appease Him by through prayer, mantras and ancient rituals. They do not even dare imagine what human rights, dignity, and work-life balance they are entitled to in a self-sufficient, modern India that Mr. Modi plans to build from the ashes of this pandemic.
By: Poonam Arora
Ph.D., has until recently been a professor in the Humanities, focusing on the liberal arts. She is now a Delhi based writer. She can be reached at [email protected] (The views expressed are personal of the author, who retains the copyright)