Pallav Das – It has been thirty years since India began liberalizing its economy due to a balance of payment crisis in 1991. While there is too much hype in the media about the advancement made by the country in this period, the reality is alarmingly different. The Indian cities are severely polluted, the ecology is under phenomenal stress, and climate change is steadily altering the established weather patterns, uprooting and devastating communities in its wake. Realizing that the people’s democratic right to viable living conditions is under a severe threat, resistance is crystalizing all over the country to challenge this dysfunctional model of development. At the same time people have also begun exploring alternative ways of being and living, which can challenge the orthodoxy of neoliberalism.
A significant new initiative called “Vikalp Sangam” or the “Confluence of Alternatives” (www.vikalpsangam.org) was launched in 2014 to document and coordinate the search for an alternative developmental model, and create opportunities for grassroots experiments to network and exchange ideas through regional and issue-based platforms.
In the last seven years, the Vikalp Sangam initiative has established an active website for dissemination of news and views on the “alternatives” issues and practices, and has also held eighteen regional and subject specific conclaves to bring thinkers and practitioners together to learn from each other. These conclaves have examined a whole range of endeavors: sustainable agriculture and pastoralism, renewable energy, decentralized governance, community health, craft and art revival, multiple sexualities, inclusion of the differently abled, alternative learning and education, community-based conservation, decentralized water management, urban sustainability, gender and caste equality, and more. The Vikalp Sangam process is aiming to develop a conceptual framework of transformative alternatives exploring new possibilities of democratic existence, and also conduct societal experiments on alternative economies and technologies.
Alternative politics: Initiatives and approaches towards people-centered governance and decision-making, including forms of direct democracy or the Gandhian idea of swaraj (self rule) in urban and rural areas, linkages of these to each other in larger landscapes, re-imagining current political boundaries to make them more compatible with ecological and cultural contiguities, promotion of the non-party political process, methods of increasing accountability and transparency of the government and of political parties, and progressive policy frameworks.
Alternative economies & technologies: These are initiatives that help to create alternatives to the dominant neo-liberal or state-dominated economy and the ‘logic’ of growth, such as localization and decentralization of basic needs towards self-reliance, respect to and support of diverse livelihoods, producer and consumer collectives, local currencies and trade, non-monetized and equal exchange and the gift economy, production based on ecological principles, innovative technologies that respect ecological and cultural integrity, and moving away from GDP-like indicators of well-being to more qualitative, human-scale ones.
The Vikalp Sangam process is rooted in concrete experiments taking place all over India, and the following two examples give an idea of the alternative political and economic framework emerging in the country:
MENDHA LEKHA – a commons based political initiative of an indigenous community in Central India
The extractive pressures of India’s neo-liberal economy destroying the Indian heartland where its indigenous people live, and these communities are desperately looking for alternatives. In 2009, India adopted the ‘Forests Rights Act’ recognizing community rights over forests. Following this, Mendha Lekha an indigenous village in Gadchiroli district in the state of Maharashtra was able to take over the management of minor forest produce (particularly bamboo), water harvesting in the forests, as well as organizing income generating projects, there. The village council ensures hundred percent employment, and every working adult gets work according to his or her capability. Women have an equal stake in the new power dynamic and form fifty percent of all management committees. Also, there are strict term limitations for serving on committees, and people are selected instead of being elected to them.
In a unique grassroots political move, the residents of Mendha Lekha decided to transfer the ownership of their farmlands to the Village Council in 2014 – a total of 200 ha belonging to 52 families. The Gond tribal community of this area considers land as a community resource and not as individual property. This has resonance in the revolutionary concept of the ‘commons’ (air, water, forests etc.) but goes a step further because it organizes cultivable land into collective ownership, which helps deflect any pressure from outside on an individual owner to sell their land for commercial purposes. Even though the erstwhile owners cultivate most of the land in Mendha Lekha, decisions about its use are taken collectively, ensuring that individual owners are not tempted to sell to the land sharks operating in the tribal region.
The Mendha Lekha experiment has empowered the local community to craft an existence independent of the market forces. It allows them to use their surrounding resources to create a need-based economy, which is ecologically sound and socio-politically egalitarian. But, their political experiment is not devoid of complications. As the tribal hinterland became vulnerable to the exploitative pressures from the newly liberalized Indian economy, an ultra-left rebellion against the state also gained ground owing to the disaffection and alienation of the local communities from the developmental process.
As would be expected, the people of Mendha Lekha have found themselves in the crosshair of, both, the rebels and the state. The ultra left loathes the success of the indigenous community’s initiative because it emerges out of a convergence of their traditional management of forest resources, and a state sponsored policy like the Forests Rights Act. Espousing a top down model of decision-making, the ultra-left, obviously, wants to thwart initiatives, which seek to transfer power at the local level. Consequently, to discourage any possibility of its replication, the rebels came down hard on the Mendha Lekha initiative: the community leaders and local officials were threatened, publicly humiliated in “people’s courts” and even kidnapped for the crime of being “the agents of the state”.
On the other hand, the state started having second thoughts on ‘community forest rights’ under the Forests Rights Act (FRA) as it was surprised by the move to put the village land under collective ownership. It asked the Village Councils to pass a resolution to reinstate the Joint Forest Management Committees, which in fact had been made redundant by FRA. This move would have prevented the villages from taking independent decisions regarding the management of their forests, a right, which they had struggled long and hard to get. Given the immense pressures from all sides, it’s not surprising that building on the Mendha Lekha model of decentralization of power in India has been somewhat sporadic and minimal. But, there are positives there, too.
The experiment at Mendha Lekha is a significant intervention in grassroots resource management politics as the village community was able to use the Forests Rights Act to access its immediate natural resource of the bamboo forests. The community, however, went beyond the limited scope of a state sponsored policy initiative and decided to transfer the ownership of their farmlands to the village council, thus underscoring the power imperative of its intervention.
MALKHA INITIATIVE- a decentralized, field to fabric cotton textile chain
The mechanized textile industry has reached a dead end in India. It is the third worst of the loan defaulting industries in the country and its entire lifecycle is a story of human misery and environmental degradation. Malkha is a cotton textile initiative in south India built around the handloom mill, which is collectively owned and managed by the primary producers and emerging as a viable alternative to the textile industry.
Under British colonialism when the Indian artisan lost out to the imported mill made cloth, the Indian farmer too was compelled to abandon local cotton varieties for the long-stapled American cotton, which was stronger and was more suited to machine processing. But being a non-native variety it could neither resist local pests nor could it withstand droughts. In fact, it required high amount of irrigation and larger input costs, but the farmer also had no safety net if the crop failed. In recent years, mono cropping and the intense use of pesticides have left farmers’ lands poisoned and unsuited for farming. Consequent impoverishment and indebtedness have often resulted in farmers’ suicides.
The Malkha initiative is an attempt at reversing this history, and attaining economic democracy in the process. In a strategic move, the fabrics are woven from cotton grown by small farmers close to the handlooms, making the entire textile chain village based. Consequently, weavers don’t have to migrate to urban ghettos and are able to practice their traditional skills at home. Also, newly designed machines being used now for manufacturing have brought down the process to a human scale. Also, local varieties of cotton require less irrigation and other inputs, and are traditionally intercropped with pulses, helping maintain the nutrient levels of the soil. Socially and politically, the reemergence of the strong link between farming and local textile production creates a new sense of political empowerment in the community.
Previously, 60 to 70 percent of the actual cost of mill-made cotton was owed to its transport to and from the mill. By bringing production closer home, the process has become economically profitable, apart from being ecologically sustainable.
The Malkha process eliminates mills and middlemen and distributes the profits amongst the artisans directly and ultimately aspires to put all aspects of production, including management, in the hands of the producers, the people who do the actual work, achieving true democracy in production. Unlike the corporate model, where almost the entire cadre of top executives is drawn from the elite sectors of society, the Malkha model can be run and managed by people who do not have access to expensive education, or who do not come from a privileged or business background.
The Malkha experiment exemplifies a model for economic democracy – it’s environmentally sound, it’s a scale down from heavy industrial processes, it takes decision making away from the elite, and it successfully enacts an alternative to the modern growth based development. With its ability to ensure all the benefits of dispersed production and distributed returns, the Malkha initiative allows for an ecologically sensible rural industry which could ultimately form an alternative to a capital intensive industry which is now stagnant and worn out.
Grassroots political initiatives in India are beginning to recognize that the current political structure is frozen, and controlled by free-market orthodoxy. It will change only if confronted by practical explorations of alternatives as undertaken by the Vikalp Sangam process. A new political dispensation has to be ecologically sustainable and socially equitable, and a beginning has been made in India by efforts, which ensure that every person and community is empowered to be part of that decision making process.