Whatever the origin of the novel coronavirus — the jury is still out on whether it jumped from bats or escaped from a lab in Wuhan — one thing is undisputed. The rapidity of its spread, and its transformation from a site-specific infection to a pandemic, was largely due to globalisation. It got a rollicking good ride around the world in the frenetic movement of people and materials that has been part of the last few decades of ‘development’.
But this is not the only link between globalisation and Covid-19. As serious is the fact that the worldwide movement of products, investment and finance has seriously weakened the ability of governments and communities to cope with crises. Global trade agreements and the power of mega-corporations make it very difficult for most nations to restrict hazardous ‘goods’, or to enact and implement policies to protect the health of their citizens. Global economic forces also make the majority of people live precarious lives, subject to loss of livelihood if market conditions suddenly change, or if the ecosystems and natural resources they depend on are snatched away, or if trade itself ceases, as has happened with the pandemic.
Add to this, the routine ecological havoc caused by all that fuels globalisation – mining, transportation, power generation, plastic and toxic waste, and pollution – and the close connection between such destruction and disease, impoverishment, and the loss of livelihoods becomes clearer.
Now throw into this heady mix the tendency to increase State surveillance and authoritarian tendencies as nation-states (backed by or backing corporations) enter into cutthroat competition and seek ever new resources to get a comparative edge, and you have what the world is facing now: A rapid fall into an abyss of conflict, ecological collapse, inequality and ill-being.
What 30 years of reforms in India did
Let’s home in on India, which is ‘celebrating’ the 30th anniversary of the economic reforms that ushered it into the era of globalisation. There is, of course, no celebration going on, given the country is in the middle of its worst health and economic crisis since Independence. But this is not purely a coincidence. These 30 years have actually helped set the stage for such crises, and unless there is rapid and radical course correction, we will have to confront many more and worse crises in the future.
In 2012, we published Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, which analysed, in great detail, the economic, ecological, and socio-cultural impacts of 20 years of globalisation. We showed how macro-economic policies that favoured integration into a global economy rather than domestic self-reliance greatly enhanced the entry of private corporations (domestic and foreign), and relaxed crucial environmental, land, labour and other safeguards in the name of ‘reducing red tape’, had a massive negative impact on the most vulnerable sections of India and its environment. We analysed masses of data (mostly from official sources), pointing to how globalised development was decreasing economic security for millions of people, pushing even relatively self-reliant communities into a growing, debilitating dependence on government and markets. We showed the impacts in various sectors, including agriculture and allied occupations (farming, fisheries, pastoralism, forestry), crafts, and small-scale manufacturing.
What Manmohan Singh started 30 years back as then finance minister, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking forward with much colder precision. Since 2014, both economic and political measures have increased insecurity amongst the working classes and other vulnerable sections of society, and ecologically destructive projects have been cleared rapidly. The Nicobar and Lakshadweep islands are being proposed for mega-commercial development, with scant regard for their ecological fragility and uniqueness, or local communities.
The disastrous effect
The public health sector has been systematically neglected, with allocation to it remaining around 1 per cent of the total budget. India ranks at 179 out of 189 countries on prioritisation of health in the government budget. One horrendous result of this is its ongoing inability to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, especially the second wave in April-June 2021. Increasing privatisation has also taken healthcare out of reach of the majority. According to Oxfam, an astounding 6.3 crore people are pushed into poverty due to healthcare costs every year.
Agriculture, on which over 60 per cent of India continues to depend for a livelihood, has also received either neglect, or hostility in the form of the forcible imposition of corporate control. This includes the promulgation of three laws on agriculture in the middle of the pandemic in 2020, which led to the country’s largest-ever farmer occupation of the streets around Delhi, still going on after seven months.
Additionally, in the guise of boosting the possibilities of economic recovery from the pandemic-induced recession, labour laws were diluted in many parts of the country. Ten states brought about changes in their labour laws, primarily in The Factories Act, 1948, The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, and The Labour Laws Act, 1988. This has allowed employers to reduce the bargaining power of workers, keep wages down, arbitrarily increase the length of the working day, aggravate precocity of employment and impose penalties for striking, and so on. According to the Azim Premji University, 23 crore Indians have been pushed into poverty in 2020, due to economic lockdowns and other impacts of the pandemic.
Mumbai’s Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy reports that the unemployment rate is as high as 13 per cent of the workforce in June 2021. The cumulative loss of non-farm jobs due to the lockdown during the second Covid wave is a staggering 2.5 crore; about a third of them are not expected to get their jobs back.
In 1991, India was ranked 123 on the Human Development Index; in 2020, it had slipped to 131. On the Global Hunger Index, it ranks 94 out of 107 countries, slipping down from a rank of 65 out of 84 countries in 2009.
These numbers all point to one thing.
Inequality has worsened and become pervasive, with the richest 10 per cent holding 77 per cent of all wealth. Jobless growth, an unremedied, chronic feature of globalised development, has mutated into ‘job-loss’ growth, the ‘recovery’ (insofar as it is real) insufficient to absorb the unemployed, under-employed, and the youth entering the workforce for the first time.
Covid lockdowns have meant a sharply rising unemployment rate and a decline in the labour force participation rate, especially for women. According to World Bank data released in June 2020, India’s female labour force participation rate fell to 20.3 per cent in 2020, from 30 per cent in 1990. India has fallen 28 places in the 2021 Gender Gap Index, ranking 140 out of 156 countries.
“Women were seven times more likely to lose work during the nationwide lockdown, and, conditional on losing work, eleven times more likely to not return to work, compared to men,” an Azim Premji University study found. As one would expect, this is having adverse effects on incomes in the rural economy. This comes on the back of the fact that women were already underpaid before the pandemic.
Oxfam’s 2020 India Inequality Report claims that women and girls put in 3.26 billion hours of unpaid care work every day in India, equivalent to contributing Rs 19 lakh crore a year to the Indian economy.
A new path
In Churning the Earth, we also wrote about how the ideology of ‘developmentality’ on which economic globalisation is based, has led to a steady erosion of democratic freedoms. Already we were seeing signs of intolerance towards dissent in the Congress era, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has taken that to new depths. For instance, 96 per cent of sedition cases filed since 2010 for criticising the government are during the BJP rule. Particularly shameful is how even old and medically vulnerable dissenters like Stan Swamy have been incarcerated in the middle of a raging pandemic.
All of the above is due to the logic of developmentality, with globalisation being its most seductive and dangerous form. However much the Indian State talks of ‘sustainability’ and ‘inclusion’ in its rhetoric, it cannot possibly integrate meaningful ecological sensitivity nor genuine democracy into this ideology. Such objectives can only be met with a radical, fundamental transformation away from both capitalism and Statism (and the structures of masculinism, casteism that have been greatly reinforced by these). Fortunately, such systemic alternatives do exist, and are being practised in thousands of places in India and other parts of the world.
In the Covid period, it is communities that have sustained or revived their collective spirit (while dealing with internal inequities), and who have gained control over their means of production (land, forests, water, seeds, tools) that survived the pandemic much better than others. In a series called ‘Extraordinary Work of Ordinary People: Beyond Pandemics and Lockdowns’, the Vikalp Sangam platform has documented 60 such stories. Women farmers, youth, adivasis, and many other ‘marginalised’ sections of society have taken a lead in creating community resilience to manage their health, food, and livelihood security in this period.
These initiatives across India provide crucial lessons on how a more just and sustainable India can be reached through localised production and exchange for basic needs, greater equity and social justice, and the regeneration and conservation of nature.
The year 2021 could have been a great year to shake off three decades of ‘slavery’ to the rapacious global economy, and forge new pathways of self-reliance for the next 30 years and beyond — the real ‘aatmanirbharta’. With the governments not willing to listen for the most part, it is up to communities, people’s movements, civil society groups, along with sensitive officials and politicians within the system, to forge the way.
Ashish is with Kalpavriksh, Pune. He tweets @chikikothari. Aseem teaches Ecosophy at Ashoka University. They are co-authors of ‘Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India’. Views are personal.