What we essentially need is a community-based, businesslike approach encompassing grassroots action, policy advocacy and everything in between
The covid-19 pandemic is a human tragedy of Biblical proportions which has caused an explosion of infections and massive destruction of livelihoods. Tragically, the outbreak has also revealed that our societies and economies have been operating on a very thin margin. The edifice seemed so shiny; with jets stitching together gleaming cities, a world of soaring markets and industrial empires. But a couple of months into the contagion and it all began tottering. The jets were grounded, the cities went silent and one industry after another headed for bankruptcy. However successful our world may have seemed, it wasn’t very sturdy. Our systems and society seem to be very fragile, exploding the myths of a robust and resilient order.
The greatest learning is that our current economic models do not benefit everyone equally. This is particularly true for rural societies. To combat this we will have to contend with the almost universal suspicion of our grand political schemes. While we do need plans and systems, we also need mutual accountability. Before we have the entire apparatus in place — the economic plumbing — we must understand more concretely what such a strategy means to the people it is meant to serve, who know best their own problems and also have relevant and sustainable solutions for them.
Tackling the problems of the disprivileged requires a fundamentally-different approach: One that starts with the people themselves and encourages initiative, creativity and drive from below. This principle must be at the core of any strategy that hopes to transform their lives; only then it can be lasting and meaningful.
Approaches to rural development that respect the inherent capabilities of the people who live in rural areas and systematically build on their experience, have a reasonable chance of improving their lives. This can include enhancing their capacities to mobilise and manage resources effectively. If people can be given the support they need to build their own democracies in their own ways, they can do the rest themselves. In doing so, they will not only move their own communities, they will also take the world with them.
This is because local leadership is critical to driving ownership of social programmes. We need to hire individuals with the entrepreneurialism and drive to create change on the ground. You can’t solve the problems of the “last mile” from the headquarters. It takes local entrepreneurs, empowered to adapt easily to the nuances of local cultures to succeed. This approach has to be guided by local wisdom and must show a deep appreciation of ground realities.
We need to develop more inclusive policies to ensure that rural development is made socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. Inclusive rural transformation can be promoted through people-centered development in which beneficiaries become agents of their own development, participating in designing, decision-making and execution of the processes. Moreover, the strategies for inclusive transformation have to be context-specific, building on local solutions which best address local challenges.
Such solutions may require adaptation over time. People will not actively and emotionally participate in an intervention unless it has relevance to their lives and their strengths. When communities take charge of projects, they also contribute through their labour and commitment and engage actively with the system to ensure that projects are completed on time.
We need to invest in developing local leaders who are typically under-acknowledged and under-supported so we are able to effectively engage with popular movements, community-based organisations and grassroots activist groups that are close to locals. We have to constantly navigate existing unjust, broken systems while at the same time reimagining them
Since local entrepreneurs know the community dynamics and power relationships, they are well-attuned to handling the actors in the local ecosystem. Their potential to drive change is tremendous, but they often lack opportunities for training and education and are unable to access networks and finance. Yet they are an essential part of society and often don’t receive the credit they deserve as policy drivers and implementers in India’s challenging developmental space.
There has also been a failure of agricultural strategy which needs reappraisal. Food crops have gradually been abandoned in favour of cash crops which are more profitable but are also highly water intensive. The high yielding variety (HYV) seeds which entered Indian fields during the Green Revolution were less resistant to droughts and floods and needed delicate management of water, insecticides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers.
These crops also attract more pests, forcing farmers to apply chemical pesticides to save them. So, every year the farmer had to spend more to grow such crops. Typically the commercial seeds had to be purchased year after year, and farmers could not reuse seeds from their crop, with seed manufacturing giants filing lawsuits against small farmers who did so. It became a perpetual treadmill. Families faced crippling healthcare costs, crop failures, loss of income and debt, all directly related to pesticides. The overuse of chemical fertilisers for augmenting yields in the short term led to physical and chemical degradation of the soil by altering the natural microflora and increasing soil salinity and alkalinity. Higher yields and profits in the short-term have come at a huge socio-ecological cost such as biodiversity loss, environmental pollution, land degradation, increased damage from climate change, infusion of toxic elements into the food chain from chemical residue applied in the crop field leading to decline in human health and livelihood and the erosion of agricultural expertise.
Formerly, societies might have depend upon 200 to 300 crops for food and health security but gradually we have come to the stage of four or five important crops: wheat, corn, rice and soybean. This homogenisation increases profitability for a handful of owners, to the detriment of everyone else.
The cultivation of indigenous and heritage crops has the potential to make agriculture genetically diverse, sustainable and resilient to climate variability. Indigenous landraces have evolved in the region over thousands of years of agrarian practice and have relied on fungicides, organic fertilisers and pesticides prepared from locally available materials. The Green Revolution introduced newer methods of cultivation; brought in new strains of seeds generated through modern methods of plant breeding which gave high yields; intensified the use of fossil fuel fertilisers; increased acreage through double cropping; used pesticides and mechanical equipment extensively and massively; and drilled into groundwater reserves through deep borewells.
Native heirloom seeds adapted to local diets and conditions were replaced by expensive corporate-produced hybrids, often dumped in India after having failed elsewhere. Although the new high-performance varieties guaranteed high yields, they degraded soil quality, harmed biodiversity, polluted the environment and irreversibly damaged human health.
The pandemic will hopefully help farmers to take conscious decisions and shift gradually to sustainable practices, rather than changing things hurriedly by following the instruction given by seed or pesticide companies through extension workers, dealers, or the labels on the packaging of crop inputs. They will use their own experience or knowledge acquired through experimentation rather than relying on hearsay or advertising, when buying inputs (for example seeds and fertiliseers).
The pandemic has already underlined the need for them to come up with context-specific solutions for ecologically sustainable agriculture. We hope farmers will apply their own knowledge of ecology, soil fertility management, seed preservation and pest management which they used to rely on before the advent of conventional agriculture.
There are many lessons to be brought to the table from field experience. We need to understand the existing human conditions rather than hastily proposing templates that serve the interests of the owners. Experts need to combine their knowledge with grassroots action and a wider community of practice. The incredibly evolving and complicated ecosystem requires better collaboration and partnerships for understanding, analysing, designing solutions and for undertaking impact studies to contribute to the wider knowledge pool within. We have to usher a culture where farmers can apply their own knowledge and skills rather than being expected to follow what the external agencies are prescribing.
There is need for integration of an entire gamut of resources, ranging from financial and human to markets and entitlements. When we address these issues empathetically, we can move ahead with a more self-assured, robust and proactive engagement towards inclusive growth and livelihood development. What we essentially need is a community-based, businesslike approach encompassing grassroots action, policy advocacy and everything in between.
(The writer is a well-known development professional of international repute. The views expressed are personal.)