Covid-19 has pushed the world into a pervasive crisis encompassing every aspect of human life. With the passage of time, the trade-off between saving lives and saving livelihoods has grown starker.
This article attempts to relate the present crisis to the Gandhian way of thinking to arrive at some concrete take-homes.
- The most fearsome feature of this pandemic is its uncertainty: from the symptoms and their absence to the possibility of its return with a vengeance, and the serious after-effects on the ‘recovered’ cases.
- It is time to introspect about the wrongs we have committed as ‘civilized’ inhabitants of the earth which makes our ways of living so precarious, inequitable and unsustainable today.
Gandhi and the Pandemic
- Beginning with the containment of wants, Gandhian economics, grounded on the premises of non-violence, truth and non-covetousness (Aparigraha/not possessing), is instantly antithetical to mainstream economics.
- It is based on the principle of dignity of labour, self-sufficient and strong village economy and public trusteeship.
- It offers an integrated view of managing economy, polity and society harmoniously. Gandhian thought can provide some critical insights during this exercise in introspection.
How is Gandhiji relevant in this pandemic?
(1) Gandhian principles
- Non-violence: Squeezing wages and exploiting workers is also equivalent to violence. Creating circumstances that force people to migrate because of poverty might amount to violence at a societal level.
- Non-possession: Unequal landholding is a manifestation of greed, which was sought to be corrected through the Bhoodan movement by Gandhiji’s illustrious disciple, Vinoba Bhave.
- Self-sufficient villages: Gandhiji wanted to reverse this by making village communities stronger and self-sufficient.
- Social empowerment: Empowering villages through a benevolent Jajmani system was his idea of nurturing the roots of India that lived mostly in villages.
Note: Jajmani system or Yajman system was an economic system most notably found in villages of India in which lower castes performed various functions for upper castes and received grain or other goods in return.
(2) Opposition for automated production
- Gandhiji’s ideas about the choice of technology have been much debated. He was not against industries.
- He was proponent of the key idea for optimally using the local resources and skills.
(3) Trusteeship and community ownership
- Industries would be necessary for progress, and they would have to make profit in order to survive.
- But again, the profits belong to the society, that provided every possible resource to an industrialist, who is therefore a mere trustee of this wealth. It becomes his obligation to look after the needs of the society.
- Using profit towards larger social good, which is the crux of Corporate Social Responsibility, can be traced back to Gandhiji’s idea of Trusteeship.
The current pandemic has paved the way for the possibility of a social experimentation based on Gandhian ideology, and there are several grounds to justify this position:
(a) Changing Consumption Pattern
- The pattern of consumption has changed significantly especially since the lockdown.
- Studies have noted a substantial reduction in ‘discretionary’ or conspicuous consumption (meaning luxuries goods consumption has declined).
- Consumers are less blinded by the ‘brand value’ and are increasingly alert about distinguishing between essential and non-essential consumption due to financial viability.
- Preferences are shifting to natural and herbal remedies.
- However, there are studies of higher incidence of substance abuse, alcoholism, anxiety and depression, and on the other, innovative and creative ways are being devised to make home-stay more bearable.
(b) Changing Patterns of Production
- As the world grapples with the problem of fragmentation of the supply chain, the necessity to restart in whatever manner possible, producers may be forced to relocate their sources of supply.
- There is a trend towards the relocation of GVC (Global Value Chain) in favour of greater use of local skills and materials.
- Compelled by the pressures of circumstance we might redevelop production systems of the kind that Gandhiji advocated strongly to promote self-sufficiency.
(c) Empathy towards the Deprived
- The migrants reaching their home States in large exodus has been a heart-wrenching story.
- The State did arrange Shramik trains to ensure safe return, but the role of individuals, NGOs and religious institutions that extended a helping hand so spontaneously cannot be overemphasized.
- If the reverse migrant movement is akin to partition, so is the extent of support and help from various quarters of the society.
- Gandhiji would have not only appreciated this spirit of empathy but would have perhaps succeeded in processing into institution building to sustain it longer.
When the existing patterns of socio-economic systems are shaken, they create a space for a paradigm shift. It is also an opportune time to correct the previous malfunctions of the system. For example:
i. Reducing Rural-Urban Imbalance:
- Providing more jobs in the non-agriculture sector and more so in manufacturing is the need of the hour.
- Promoting agro-based and related commercial activities such as fisheries and food processing can go a long way in providing more opportunities for gainful employment in the rural sector.
- This would be a step in the Gandhian direction.
ii. Domestic Violence and the Gender Issue:
- It is well-recorded that there is an increase in violent, abusive, impulsive, compulsive, and controlling behavior and aggression towards women during the period of economic hardships.
- Studies suggest an astonishing rise in the harassment of women behind closed doors.
- This has justified the term ‘parallel pandemic’ to domestic violence, underlining the dark gender impact of the pandemic, but they have also brought out the issue of gender disparity and the disenfranchisement of women in a manner that can no longer be overlooked.
(d) Treatment to the Reverse Migrants
- States which have had pressure for accommodating reverse migrants now have an opportunity to deploy their expertise at home.
- These States can use this experienced labour force to work on improving infrastructure, building industrial estates, setting up new MSMEs, etc. to attract more business.
- As for migrants with experience of running tiny or home-based businesses, it is possible to bring them together into clusters to form co-operatives.
- Co-operatives are important because they facilitate decentralization of the process of growth, which is Gandhian in spirit.
(e) Urban Development
- Covid-19 has emphasized the need for cleanliness and hygiene like never before.
- It has compelled the urban local bodies to improve and expand their health services.
- Ignoring hygiene or treating it as welfare or a charitable act is not going to help because these are necessary for everyone’s survival now.
- In a way, ensuring decent living conditions, which is implicit in the dignity of labour, is thrust upon us as a need for survival.
(f) Decent Wages and the Covid Allowance
- States from where the migrant workers have moved out have had to raise wages due to a severe shortage of labour.
- They do echo the need to treat workers with dignity through intervention in the Ahmedabad textile strike to negotiate in the issue of plague allowance.
(g) Environmental Concerns
- Lockdown reportedly reduced air and water pollution substantially.
- It would be up to us to maintain it with as much caution as possible.
- Gandhiji has been the conscience-keeper of our country.
- This onslaught of circumstances calls for an alternative way of managing human affairs and revisiting Gandhi.
- It is high time we follow his advice as he would have given us if he were alive.
- Any attempt to engage in greater sustainability is Gandhian in spirit because it can be achieved only by rising above the baser instincts of greed, violence and petty self-importance.
- In a truly Gandhian perspective, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals can be seen as an integrated vision stemming from a peaceful and harmonious coexistence of all.
- The pandemic has opened up opportunities to tweak our ways of living on this planet in a wiser and more compassionate way.
- The choices we make now can have long-term effects on our well-being.