Love And Economics

Vithal Rajan

Vithal Rajan

A common definition of money is that it is a store of value. But human beings value many things, principles, attitudes, beliefs, emotions that are incommensurable. Some of the most basic human actions fall into this category – a mother’s love, a teacher’s guiding hand, a friend’s support, or even one’s own sense of beauty or duty. It is meaningless to measure the love and support we receive in our lifetimes in terms of money.  In fact, it would be grossly immoral to think we can buy love with money.

And yet an absence, or shortfall, of any of these sustaining emotions or actions in a community on a repeated or noticeable scale can be seen to signal the breakdown of healthy human relationships and the destruction of community life. Social workers trace the addiction to drugs among youth, or the increase of crime, to the breakdown of traditional family values, to broken families, to missing or drunken parents, to schools without dedicated teachers, to loneliness and social anomie. And such breakdown in communities soon translates into massive societal economic cost. Governments then take action to rebuild broken-down neighbourhoods and schools, put in new youth centres and community halls to repair the social damage and recoup economic loss.

All around the world, leaders and social scientists do recognize the negative impact of the loss or partial absence of the sustaining virtues of love and support on youth, and corrective action is taken, many times when it is too late. But rarely, if ever, is positive action taken to prevent the loss of emotional support for people, and for families, especially for women and children. In fact, governments and scientists do not know how or what to do.

A long time ago, before the Second World War, some North American politicians wondered what the use of public education was and how that expenditure could result in economic growth. Nowadays every leader understands that public education does result in economic growth after a period lag, as do public health or other environmental measures, though a linear causal connection cannot be made. It is a political truism that good healthy communities lead to national wealth. But how does one keep them good and healthy?

Panchayat Raj village institutions

India and many other countries that achieved independence in the twentieth century face an even graver issue, for colonization had broken down communities, impoverished them, and created controlling forms of administration that reduced local autonomy. Mahatma Gandhi and many others with him believed in rebuilding the Panchayat Raj village institutions within the new context of a modern independent nation. However, politicians during the Nehru and Indira Gandhi periods followed the example of their prime ministers and concentrated power in their own hands, at the centre and in the states. The Panchayati Raj institutions, from which many a leader had emerged, were rendered powerless. Rajiv Gandhi tried to make amends and brought in the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitutions re-establishing the village level bodies, but they remain only on paper and are left without money or power to do anything.

The Indian central and state governments have taken very many measures to help poor communities. Regularly, when farmers are in distress, their bank loans are written off, though this has little effect on general sustainability since most small farmers – the great majority of Indian farmers – are indebted to local moneylenders, and hundreds of thousands have committed suicide unable to repay their debts. The government also subsidizes inputs like fertilizers, and announces minimum support prices for crops. Above all, the independent government of India follows the British colonial pattern of making available rural employment to prevent starvation during periods of harvest failure. All these are only monetary measures decided at the top and dictated to the people by a hierarchal administration, almost borrowed without change from colonial times. The elite, the decision-makers, and the officials are as distant from the people as they were in colonial times. The affective relationships between classes remain similar to that between master and servant, between subject and object.

Is it conceivable to link massive poverty, rural distress, high illiteracy, malnutrition, poor public health and a broken down public education system to the absence of friendly convivial relationships between the vast masses of the poor on the one hand and the leaders, bureaucrats, and the educated middleclass on the other? There was great warmth of such close relations during the Freedom Movement, and it was that single factor that brought the millions into the streets and achieved independence in the teeth of imperial power.

An astonishing event

If all this sounds farfetched, let us consider an astonishing event that took place recently. Two Dalit children from Telangana raced away to the crest of the Everest. A notable achievement, credit for which was given to the Welfare Department’s residential schools. But behind the immediate access offered by the institution to sports and physical training lies a long forgotten line of love and support, and psychological motivation which finally filled their hearts with a determination to attempt, succeed, and conquer. They would have heard stories of Dr. Ambedkar and Savitribai Phule and their struggles, and received love and encouragement from many other Dalit elders. Without that background and emotional backing their extraordinary achievement might never have happened. Without our denying the extraordinary genius of Ramanujam or the personal skill of Dhyan Chand, could the mathematical prodigy or the hockey captain have achieved the heights of glory without the subliminal background of the freedom movement, which encouraged every Indian to do better than the British colonial masters? These are moot questions which can receive no answers.

Great social events have, like disasters, created bonds of fellowship between people and resulted in new bursts of creative energy emerging from them. The noted historian, Christopher Hill, called the English Revolution a time when the world was turned upside down. After that momentous event, the newly empowered English middleclass set out to conquer the world. After the French Revolution, from a suppressed peasantry rose a new strength, an army, that defeated all of Europe but which gave sole credit to the genius of Napoleon. The Tsarist Empire lay shattered at the end of the First World War. We learn from John Reed’s ‘Ten Days That Shook The World,’ of the public energy released by the Bolshevik Revolution, which despite Stalinist horrors beat back the invincible German war machine later.

Chinese peasants were even more oppressed than Indians through centuries of top-down Mandarin rule. The Chinese Revolution was followed up in the two succeeding decades by many measures calculated to build up the self-confidence and capacities of these downtrodden millions. The mistakes made during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution cost the people of China dear, but that period also taught people to challenge authority and rely upon their own capabilities. The backyard furnaces may not have produced much steel, but peasants learnt not only some science about industrialization but that they as human beings were equal to anyone else and could do anything if they worked for it.

Empowerment of the human factor

Schools where children were told that they themselves had to coach slower students so that the whole class could pass together helped many to self-learn rather than by rote. Best of all was the two-up and two-down planning process by which the village was engaged with city-based planners in finalizing their plans. Disinformation spread by the West and also by present-day Chinese leaders themselves throws into shadow this extremely creative period, which produced ‘latent development,’ the community strengthening processes which later erupted into spectacular quantifiable growth during the Deng and later periods. Many China commentators from William Hinton onwards have repeatedly talked about the empowerment of the human factor during the Mao era. Lately, Mobo Gao has endorsed that the jury is still out on that period in his seminal ‘The Battle for China’s Past.’

India can never expect to witness a revolution like the Russian or the Chinese, and we thank God for that. However, depending on the genius of our own accommodating culture much could be attempted to strengthen our poor communities. Doling out money is only a small part of it, and sometimes that leads to negative results. In the early 1980s many Andhra-based NGOs experimented with helping create self-managed sangams, or associations, of poor Dalit women. Microfinance was a part of the activities of these sangams, which took up many important issues like domestic violence, police atrocities, fallow land lease, education of children and access to medical care. Seeing the great success of these sangams, the government under Chandrababu Naidu created a vast number of Self-Help Groups, no more than 10 or 15 in each, so that they could be bureaucratically controlled. Their single activity was money lending. The politician wished to create a secure vote bank and many of the women knew they did not have to repay the ‘free money.’ Far from empowering them, this governmental so-called development measure created greater dependency. However, the Kerala government has fostered a more sustainable model through its ‘Kudumbashree’ programme.

Two other private initiatives have stood the test of time. Dr. Rajnikanth Arole’s Jamkhed model has created self-confident para-medics out of middle-aged Dalit women in over 500 villages of Marathwada offering affordable medical cover to all the poor of the region. Rishi Valley School in Chittoor district has created a new affordable pedagogical system for poor village children, which leaves no child behind. It would be a mystery to understand why these two excellent models have not found rapid replication in a country desperately looking for affordable solutions to providing education and health care to the great masses. The difficulty lies in the partnership that needs to be developed with poor communities. This requires not only time but elite officials abandoning a position of authority to one of catalyst.

Mother’s love

This argument started with the mention of a mother’s love. In a mother’s love there is neither the singular play of authority nor of laxity, but a dialogue is created involving in equality the mother, the child, and the world around them. This dialogue produces free agreement, sometimes given reluctantly, about how to be, or what needs to be done. In the bond there is sharing of mutual confidence in each other. And this is love.

What does this mean in terms of the development of a community? The first requirement is a bond of mutual respect, to create which the central and state governments must work patiently to establish trust in a local community. Mutuality necessarily implies sharing, sharing of political power, with mutually accepted decisions without manipulation by the powerful member of the duo. And also time for this trust and interdependence to grow. Dr. Ambedkar pointed out to Mahatma Gandhi that a village community of India is a repository of religious superstition and caste prejudice. The unraveling of all this will be all the more difficult and require much more time, but it will be real progress. Development is a people-led political process involving human lives, emotions and hopes, and not a mechanical bureaucratic top-down process of reaching down goods.

The analogy to mother’s love in politics is confidence building and idea sharing between the powerful and the weak, between the haves and the have-nots. The class-caste divisions can only be lessened if the powerful stand witness as poor communities help build themselves and the nation. Somewhat similar to a mother standing witness as her child builds himself and her family as a whole.

The government talks about inclusion, but inclusive processes which involve only money and other quantifiable elements will fail to achieve anything. Inclusion requires the forming of affective bonds of trust between people, especially with those at the top renouncing veto power and agreeing to listen to and work with the weak. Sharing of power involves a long dangerous step for those in power already. There are no manuals how this is to be done. In recent times a brave man called Gorbachev attempted this feat and failed to some measure. But in India, for leaders not to attempt this dangerous step at all would mean creating greater dangers for the future, from which few may recover.

(The writer is a well-known author, economist, and a renowned rights activist. He is on the jury to select Alternate Nobel Prize)

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