Address by Meera Gond-Vankar to the Vikalp Mahasangam 10, held simultaneously in 30 locations across South Asia, winter of 2100
Welcome to the Vikalp Mahasangam 10, the first time we are organising a confluence at 30 different locations in South Asia, where thousands of you working on the most exciting initiatives to sustain justice have gathered. Firstly, my compliments and thanks to the incredible team of communicators which has made this possible through the plurinet, the decentralised system that replaced the centrally controlled internet of the first half of the century that just passed.
I feel blessed that even as I speak in my language, it is being transmitted in over 300 languages with the help of volunteers from the pluriversities that I will speak about a bit later. I am also deeply honoured that I was chosen to put together this brief account of the transformations that have taken place in the last few decades, based on inputs that came in from countless amongst you who have lived through them. I have tried to be faithful to what I got from you, but inevitably there will be interpretations and mistakes which are mine. There will be many more narratives of this journey out there, and may they all flourish!
I also apologise that when I refer to years or decades in this narrative, I am using the Gregorian calendar. Though fortunately the diversity of calendars and time maps, and indeed of the concept of time, has been increasingly accepted across the world, many of us have grown up using this one as our reference point (even though in my own case, my ancestors used different ones). I hope that you will find easy ways to convert the time periods I use into calendars and time maps of your own liking and convenience.
Those of you who are old enough to have gone through the upheavals in the mid-21st century will remember that we walked through fire. Various kinds of inequities and injustices, ecological collapse, and much else that some of us would like to forget, had peaked by the 2030s to 50s. It was a slow climb out of that quagmire created by the combination of capitalism, statism, fascism, patriarchy, casteism, human-centrism and other structural forces. But climb we did, clinging onto the many but scattered and small initiatives that went against the tide, building on those through networks and solidarity, collectively envisioning better futures.
It is the last few decades that have seen us move resolutely, though not without hiccups, towards equity, justice, ecological wisdom, sustainability, and peace, and all that is associated with these great transformations.
One major source of inequality (economic, social, political), and of unsustainability, the private and state ownership of land, is on the way out.
In the early decades of the 21st century, some communities like Mendha-Lekha in central India took the revolutionary step of placing all agricultural land into the village commons, while reclaiming their collective rights to forests, water, and grazing land from state ownership. I still remember the story of this event recounted to me by my maternal grandparents, who were from this region.
The positive impact this had on their economic and social lives, spurred others to take similar steps. Quickest were adivasi and indigenous areas, which in any case traditionally had more collective ownership or custodianship patterns; non-adivasi agricultural communities took longer to change; and urban areas were the ones with maximum struggle, and where the transformation is still not complete.
Family ownership of homes has remained stubbornly resistant to change, but along with other sources of wealth, there is increasing discussion on the need to do away with their inheritance along family lines. In any case, with a far greater degree of equity in other spheres of life, including economic democratisation, and with values of sharing and equality being on the ascendance, wealth inequalities with personal inheritance as a major bulwark are now far easier to question.
In a revolutionary transformation from what it was a century ago, and in sync with the re-commoning of land (and other natural resources), the economy has become considerably democratised.
Movements resisting the power of private corporations and the nation-state over economic activities, especially of workers in various sectors, led the way. There was a long period in which workers’ unions, especially those linked to political parties, were not the transformative force they could have been, and much of the unorganised or informal sector workforce was left out.
However, new kinds of worker organisations including unions of waste-pickers, forest workers, fish-workers, and those from industries and mines who revived the approach of people like Shankar Guha Niyogi of the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh, supported by civil society organisations, gradually brought in a focus on producer control, working conditions, environmental responsibility, gender equality, and remuneration parity. Starting with the waste-pickers and forest workers unions, that displaced corporations and state agencies, the movement to take over production and service facilities took root. is was a long and hard struggle, for owners of capital, big landlords, and agencies controlling other natural resources were not likely to give in so easily, and had the might of the state behind them.
What helped was the combination of resistance and take-over movements with those who were showing alternative forms of production, such as the dozens of producer companies and producer-run cooperatives that sprung up in the first two to three decades of the 21st century, careful not to repeat the mistakes of government-established cooperatives of the previous century. Also helpful was an increasingly vocal consumer movement that realised its interests were in aligning with producers, both moving towards ecologically sensitive and socially just processes, and towards a merger in a transformation of the meaning of “work” as described below.
Economic transformation is also manifested in the way this Mahasangam has been organised. We have not spent a single rupee on the local arrangements across these thirty sites; all inputs have come in the form of barter or time-sharing. Democratising the economy has also meant that the earlier financial hegemony – hegemoney if you allow me a small pun! – of monetary institutions has been replaced by a diversity of local, socially-controlled currencies or non-monetised means of exchange.
The rupee still exists, as you know, but is mainly for exchanges amongst regions, and is without its former anonymous power. The great economic depressions of the early 21st century had already put into place serious questions about the role of centralised financial institutions like banks or finance ministries, and at one stage people finally refused to allow governments to bail them out.
Instead, movements demanded the decentralisation of financial powers and arrangements, including through drastic fiscal reforms, and the creation of localised currencies, and so on. Civil society and communities have also revived or brought in new forms of time sharing to exchange skills and expertise on a non-monetary basis. On that note, let us loudly acknowledge the language volunteers, who are today providing us all the translations to make this address understandable!
Connected to this are the dramatic changes that have taken place in the domain of livelihoods and “work”.
After a period of sharp decline in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, primary sector livelihoods or ways of life (forestry, agriculture, pastoralism, sheries, and so on), and others directly based on nature such as many crafts, began to see a revival. This was partly due to mobilisation by adivasis, small peasants, artisanal fisherfolks, herders, crafts-persons and others, asserting the legitimacy of their livelihoods and their rights to land and other resources, creating several national forums for greater impact.
It was also a result of the work of community organisations and civil society groups that innovated to find livelihood options for the youth amongst these peoples, integrating the best of traditional and new knowledge, creating alternative spaces for learning (such as a series of shalas in Kachchh, which I am proud to say, my paternal grandparents were part of), asserting the crucial place of women in keeping society alive through such livelihoods (such as in the work of the dalit women of Deccan Development Society, or the rural women of Maati Sanghatan and urban women of SWaCH), and linking them to processes of economic democracy that were taking place in various sectors.
Interestingly, there was also a trend of “professionals” in other sectors, such as Information Technology, wanting to move into primary sector occupations; while initially this tended to be disconnected from those traditionally engaged in such occupations, over time it became a process of mutually synergistic learning and support.
Manufacturing and services were significantly decentralised over time, linking with the increasing localisation of the economy and political governance, with large-scale centralised production facilities becoming redundant in most sectors. Workers in modern facilities rebelled against the deadening, assembly line kind of labour they were putting in, with most profits cornered by capitalist owners. They demanded both, greater democratic control over working conditions and revenues, as also kinds and patterns of work that were more “whole” and meaningful. A seamless rural-urban continuum was built on, and reinforced, the possibilities of families being engaged in all sectors of the economy, no longer categorised as simply “primary”, “secondary”, and so on, nor rigidly bound by caste, gender or other such identities.
The changes in “work” would also encompass bringing back relations of affect, caring and sharing to centre-stage in the economy. In the several decades of the 20th and 21st centuries in which capitalism and modernity were ascendant, these relations (between people and nature, between people within communities, between communities, and so on) had been ignored, or sidelined, or replaced by commercial and exploitative relations, or commodified by giving them a monetary value, such as happened with the market-based measures for combating the climate crisis. is was pushed back by feminists and others who highlighted the basic human nature of such relations and their enormous contribution to the sustenance of society as a whole (including economy); and therefore the need to recognise and bring them back where they had been lost or displaced, where necessary in modi ed forms, to shed them of any inequities that may be embedded in them.
As a consequence of the above, we no longer have the 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday routine; rather, “work” happens as part of community life, integrated with enjoyment and leisure in a seamless whole and every individual can be many different kinds of things, taking to new levels Marx’s vision of being a hunter and pastoralist and critic, all at once.
Also, back-breaking, monotonous work has gone; remaining mechanical tasks that are essential for society to function are shared by all those who can perform them. Since there is no space for private accumulation which required labour in assembly line like situations, there is much more time for creative activities like reading, writing, music, dancing, painting and so on, often built into the “work” itself.
All of the above was made much more possible by changes in learning and education, re-instating respect to working with the hands and feet, changing the mindset that divided work and enjoyment, producer and consumer, owner and labourer...and increasing social realisation that “deadlihoods” (destruction of age-old ways of life and their replacement by deadening “jobs”) needed to be replaced again by livelihoods in various forms. We are moving towards operationalising Marx’s vision of “from each according to capacity and to each according to need”.
Excerpted with permission from “Looking Back into the Future: India, South Asia, and the World in 2100”, as reported by Ashish Kothari and KJ Joy, from Alternative Futures: India Unshackled, Edited by Ashish Kothari and KJ Joy, Authors Upfront.