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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 39, September 20, 2014

Revisiting Development and Social Justice Agenda

Monday 22 September 2014, by Bharat Dogra

These are difficult times for social activists in India. These are also times when an honest appraisal of previous work—achievements as well as limitations—is needed, as also fresh thinking about the challenges ahead.

India has a rich and diverse heritage of social activism which continues today despite many adversities and setbacks. There are many senior activists who have spent their entire adult life in this work. They have many achievements to their credit but despite this, today they find themselves confronting not only many difficulties but also uncertainties about the path ahead.

Several small and significant battles have been won. These have not only contributed much to giving relief to various threatened people and communities; in addition these have also helped to improve laws and policies in significant ways. Despite this, on the whole, the overall situation in the country in the context of all the critical indicators is not good today. Whether we look at the objectives of equality, justice for most vulnerable people and communities, social harmony, protection of environment, prospects of sustainable livelihoods, security of women, protection of other forms of life and species, threat of irreversible damage like climate change, overall prospects of internal and external peace—in all these respects the situation is either deteriorating or else very worrying trends are visible.

As a part of this overall deterioration, several activists face more difficult prospects also in the smaller areas of their own activism—whether their efforts are for land reforms, or for stopping destructive projects or checking displacement or ensuring communal harmony.

These two factors taken together as well as less tolerance of diverse viewpoints and accompanying repression have made the challenges facing social activists more difficult.

However the need for honest and dedicated social activists was never so acute as it is today. Today the world is faced by serious threats such as climate change and GM crops which are irreversible and can endanger life-giving systems on earth as never before. Most unfortunate is the fact that the 21st century is witnessing the most violent attacks based on religious and related identities. Such developments in a world with huge stocks of weapons of mass destruction are most worrying. So the agenda for peace and environment protection now has acquired more urgency than ever before, while the need for equality and justice is also increasing given the trends of increasing inequalities in recent times.

So there is no doubt at all about the need for even stronger and more broad-based social activism than before. There is also at least some room for optimism. Look at how quickly the situation in the greater part of Latin America changed and many countries, which had experienced extremely unjust and repressive policies, soon elected pro-people governments committed to equality and justice (sometimes only in a relative sense, but nevertheless the change was significant).

So there is no room for despondency. The need of the hour is more determined and better planned work for creating conditions of a better, more equal, just, sustainable and protective world. More specifically, social activists should try to achieve two objectives.

Firstly, a comprehensive agenda should be worked out bringing together the basic objectives of meeting the needs of all in sustainable ways, protection of livelihoods, social as well economic equality (including gender equality), justice, peace, protection of environment and protection of all forms of life. The inter-relationships of all these objectives should be kept in view so that objectives and policies are mutually consistent, and the synergy of various movements can be brought together on the basis of these relationships.

Of course such tasks have been attempted in the past, but these have not been adequately comprehensive and participative. Also important questions should be faced such as whether such an agenda is compatible with capitalism or not. If not, then reasons must be given and alternative systems like socialism should be spelled out. Integration of domestic policies with international needs has also to be worked out.

Secondly, and not just later but also side by side, the greatest possible unity for such an agenda has to be built, breaking down many artificial barriers and differences. Worldwide solidarity for such efforts being made in India or elsewhere should be attempted.

These are difficult tasks but not impossible. It is only by achieving such wider solidarity and understanding that various numerous smaller struggles can also become stronger and also acquire more depth in their local efforts as well. Only such wider efforts can create conditions in which more people, specifically the younger generation, can continue to join. All this requires not just hard work, work of greater dedication and commitment, but also humility and tolerance for other viewpoints.

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.