CHANGING CONTOURS: Re- imagining Intangibles Design, Skills, Values, Tech & Governance

Mugdha Sinha IAS

In Part 1 of this series we spoke about Strangers: The Power of the Common Man, and how their struggles feel familiar and therefore hurt; in Part 2, we went further to explore and explain, Of Mundane Things: Manifesting Bread and Re-affirming Trust, where-hunger and return to roots -will require a shift in policy perspective and governance. Just as Covid-19 requires flattening through isolation, it has also connected us like never before at innumerous different levels, while it levels us all in our common quest for basic and very banal needs.

In Part 3, on ‘Changing Contours: Re-imagining Global Villages-Smart Cities, Bridging Bridges and New Cultures’, we will talk at length on how the long walks back home of migrants and immigrants, is changing and will continue to change the contours of our global villages-smart cities, population-densities, land usage-town planning, mobility-transportation, and impact it will have on urbanization, designing of public spaces, mobility, and all our basic amenities, including safety, security-policing, living heritage, cultures and civilizations, for generations to come. We will also touch upon how grass root governance will evolve from such transcendental transformations and what it will mean for global governance.

Impact on 1. Economy- a) family budgets, village economies (postal economies), regional, sub regional, world economy; 2. Industry and Service Sector –b) small, medium, large corporate, start ups, self employed and 3. Employment – c) daily wagers in unorganized sectors- textile workers, artisans-craftsmen, fishermen, farm labour, construction, mine and factory workers and the last man standing, below the subsistence level of survival and lastly, 4. Targeted Social Welfare Policies, will be dealt separately in Part IV. 


“I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing on their heads…every damn one of ‘em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ‘em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever ’body wants a little piece of lan’…I read plenty of books out there. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.”

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

Just like Tom from Grapes of Wrath, invites Priest Casey in the novel to join him on his walk home, let me invite you as we trace the trajectory of the migrants and immigrants back to their roots. 

According to the United Nations International Migrant data base, in 2019 of the 272 million international emigrants, India with 17.5 million, ranked on the top. During Covid-19, beginning with China, India has in multiple batches evacuated and brought back some of these Indian immigrants from foreign lands, especially from Italy, Spain, Germany, UK, USA and the GCC, Middle East. While exact and consolidated numbers may not be easily available, the major Indian States that send out these émigrés include Punjab (USA, Canada, Spain, Italy, UK), Kerala (mostly GCC and Middle East), Tamil Nadu and Telangana, (GCC, Middle East, USA, South Asia-Singapore, Malaysia), UP, Bihar, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Of these in Punjab alone, almost half of the European emigres are back. Similarly, in Kerala, this numbers coming from a handful of 5-6 districts accounts for 89% of the emigres from the State, mostly to the Gulf Countries because of which Kerala is know to run a money-order economy from monies sent back home from the Gulf. In varying degrees, these numbers, will impact most States, and magnitude will measure beyond just numbers alone.

Speaking of migration within the country, it is estimated that around 5-6 lakh people have walked back home, crossing various inter-state boundaries, adding to the numbers in the villages, along with problems of discrimination, stigma, that may accompany, with increasing fear arising both from infection as also from anxiety over sharing of scare resources.

Together, these two sets of numbers of returnee-migrants and immigrants- will have manifold impact, at several levels, where individual displacement, loss of employment, however temporary, will add pressure on family budgets, where nuclear families may integrate or become dependent on extended families, impacting their budgets, especially when the steady stream of money from temporary employments may wither away, where savings may not hold on for long, where lands may be up for sale and find no or extractive buyers. The interplay of many of these factors, in the absence of unemployment dole, will re define the contours of individuals, families, relationships, as also at macro levels of villages, cities and slums, with other socio economic-psychological-security issues and heighten the clarion call for regionalism, with reservation of jobs and resources for the original domiciles, affecting the cosmopolitan nature of cities making them more inward looking and parochial, ultimately drawing the contours of not just our smart cities, global villages but also our entire cultures and civilization for generations to come. 

The greatest peril is that it will happen right in front of us in not so subtle and nuanced way, but either we will miss the signs or we will turn a complicit blind eye, for very selfish reasons of our own survival. 

We will collapse under the weight of these unexpected numbers which will require accommodation at their doorsteps, in family, society, economy and governance. How we are able to manage not just these numbers, but their densities and expectations will to a large extent determine how we emerge from the Covid-19 and its aftermath. As individuals, the skills that we have as peoples, groups and workforce will be in great demand and the next set of migration and immigration will be skilled based, a second generation skill drain, as the demographic profile of nations and states and their requirement and capacity to absorb will lay the contours of the where people choose to or can go, once they are allowed to move out of their homes. 

This more than anytime now, will require a New Deal, similar to the post 1929 Great Economic Recession in America, where government put its skin in the game to re built the economy through major investment in infrastructure, to provide wage employment to kick start the stalled economy and its attendant consumption-production cycle. In like manner our States, will also be required to be more welfare oriented and self dependent, as businesses will have no or nominal resources themselves, given pre Covid-19 restructuring in economy and liquidity crunch from worsening condition of banks and their increasing NPAs. Unfortunately, it’s a catch 22 situation, as governments themselves are highly indebted and will find it difficult to maximize welfare, by austerity measures, alone, hence a major out of box restructuring of thought process will be required.

The Covid-19 struggle at least comes with some sort of medical protocol to tackle and deal with it, however, the post pandemic lockdown, strategy still needs to be devised and comes with no manual or instructions that offers a sure shot guarantee of success, given the multilayered, complicated and often paradoxical nature of the problem. This is the biggest challenge for governments and policy makers, everywhere. 


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of it’s noisiest authorities insisted on being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

We are the millennials, and this is a tale of not just two but almost all cities, becoming vacant and isolated, getting vacated and socially distant; people evicted, because they are strangers with no money, means or voice, only greater probability of getting the disease, they already have the symptoms-they are poverty striken, sick of schemes that have not reached them and more vulnerable to what it can do to them, much before the virus can- and thus have far greater responsibilities, hence burdens. In many ways therefore, the struggle is twin fold, like the tale of two cities-as much for saving lives as for saving livelihoods, and the two are two are intricately and inextricably entwined. 

The Hamletian dilemma ‘to ease the lockdown and re start livelihoods-economy and take a risk with stringent protocols, or to extend and stay locked in and prioritize life or livelihoods?’ is the catch 22 of policy makers in the short run. The opportunity cost of the sacrifice, whatever be the decision- even as Orissa and Punjab become the earliest states to extend the lockdown-will need to be assessed in view of state specific hot spots, rate of new cases of Covid-19 infections and other similar parameters. 

But in Nietzsche’s profound statement “Disease is the beginning of good health”, lies our panglossian optimism. Hope and common sense, need to be our new contagion, we are going to need them in large doses, for the future we want to salvage from the vacuous ruins that stare us in the face, so much closer home with every second. As for greed and corruption I simply have no words, only pictures and horrifying videos, gnawing my sense of pride in being a human. 

I join Ben Okri in asking you, “What manner of place is this…where nothing is what it seems?”

And also we we all know, “Everything is what it seems. It’s only you who are not what you seem.”

Are we, ‘An ordinary man in a strange place’ or ‘…a strange man in an ordinary place?’ 

Contemplate- as our cities sleep and the inhabitants dream, of nightmares people are facing.

In an age of liberalization, global economies and global villages, one insipid virus has confined us to our homes. The topographies of the future we call cities and villages, will require a drastic envisioning in terms of design, both architecturally to allow for post pandemic corrections and also technically in terms of embedded, secure networks that work on big data analytics, are more predictive, have block chain technology for security-privacy and are anticipatory with Artificial Intelligence. The individual homes have been levelled with absence of maids and support staff and villages are getting as smart with tech as were cities, and this dissolving of boundaries however, incipient, is pretty much irreversible. Technology is here to stay in a quantum jump forward. And much of how we move forward, without making tech into a Frankenstein monster will depend to a large extend on our value systems and how we collectively culturally​ evolve, as we emerge from this pandemic.

What Joseph Stiglitz calls the the ‘two visions’ of America, holds equally true for us as well. “One is of a society more divided between the haves and the have-nots, a country in which the rich live in gated communities, send their children to expensive schools and have access to first-rate medical care. Meanwhile, the rest live in a world marked by insecurity, at best mediocre education, and in effect rationed health care-they hope and pray they don’t get sick. At the bottom are millions of young people alienated and without hope….i have seen that picture in many developing countries, ..a dual economy where two societies living side by side, but hardly knowing each other, hardly imagining what life is like for the other.” That nightmare about which Stiglitz wrote in ‘The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future”, is staring us in the face now.

Further, as I continue to quote him, ‘of all the costs imposed on our society by the top 1 percent, perhaps the greatest is this: the erosion of our sense of identity in which fair play, equality of opportunity and a sense of community are so important’

Covid-19, is therefore in many sense not just about isolation, but about a deep sense of alienation, how as individuals, communities and societies we have become distanced, much before we practiced social distancing, where in times such as these doctors are being attacked, poor are been evicted from rented homes, permanent jobs. The pandemic, is not so much and only about lives and livelihoods lost or to be saved, but also and more about identity, sense of worth and value of peoples, as human beings; not just a medical emergency but a full blown existentialist crisis. We only have to read the signs to resolve the malaise that grips us, as much as the corona.


“The currencies of the civilization were invisible, and has(d) to do with values.”

Ben Okri, Astonishing The Gods, 1995

Values we will need to resurrect much like bringing people back home, into our homes, yes strangers are people too, and we wish them well, because borders, nations are all imagined communities’, only people are real. 

The first law of Okri’s invisible cities is‘that what you think is what becomes real’, ‘…’let the city become a vast network of thought’, ‘where when people are ill they go to their banks where they deposit their thoughts and when healthy, they go to the hospitals where doctors and nurses are masters of art of humour’, into this city, where all invisible (intangible) things have glow because the best things are in the invisible realm, are invisible, the unseen things are masterpieces, of which seen things are only by products, much like the vacant look, hunger, hope, love, faith, trust. “And lucky are those who know how to find, for they will never lose things, “say Ben, and as I copiously quote him today, too tired of making sense of the statistics, of the spread, of deaths, of people in queues, at borders, bus stations, hungry, walking, in hospitals, in isolation, in desperation, in sickness, in shock, in minority, at the margins, in anonymity, invisible, I, am only doing my duty as a citizen, of trying to bring home the point, reiterate, till it becomes our new reality. 

The Covid-19 crisis has shown us what many economists like Stiglitz and also Robert Reich are fond of reiterating that, ‘The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money does not seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live’. This is not a stark reality as we see the big and mighty getting effected from the microscopic virus- Prime Ministers, Chancellors, Princes, Celebrity Chefs, Hollywood Stars and the list is endless. We are in it together, and we will have to remain thus locked in, in togetherness even post the pandemic to ensure that in the well being of the other, lies our own, every which way, as the laws of the divine natural world, reveal that there is no other.

Rajasthan has always incorporated a citizen centric approach to governance by taking governance to the grassroots, through various programs like, “Prashason/Sarkar Aap ke Dwar’, better translated as ‘Governance at your Doorstep’, and this is the reason why today the Bhilwada model has today become success story of sorts, borne on this thought process. And perhaps, this is exactly what will be required in terms of mindsets.

 This is already being applied in various e-governance models built on Direct Benefit Transfers of social welfare, pension and other unemployment doles but now upscaling this to a much larger scale through tech based applications and platforms will be required as these are what is keeping us connected in these lockdown times and these will have to become permanent features in keeping the villages and cities connected. On line class rooms for schools and colleges with no teachers, you tube reading rooms, sharing of resources and libraries, tele medicine, are the new face of reality, requiring a drastic shift in approach. For sellers-farmers, fishermen, milkmen, ration vendors, artisans, craftsmen and for buyers and consumers, these platforms will be the new markets for negotiations.

Certainly while tech will bring more transparency, equity, governments will have to gear up for a whole lot of back end support, programming, big data collection requiring analysis and also be wary of cyber crimes, hacking, phishing and privacy issues, because technology as we know is Janus faced and the more ubiquitous and omnipresent it becomes, the more ‘zoom’ like chances of data, privacy breach, impersonation and allied cyber crimes are possible. Technology is a double edged sword, good as a service provider, bad as a master. It is the reason for spread of prosperity, as it is in its abuse and omission of the corona. We will have to be mindful of what Yuval Noah Harai says, about, ‘the tyranny of technology’, which has the capacity to fatigue out even the digitally literate with enhanced screen times and tech upgrades and render them irrelevant, easy prey to subservience, ushering in a new era of tech slavery to the Siri’s and Alexas, of the AI, world.

In short, from more urbane we will now be required to move towards more humane, where less will be more, small will be beautiful. In terms of populations and inhabitations, it would mean, less densities, more public spaces; in land use, smaller manageable fields, more intimate experience of terrace and kitchen gardens; in retail, more neighbourhood kirana shops than malls; in commercial real estate, more co-working spaces than big commercial offices spaces, work from home, more flexi hours; in life more balanced approach to work and home; in society, more regionalism, local experience; in wellness, grandmother’s kitchen hacks and yoga; in environment, rejuvenation of nature and alertness towards climate change. Behavioural economics, and Marie Kondo style de clutter and minimalism will prevail in individual mindscapes and pervade socio-economic landscapes.

In governance, this would mean less human interface, more networked; less tangible goods, more service delivery; minimum but strong governments with more anonymity and shared autonomy; less charity and more voluntarisms; less corporate capitalism for the few and more community-crowd sourced outreach for many. More decentralization, more custom made, more glocal, more participatory, more accountable, more smart, more collaboration, less bureaucratic, more skilled, less static and staus quoist, more mobile and flexible. Also, less profit oriented corporate markets and more government driver, welfare oriented new public administration, less discrimination and more inclusion. In short, less governments, more governance. Or as Nassim Nicholas Taleb would want us to appreciate that it is, inconsistent (and corrupt) to dislike big government while favouring big business- by not the reverse.’

Very much akin to what Joseph Stiglitz says in his prescient work, ‘Globalization and its Discontents’, that ‘Behind free market ideology there is a model, often attributed to Adam Smith, which argues that market forces-the profit motive-drives economy to efficient outcomes as if by an invisible hand. …[but] policies have shown that especially in developing countries, … the invisible hand works more imperfectly. Significantly, there are desirable government interventions which, in principle, can improve upon the efficiency of the market….many of the key activities of government can be understood as responses to the resulting market failures’. In short, ‘global governance without global governments’ but global commitments to global causes-poverty, inequality, equity, fairness, justice and inclusivity- in much like “sab ka saath, sabka vikas”, in letter and spirit.

From this denouement will arise the phoenix, of citizen centric welfare oriented states and individuals with citizen values that ask not what the country can do for them, but they can individually and collectively do for their countries and world at large. The rise of responsible civil societies as an antithesis to surveillance states. 


“Give me but a firm spot on which to stand, and I shall move the earth.”

– Archimedes’ Principle of the Lever

The post pandemic world has exposed us to the intangibles-protocols, community networks, service sectors, technology based apps, voluntarism, crowdsourcing, and such like. The most important requirement as we DIY our lives, as such as we re boot it, is to re-discover our potential, our skills and to upgrade them, as some of us were compelled to do to become tech savvy to survive or join the many open source on line learning courses, from as simple as culinary skills to more complex data and neuro science skills. 

At a more global level, the quality of workforce will be extremely important, as on it will hang the balance of the returnees and how they are acceptable back home or eligible for re-return from where they came. As the scaffolds of support systems begin to wither away, acquisition of new skills, and upgradation of existing ones, will ensure that we will remain socially relevant and economically productive. And both super specialized research based skills will co-exist with basic semi and soft skills. Self employable skill sets –of medicine men, educators, healers, artists, artisans, literati, researchers, innovators, inventors, scientists, start ups, in fact all sui generic activities will favoured.

Migration, is an escape from an unsatisfactory situation, as some would say, where alienation and abandonment act as more deep seated causes. Barack Obama’s observation that, ‘politics, difference of religion, race, all that fades away when we are confronted with the awesome power of nature and we’re reminded that all we have is each other’, cannot be more apt than in these pandemic times. Since we are all in this together, it is for each other, that we will be required to built our skills, putting our skills in the service of society.

‘Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chess board of humanity’, as Pope Francis would like to remind us, especially as we compelled the faceless poor, the voiceless, the defenseless, the jobless, the foodless, the homeless, to walk the country roads to take them some place home. 

In times to come, our mobility, movement and momentum as we move on from the shadow of the pandemic, will be exactly as the ex Mayor of Bagota, Enrique Penelope said of the cities that we will like to envision, “A developed country isn’t a place where the poor have cars but the rich ride public transportation”.

In the words of Jeffrey Sachs, on how we can end extreme poverty by 2025, is exactly by building networks of mutual accountability’ alongside ‘networks of financing’, by finding partnerships for the poor with their wealthy counterparts and how little it will cost and how everyone can help, to make the world a more prosperous and secure one’.


“Nations-states like war; city-states like commerce; families like stability; and individuals like entertainment.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes,2010

If what the stakeholders want, is known, or assumed to be known, how should the governments respond to conflicting interests is what will be required of public policy and public administration as it will now be expected to move beyond its sixth phase its been stuck since the last three decades, where public citizenry partnerships will re define the contours of governance. And since, I am doing a separate piece on this, I will be sharing greater details there. But for now, it would suffice to keep in mind that social welfare orientation, citizen centric approach and citizen values, citizen participation will require a shift in perspective in how we make governance a public good liberally, equally, equitably, inclusively, transparently and democratically available to all without fear or favour.