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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 35, August 15, 2009 (Independence Day Special)

“When the People Lead, the Leaders will Follow”

Wednesday 19 August 2009, by K Saradamoni


This is not a slogan that I have coined. I got it from the write-up on the US Solidarity Economy Network which organised its first National Forum on the Solidarity Economy: Building Another World. The write-up continues:

The current economic crisis provides a historic opportunity to push for an economic system that puts people and planet front and centre. The Solidarity Economy is a growing global movement that is building real world practices and policies grounded in principles of solidarity, equity, participatory democracy and pluralism.

The forum took place between March 19 to 29, 2009 in the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA.

Besides the forum, there are other events taking place on the theme of Building a Society from Below. One such was a panel held in MIT on March 19. Speakers at the panel, supported by the consulates of the Bolivian Republic of Venezuela in Boston and New York, included the eminent Professor Noam Chomsky. These are without doubt encouraged by the changes taking place in the US and the world. The write-up says:

Barack Obama’s election and the Democratic Congressional majority signal new opportunities and challenges in a period when our nation and the world are suffering a series of disastrous wars, the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression and potentially catastrophic environmental degradation, including global warming.

As President Obama’s election demonstrates real change comes from below, from our efforts for greater peace, justice, environmental sustainability. In a new era, we need new movement strategies to stop wars, violent conflicts and to guarantee ourselves and others meaningul security. This requires peace, a dynamic economy and universal access to health care and clean environment.
It has to be repeated that this is a critical moment for peace, justice and environmental movements, a time to organise and lead the Obama Administration and Congress to deliver the changes that we and the world need. Unfortunately, the composition of the Obama Cabinet, other senior appointments and some of his policy commitments are sources of deep concern. President Obama intends to escalate the war in Afghanistan and Central Asia, to increase the size of the US military and to leave tens of thousands ‘residual forces’ in Iraq.His economic stimulus package has been criticised as inadequate and there is much to do to protect the environment. The Obama administration and Congress will deliver some of the changes that we and the world need, but powerful grass roots pressure on the new Administration and Congress will be required if our hopes for change are to be realised.

To provide clear and profound visions, campaigns, movements for change, the American Friends Service Committee, Tufts University Peace and Justice studies Programme and a growing number of co-sponsoring orgamisations have organised “New Strategies for the Obama Era: Are you Ready?“

This New England wide multi-generational movement was held at the weekend from March 27 to 29.

But Solidarity Economy is not limited to certain areas in the US.
While the range of organisations and activities encompassed by the term solidarity economy are the fulfilment of human needs, the breakdown of oppressive economic hierarchies of all types, the development of human potential, and the preservation of communities and the environment, at the core is a transformation of the values that motivate and organise economic activity. The Solidarity economy rejects the individualistic, money and profit centred values of the modern capitalistic eonomy. It recognises that economics is about our relationships to other people and to our environment,and strives to insert values of cooperation, equality, democracy, local community control and sustainability into these relationships. It advocates the expression of these values in the myriad economic decisions people make, from an individual’s decision about what to buy or where to work, to a business’s decisions about what technology to adopt,of how to treat its workers, to public policy choices about how to respond to climate change.

There are four distinct aspects to the interconnected and organic whole that is the Solidarity economy. It is at once a collection of existing economic practices that promote these aims and embody these values; a network of people and organisations engaged in these practices; a theoretical framework for understanding and analysing these practices; and a developing local and global movement that informs and advocates for these practices. As each of these components grows and develops, understanding and strengthening the connections among them will facilitate scaling up initiatives that work, transcending political boundaries, and even challenging neoliberalism.

In the US, there are many practices that strive to embody the Solidarity Economy values. They include fairtrade product marketing, socially responsible investing, and community supported agriculture. However few in this country are familiar with the term “ Solidarity Economy”or how powerfully the term has redefined economic development elsewhere. Worker cooperatives have existed in the US for long, but only recently have they begun to net-work with one another, and to work on expanding the cooperative sector. In 2004, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives was created to bring together local and regional coop organising, develop new cooperatives and offer support services to its members. The federation describes its vision as one in which
workplaces will uphold the values of empowerment, equity, dignity and mutual respect for all workers without discrimination. Workplaces will offer long term, stable jobs, and a living wage and the opportunity for ownership for every worker.

The green jobs movement is also gaining momentum, responding to the twin crises of unemployment and climate change. A number of green jobs groups also incorporate anti-racist, community development, and work place democracy values into their organising.… (From Crisis to Job Creation, Labour and the Solidarity Economy. Dollars and Sense, Massachusetts,
January/February. 2009, pp 15-18)

However the development of the Solidarity Economy is not restricted to the US. Over a decade ago, the Canadian province of Quebec turned to the Solidarity Economy to address a serious unemployment problem.

In Latin America, the Solidarity Economy organisation has been able to create employment opportunities for the poorest of the poor in times of ecnomic crisis. In Argentina, after the dramatic 2001 ecnomic collapse caused by the failure of neoliberal policies, factories closed and capital fled. Over 20 per cent of the population was unemployed, over half was living in poverty. Out of necessity workers in numerous idle factories took control over the means of production. By now over 180 factories have reopened under worker’s control giving jobs to more than ten thousand workers. The Unemployed Workers’ Movement organised to make collective demand on the government food parcels, public infrastructure investments and state funded locally administered jobs. In Brazil, the social movements that were at the core of the opposition to the military dictatorship also spearheaded the development of the Solidarity Economy.

In the 1980s Brazil experienced a currency crisis and hyperinflation as it changed from dictatorship to democracy. This along with the vastly unequal distribution of income and land and all of the problems attendant to a huge informal sector,spurred these movements to pursue an alternative model of employment and economic development.

The Landless Workers’ Movement, the largest Social Movement in Latin America, uses a clause in the new 1988 Constitution to seize land not being used for its social purpose, and to create communities of cooperative farms. The Central Union of Workers, the largest labour federation in Brazil partnered with the Solidarity Economy movement to new cooperatives. Since the Workers’Party has come to power politically, it has also pursued job creation through the Solidarity Economy. In June 2003 President Lula de Silva created the Solidarity Economy National Secretariat within the Employment Ministry to work with, study and support national, regional and local solidarity economy organisations.


WE cannot say that the Solidarity Economy has come to be discussed in our country. We are proud of the fact that we are a democracy, that independent India gave voting rights to all above the age of 21(later changed to 18) regardless of religion or caste, gender or literacy level. The Constitution of India guaranteed to the people, again irrespective of religion, caste, gender or place of living, that is, rural/urban, developed/less developed, equal opportunities to develop and grow. The government of independent India accepted development based on five-year planning, a strong public sector which had under its control all key sectors of the economy. The government was aware of the inequalities persisting in the society which had deep-rooted social and economic reasons. Schemes evolved to tackle them did not lead to any fundamental change in the society. A catastrophe was prevented by agriculture and a very large part of the economy known by many names like traditional, informal, household and unorganised.

But things changed for the worse and that too with great speed in the last two decades. This is the period when the political parties wielding power at the Centre decided to become part of a ‘globalised world’. Many of the earlier policies like non-acceptance of foreign aid with ‘strings attached’ and self-reliance were discarded. In fact foreign capital with conditions stipulated was welcomed. So also was foreign technology at the cost of local R and D. These became easy as, during the past sixty years, especially in the last two, three decades, a new middle class, educated, visible and articulate, who began to consider themselves as world citizens, had grown up. They knowingly and unknowingly became the recipients and propagators of the ideas of globalisation. They did not find anything wrong in the globalisation slogans including leaner government, jobless growth, there is no alternative (TINA). The agents of globalisation successfully spread the idea that it has a human face and that globalisation has a good side, and that we should learn to use it to our advantage. Lack of clarity and/or ignorance about the impact of globalisation is not restricted to this class. Many among those who are seen as progressive or even radical do not take pains to understand the realities surrounding them. When the governments, State or Central, failed to create employment there was not sufficient protest. Many lower level jobs in the government were made contract work, depriving them not only of the security, but all the benefits that went along with secure jobs. These did not happen in the case of the well-paid, status-giving jobs. They get regular pay hype, promotion, paid holidays and pension. However, even such jobs are shrinking. Banks, Insurance, Postal Service and Railways etc., where largescale recruitment used to take place, have diminished fresh intake of employees.

Highly educated people–professionals and others – began to move to countries like Europe, the USA and Australia in search of better opportunities. In fact the students of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) not only left India soon after their education, but many shifted to management after reaching there, and later to the IT sector.

A kind of exodus happened at the lower levels too. Compelled mainly by the absence of employment opportunities the young and even the middle-aged, who had a job in India, searched for jobs mainly in the Middle Eastern countries. In recent years inter-state migration, especially of young men between the age of 16 or 17 to 25 or so, has increased in a big way. Collapse of agriculture and all the traditional occupations have shaken the living arrangements especially of the poor in most parts of India. Though there is legislation to safeguard the interests of the inter-state migrants, there life is far from satisfactory. They live in unhealthy conditions. Neither the agents who recruit them nor their employers care about their living conditions including food, medical aid, hours of work, rest and entertainment which are all necessary for them, especially in places far away from home. Those who are engaged in works like road construction can be seen working at odd hours at night.

Like everywhere else this largescale migration was compelled by loss of earlier occupations and lack of new employment generation. Though employment, especially in the Middle Eastern countries, was welcomed and was presented as a success story, all was not well for all. People got used to do ‘any work’ in places far away from home. There was also a view locally that this migration resulted in a rise in the costs for everything from carpenter and similar skilled workers to taxi drivers.

IN our search for the “people” who are to “lead” let me take the readers to Kerala in southern India which many within and outside consider as a “model”. The main reasons for this qualification included a sex ratio favourable to women, high female literacy rate, low infant mortality rate. Over the years many more attributes have been added. Today the State is seen as progressive, modern, and alive with a highly educated and politically charged people. But are they moving towards the Solidarity Economy or creating a new society from below? Leaving aside my earlier researches, observations and critical comments, I am putting down what I read, saw and heard at a time when the elections for the Lower House of the Parliament or Lok Sabha took place. Practically every television channel arranged debates between the main contestants and the voters. The views and hopes of the former were also featured in the newspapers. Naturally development became a favourite subject, and it turned around widening of roads, railways, drinking water, and other needs of the region. However, the inequalities the society is experiencing, and how this divide is affecting the society did not appear as a serious matter in election debates. Like elsewhere Kerala too is a haven for consumer goods which cater to the middle class with plenty of disposable money. The markets, which are flooded with newer goods every day, are seen even by those who have no money. A new life-style, which the people of the State had never known, gets accepted with the moneyed. A greed for money, it can be made by any way (with no qualms about honesty or morality), has been absorbed into the value system. While there is government sanction for the construction of hugely expensive houses by the moneyed, a section of the poor finds a way to make money, not in the skilled and unskilled jobs that are necessary for that purpose. This construction also creates a new breed of people who are better known as the ‘mafia’. They are there in the areas of real estate, demolition of sturdy and beautiful old-style houses, extracting sand from river beds, illegal cutting of trees—all of them resulting in huge depletion of natural resources and creating grave environmental problems. There are many other new ways of making money. There are regular newspaper reports giving details of individuals and groups cheating or robbing ordinary, often ignorant, people, promising to get them attractive jobs abroad, or double or treble their savings by investing in ‘reliable’ financial enterprises. Then, there are the sex rackets using women and children who may get a pittance when compared to the ‘entrpreneurs’ minting money.

The story can go on endlessly. Who among the above “people” can lead the leaders? No fresh enquiry is needed to prove that these people have been trapped by the illusionary world the corporate powers have set up. Of course there are people who are outside the world we have seen above, women and men who have nothing but problems, and no way to resolve them. They face oppression, exclusion and often have no means of livelihood. They are sometimes driven away from the place, people and works they have known. In this State where there are families and women and men who can claim five, six generations of education behind them, we can find families where even the present children find it difficult to complete primary classes. The same disparity can be found in having secure jobs with high salaries and positions. This can be extended to levels and style of living. It is better not to speak about the aspirations among the youth of the two categories of people. What they see and get attracted to are the ever increasing high-rise buildings, as against the slums immortalised by the cinema the Slumdog Millionaire, the new shopping complexes and the display of goods of all kinds that can be bought there, whether it be jewellery, made of silver, gold, diamonds or platinum, clothes, footwear, eatables of all sorts, toys and every other possible item. There are also the serials and the cinema to give people ideas about life. They are different from the olden days where the good-looking heroine and the hero went round and round the bush singing melodious songs or dancing in beautiful gardens. Many of the present-day movies/serials have an overdose of violence, abusive language, villains who have a number of goondas at their beck and call to kill the enemy and destroy her/his property and other assets, and even life. One can see from beginning to end scheming, manoeuvring and deviousness in human relationships. And there are the never-ending reality shows for everyone, from the tiny-tots to the grandparents. The prizes one can dream range from huge amounts of money, jewellery, flat or villa. What sort of people and society can we expect from such surroundings?

If we consider that the most deprived and despised have to “lead”, fundamental changes will have to be made at many levels including among the progressive sections who think about social change. The government’s ideas of the deprived as poor divided into Above Poverty Line (APL) and Below Poverty Line (BPL) have to be changed. The widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of security in work and wages/earnings, opportunities gained and lost, educational levels and entry into political offices have to be studied. In this process the people have also to be involved.This is not an easy task in a society which has not freed itself from a hierarchical past. That does not mean that it is not impossible. There are individuals and groups working against globalisation and its manifestations which include conversion of small farming into contract farming for the benefit of foreign and Indian corporate powers, GM seeds, Special Economic Zones etc. These may be generating some employment, but large numbers are left out, and women and men working there do not have any security neither in terms of employment, assured wages and hope for a better life.

The word Alternative was heard occasionally in the election speeches by speakers from the Left political parties. But nobody has spelled out what Alternatives can be adopted here, especially in the context of the present global economic crisis. True, some speakers—very few—have said that the present Government of India have made the rich richer and the poor poorer. The news that there are some Indians among the richest in the world was a cause of celebration for the media. There are millions in the world and India who not only sleep under the sky, but with empty stomachs. The questions before us is: why is this so, and should it be allowed to continue? If our convinced answer is “no”, we have to chalk out ways and means of ending it. It is time that an honest attempt at a relook into all policies and programmes meant for the ‘upliftment of the poor’ is made. They are to get minimum wages which they often do not get; minimum levels of living; their children are forced to study in ill-eqipped poor schools. I am reminded of something that happened during the apartheid rule in South Africa. In a school run by the Dutch Reformed Church, the school authority who was also the local priest and very powerful asked the teachers not to let the students see the grass in the distant area as they could never be able to graze there. The Solidarity Economy, as I understand, upholds that one person’s or group’s success and gains depend upon the person or group closeby. That is how cooperatives and networking of cooperatives become important.

IN the Indian context we can start with the resurrection of agriculture. Agriculture does not limit itself to the cultivation of grains and pulses, vegetables and fruits but includes cattle rearing, poultry, fishery, bee-keeping, forestry, irrigation, rejuvenation of the soil, manufacturing and maintenance of essential implements. If started and continued with honesty, commitment and earnestness, this can generate largescale employment. Agriculture can take us to an economic and social order which is not individualistic in nature. On the contrary it entails cooperation, mutual support and collective action. At present all that we hear about Indian agriculture are farmers’ suicide, lack of labourers in time and the high wages they demand. The answers to them from the government side are loan waiver, insurance, and other ‘packages’. These have not so far changed the situation for the farmers or raised their confidence about their contribution to the society and the nation’s economy.

Along with agriculture we have to restore the ‘traditional’ industries including weaving, carpet- making, arts and crafts in various places famous for these products. They are not to be seen as ‘traditional, household activities, unorganised’ etc. The women and men engaged in these activities are not to be seen as poor and marginalised or destitute. They have kept alive the generations-old skill and knowledge, which we can say about the farmers and the agricultural labourers too. What we refuse to acknowledge is that what they have got in return is sheer neglect.

There are crucial questions which need to be sorted out immediately. How is their work evaluated? How are the prices fixed for their products? If we are serious about reducing poverty, it cannot be gained by ‘gifts, and charity’. Poverty has to be seen along with inequality, employment generation and also wages/salaries/ incomes at different levels. The present policies of the government are far from that. But if the country is to outlive the global economic crisis and satisfy people’s desire to have a secure life free from the present anxieties, tensions and tendency to put an end to life,we have to examine the notions that have been floated till now and made the people accept as development. While in many of the international fora environmental degradation, climate change and global warming are accepted as top priority in development, here they are not raised as important issues by the parties, leaders or the people themselves.

Wide roads filled with cars, flyovers, flats and villas, shopping complexes currently known as malls, new eating houses catering non-local food, etc. (the list goes on and on) are also seen as development by the elites. While railway to Sabari Mala, a famous temple in the Western Ghats attracting huge numbers of pilgrims over a fragile mountain area, is demanded by all, improvement in public transport never comes up for discussion. It is not that people do not want it as we can see large numbers of women and men waiting for hours after work in public and private offices. So also footpaths free of open pot holes, waste from construction material dumped here and there. Surprisingly, food security, price rise, lack of employment, the possibility of largescale returnees, especially from the Middle Eastern countries, do not come up as immediate issues to be tackled. Garbage cleaning remaining an impossible task its serious consequences to health unfortunately escapes the attention they demand.

The political leadership and concerned social activists have failed to educate the people at the lower strata that it is their fundamental human right to have clean air and water, and also the wherewithals to have a decent and secure life. These will become part of their thought process only when they are disillusioned with the make-belief world in which they are caught. For that to happen they should know about viable alternatives which would come to them not as ‘benefits’ and ‘gifts’, but as the rights so far denied to them and something they can help create.

This, I wish to repeat, is not easy at present in our country. We are yet to see strong, grassroot movements like the Unemployment Workers’ Organisations, legislations like the one in Latin American countries which says that land, if not used for its social purpose, would be taken over. Loud and consistent critique of the individualistic, money and profit oriented economy as well as the weakening bonds between people within families and among communities are also absent. It is for the concerned citizens, social activists and all those who want to see a peaceful, harmonious and contented India to make the people realise their rights and roles and the treachery hiding behind the attractions the neo-liberal economy offers.

The author is a renowned economist and concerned social activist based in Thiruvananthapuram.

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