Wishes for a new world – 1

April 18, 2020
Mahesh Bhat
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Unequal World. This image is symbolic of the gross inequality that we have subjected our fellow humans to. This inequality is the reason for all our problems. Foreground isn’t a slum, it’s the village that has been around even before electronics city came up.

Many of my posts on social media on the current situation  have been met with questions such as, “Do you have better solution?” – No I don’t have a solution for this problem other than saying we could planned better, avoided the panic and mitigated the economic devastation. My answer can well be – “I didn’t create the problem? did I?” .. A lot has been written about the current issue, hence I thought of writing a series of essays on what a future would look for. Not because a pandemic has hit us, but we must create a better world. This is the first in the series.

“One can get trapped in the immediacy of what is happening and feel despondent. That is why one needs to step back and see this in the context of history and macro trends. In Macro history – patterns are no unidirectional but often cyclic – even Indian Macro historians and our seers conceived of cyclical patterns rather than the linear preferences of the west. So – we do not know when the reversal will take place, but it will. We can facilitate it, which is what we do at the Micro level – and we must also take cognisance of the deeper attractor of our society – what we are seeing is not who we are. That is what I believe and that is the source of my hope for a better future.” – Sudhir Desai, Strategic Systems Designer, Futurist.

Sometime in 2007, post the publication of the first volume of UNSUNG, I was nominated me for consideration for an International fellowship. Selected Fellows were be taken to the US, all expenses paid and the organisation would arrange meetings with whoever the Fellows wanted to meet (other than the senior most members of the US administration). The aim was to encourage the emerging social leaders and help them build networks. During the selection interview, I told the members of the committee that if selected, I wanted to study the rising conflict amongst us – conflict for land, water, language, religion. Conflict between nature and human beings…. They were a bit perplexed that I did not want to meet photographers and people from related fields. I was not even short listed but the I did not stop thinking about the ‘conflicts’. Today it has reached a crescendo.. I wrote this in a blog post in 2014, just before the general elections. Well, the crescendo today is upped into stratospheric levels. We have begin to live in a totally polarised, binary world. So how do we move forward in the post Covid-19 world? This is my wish list. Post Covid is a misnomer – we need to build a better world anyway.

1. Increase spending on public healthcare and hygiene.

India’s spend on public health care is just 1.28-1.3% of our GDP and 5% of Government of India’s total expenditure. Lack of public health professionals, infrastructure and access to good yet inexpensive healthcare has greatly diminished our ability to build a healthy society. There is a great need to increase the awareness about  personal and community hygiene. These efforts are almost completely absent now. This lacunae is glaring at us at the current times. I read this in the latest issue of Down to Earth magazine “APPOINTED UNDER the National Rural Health Mission, an ASHA worker is a trained community health worker, who is responsible for 43 functions, right from administering medicines to drug-resistant TB patients, to distributing an ORS (oral rehydration solution) packet. They exist even in areas where government health facilities are non-existent. Yet, they are the worst paid and get less than a daily wager. They receive specific remuneration for each of the functions, such as R300 for institutional delivery, R150 for family planning and R100 for immunisation rounds. But even this payment is erratic. In several states, ASHA workers rue that wages are pending for up to two years. Fromto time, they have resorted to agitations, demanding disbursal of dues, a fixed salary as per the labour laws, and social security benefits, such as provident fund and old-age pension. “These are particularly important as most ASHA workers are widows or belong to socially weaker sections,” says A R Sindhu, general secretary, All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers. “Even though the government has assured that they will receive R1,000 for their participation in the fight against coronavirus, they are losing out on other remunerations as they are not able to conduct their regular functions. While they are in the front line of the battle without any protective equipment or training, it is not clear if the government will bear medical expenses in case they fall ill.”
The entire issue can be downloaded as a pdf here. 

Consider this – 17 of the 100 richest Indians are running pharma companies/healthcare! while millions of people don’t have access to inexpensive and good healthcare.

I live in a village about 35Km North West of the city centre of Bangalore. Nearest market is at a village (which is trying hard to become a small town) Hesaraghatta, I see people in masks but garbage is piling up and sewage flows openly. I have personally tried to get the panchayat to act on the increasing garbage problem several times. But no one listened.

India’s spend on defence is about 15% of the Government expenditure. I have worked in war zones of Srilanka and conflict ridden borders of India, I believe that the idea of ‘national security’ – that of military forces armed to teeth guarding borders and keep the country safe from enemies, is essentially an illusion. It is a myth propagated by the military industrial complex. Our idea of national security is fuelled by the visuals fed to us via movies where heroic soldiers fight and win over the enemy against all odds. We get goose bumps sitting in the comfort of our homes. Life in war zones/conflict zones is nothing but difficult. These areas are dark and layered. No one can be trusted, nothing can be believed that easily. Imagine living in such places for years and decades. War is a dirty business. And it consumes vast resources that could be used for welfare measures. We need  to talk to our neighbours and bring down the perceived threat levels. We need to dismantle the military industrial complex. Money saved can be used elsewhere.

There needs to be high quality primary healthcare centres all across the country – both in urban and rural areas. Professionals who work in these centres need to be paid well. Educating the populace on hygiene is most important. How do we make sure that our sewage is treated properly, how can it be reused? How can it not keep polluting our rivers and oceans? How can we process our garbage? How can we reduce the accumulation of garbage? These are questions we will need to find answers to sooner, perhaps with the same verve as trying to find vaccines.

The Rural Health Initiative, set up by Lalitha & Regi George a shining example of how we can deliver better healthcare to the poor.

2. Our  education system is broken.

Most of the government schools are in pathetic condition. They get very little money. The primary school in my village has 17 students and used to get Rs.10-12,000 per year from the government to run the school. It’s apparently doubled this year, yet minuscule. We might say that India has a pretty good private education system. We do have IITs, IIMs. We have private universities, but most of these are very very expensive and out of reach of many. Our higher education system is broken too – it produces people who follow orders but not conceptual and critical thinkers.

I had an opportunity to interact with students of a top management institution a few years ago. I was rather taken aback by their fatalistic attitude – nothing will change was their thought process, as they were hurrying to go to the interviews at campus placements. Most of them had taken student loans and paying them back quickly was on their minds with the help of a high paying job. Teachers across the educational spectrum need to be paid well, very well. We need practitioners to teach actively in higher education, not just PhDs. We need to help our students find their voice, but before that we need to tell them that they have a voice, that it matters and that it can bring about the changes we badly need.

A government school in Tonto village, Keonjhar district, Orissa. This school shared it’s compound wall with an open cast iron mine! This picture was made in 2007.

 

3. We need to make our villages economically independent

India lives in villages. Elections are won and lost with rural votes. Nevertheless successive governments have done very little for our villages. Most villages have no healthcare facilities, schools, roads, potable water, sewage disposal facilities, etc. Most panchayats are filled with corrupt members who pocket the money released for developmental activities. We need to realise Gandhiji’s vision of ‘gram swaraj’ – economically independent villages. Please read  the story of Rangaswamy Elango who has shown that it can be done, he stands out like a shining star, a beacon of hope.

Rangaswamy Elango

4. Environment – most important. We must, must preserve our forests, grasslands, wetlands, rivers and mountains. A small percentage of India’s land mass is protected under forest and environmental law. If we cannot manage our developmental activities in the rest of the area available, isn’t there something drastically wrong with us? All of us have to question our government’s planned ‘developmental’ projects in biodiversity hotspots. By now we know 60% of the contagions are zoonotic, we cannot let the destruction of the forests go unabated. Unless we act now our future is bleak, let alone that of our children. Over 17 ‘developmental’ projects are set to destroy over 2 million trees in the Western Ghats alone. We must stop this mindless destruction. Without forests humans cannot flourish, without us forests will. Without forests and other natural spaces, we will run out of water – the next contagion may well originate from the Western Ghats.

5. Reduce or eliminate agrarian distress – We have seen today in front of our eyes what kind of a raw deal farmers get. Again this is not new – they have been suffering for a long, long time, it is so much more evident now as they are struggling to find a market for their produce and trying to keep their body and soul together. I read a farmer’s post in a group on Facebook – he was wondering that if society and government don’t help them, maybe they should grow food only for themselves. Though the idea may be far-fetched to realise, what we should be really really wary of is corporatisation of farming. Large companies moving into the distressed farm lands/villages and taking over large tracts of land. (For more on this – please listen to or read P Sainath). We certainly need to reduce our dependence on chemical heavy farming and move towards organic. We need to advise our farmers to grow crops that are suitable for the area, soil, water conditions, etc. And most importantly help them find the right market and good prices.

Narayana Reddy, the great organic farmer showed us that organic farming and simple/minimalistic life can help making farming profitable and succesful

 

I wrote this in a blog post in 2014 (Click here to read the post) “The only ways to mitigate global conflicts are by providing good education, health care, sanitation and infrastructure at minimal cost to global youth. It can come about by caring and preserving nature and natural resources, bringing about a serious change in the agricultural sector (in India at least) and changing our definition of success! The status quo must be changed. It is easier said than done. Perhaps it is easier for leaders of nations to sanction military options and buy arms than to provide the nation what is really necessary.

Good education, healthcare, preserving our environment, easing farmers distress – none of this can happen if capitalism as it exists continues. I had written this last year – “Over the last few decades conflicts have increased exponentially across the world – environmental, economic, religious, linguistic – in every facet of life. Nearly 8 billion of us are crowding the earth and these conflicts are threatening to cause major devastation in the near to mid term future. What could be the reason?”

As Noam Chomsky says “In a way, all of this explains the economic devastation produced by contemporary capitalism that you underscore in your question above. Really existing capitalism – RECD for short (pronounced “wrecked”) – is radically incompatible with democracy. It seems to me unlikely that civilization can survive really existing capitalism and the sharply attenuated democracy that goes along with it. Could functioning democracy make a difference? Consideration of non-existent systems can only be speculative, but I think there’s some reason to think so. Really existing capitalism is a human creation, and can be changed or replaced.

Deepa Mondal. I photographed her in Orissa several years ago. She used to live with less than Rs.15 per day.

It’s a fact that today just 1% of earth’s population has cornered 90% of the wealth. This coupled with our tunnel visioned definition of success, has pushed the growth of RECD through the stratosphere and spawned a frenetic race to garner wealth. It feels as if the entire world is chasing a mirage. This phenomenon has placed enormous and unsustainable pressure on our resources – water, air, soil and minerals. Hence when the basis/fundamentals of our society today seems to be unsustainable, how do we find sustainability in any of the elements? According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, one percentage of global economic slowdown pushes poverty levels by 2 percent. This means the pandemic will leave 14 million new poor in the world. How will we reduce this economic inequality?

As mentioned, war and conflict zones are very dark and layered. You don’t know who or what you can trust. Today the entire world is a conflict zone, not because of the current pandemic, but because of ravaging capitalism. Political leaders and the media are using the metaphor of war to fight this virus. Wars don’t heal, they cause more distress. The world has only gotten darker and conflicts have only increased.

Many organisations, governments and individuals spend most of their time in doing things that are important and urgent – aka fire fighting. We have to move to the quadrant of important but not urgent. That’s when we will start working towards helping ourselves.

There are no simple answers. None of the 5 points I have written are new, nor can they be realised without a sustained, honest and active involvement of citizens. As Edward Snowden says, “this is not a bolt out of the blue, this could have been anticipated and prevented… I hope we can be vigilant now onwards… He also said that decisions that we make in this juncture will last for a long time…

Nothing could be more true.

 

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