In Part 1 of the article series on ‘STRANGERS: The Power of the Common Man’, we had dealt at length on the ordinary people and their even more ordinary struggles which has the power to shake us all at the very core of our consciousness from our complacencies.
In Part II of the same series, we will talk about how these mundane things in various familiar ways have and will continue to impact different dimensions of our lives at more macro and fundamental levels, of the socio-economic, agricultural-cultural, governance-public policy narratives, requiring re imagining and re negotiating of the civil contract of our transactional interactions with Food, Nutritional Security, Subsistence Economy, Markets, Supply Chains, Delivery Mechanisms, Agriculture, Credit and Trade Policy, Research, Science and Technology by drawing on some useful insights from history.
“The life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651
With the current lockdown, where individuals are isolated at home, economy has practically come to a standstill, and all other aspects of society, barring essential services of medical-health, security-policing, cleanliness-maintenance, delivery of food and other basic necessities, stand suspended or are in slow mode, never could one have imagined that life of man in the 21st century would come so close as to resemble the life of man in 1651, about which Thomas Hobbes has written.
This one reality in itself, is enough to awaken us to the magnitude of a mundane virus, which has the sheer ability to take us almost three and a half centuries back in the reverse gear with kinetic speed and consequences that may have far reaching ramifications.
How is it that in a supposedly globalized world with free movement of men, materials, ideas, resources, information, technologies, we came to hear of the Covid-19, only in March, 2020? Does this information time lag, staggered nature of information, unpredictability, say anything about the ubiquitous and mightily complex network of co and inter-dependencies that we have built in a globalized universe, which neither human mind, nor technology could anticipate or forewarn but which a microscopic virus could not just easily penetrate, but also go viral, globally?
In an era of borderless regimes and how is it that while most of us stood isolated in the sanctuary of our homes, many were stranded at the borders, waiting to cross over? At a more intimate level, it brought back stark and very vivid memories of Tamas, a television serial from my childhood days which depicted the mass exodus and migration of people from one country to another, at the time of the partition. However, despite the seemingly incomparable imagery, the similarity lies in a return of the people to their roots, be it the people who were stranded on foreign shores and wanted to come back home to their own country or those who were at home in their own country but in different locales, from where they wanted to return to their families in another state, city or village.
What prevented us from not being able to connect the dots, anticipate the issue? Surely, one could consider this as a random, unpredictable black swan event, but having shock absorbed the consequences, with some unfortunate collateral damage, are we prepared to move from resilient and upgrade-improve to ‘anti-fragile’ as individuals and societies, states and governments, borrowing Nassim Nicholas Talib’s analogy, is the relevant question we need to ask, and answer now.
While we begin to look ahead, more optimistically to break the corona chain and to un-entangle us from the octopus like grip of the virus, and more importantly to prepare an exit strategy and pre plan for the post corona times, we must factor in the exigent need to return to the roots, and how this will impact our futures in our policy planning.
“People must not be allowed to become so poor that they offend or are hurtful to society. It is not so much the misery and plight of poor but the discomfort and cost to community which is crucial to the view of poverty. We have a problem of poverty to the extent that low income creates problems for those who are not poor.” Prof Rein (1971). “To live in poverty may be sad, but to ‘offend or [be] hurtful to society’, creating problems for those who are not poor’, is, it would appear the real tragedy. It isn’t easy to push much further the reduction of human beings into ‘means’.”
-Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines, 1981
The visual images of swarms anonymous people breaking the compulsory lockdown only because a majority of them were either desperately hungry, or desperately anxious to return home, only so they could save themselves from the impending hunger that awaited them as landlords continued to demand rents or evict and employers continued to fire with impunity, mostly without or rarely with nominal salaries, because they themselves were a part of the domino effect along with heightened fear that such times are likely to inject in human psyche. Apart from the return to roots, this interdependent antimony of cause and effect must also be kept in mind while policy planning for the future.
The fate of humanity, today, as nowhere before, hangs languidly from the face of the dire hungry, no natural calamity, or famine, just a virus. This acquires more significance as spring is also the season for harvest of the rabi crops- primarily wheat, mustard, other cereal crops and pulses, (also perishable goods like seasonal fruits and vegetable) which stand ripe in the fields, and await harvesting. Lockdown protocol is more temporary inconvenience that may delay or more than that stagger harvest for a while, but it is not a sufficient explanation for our worry. What is more pertinent is the availability of the daily farm labourers who have returned to their homelands and are unlikely to return any time soon, unless we can device trustworthy protocols and acceptable incentives.
But apart from short term strategy, in the medium to long term, we will be required also to plan for the impact this is likely to have on demand creation, consumption patterns, hence supply, tax collection, revenue resources, family-state budgets, on choices, and as a results in devising incentives apart from what it will do to wages, bargaining ability of farmers, negotiating dynamics between farmers/tenants and landowners, in trade negotiations between/among countries, on agricultural industries, on nature of cities and villages, on urbanization, on labour laws, quality of regulatory institutions as also the nature of legislation and the place of the lowest in the ladder of the socio-economic hierarchy with their power to impact even the nutritional health of the ones on the top of the pyramid. Negotiating these ‘hidden asymmetries’ by putting ‘skin in the game’, while policy making is what will prevent compound ability of the conundrum. “The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control and what’s worse, the opposite”, as Talib would like to forewarn us.
While Hobbes would like to remind us that wisdom is acquired not so much by reading of books as men, Mahatma Gandhi’s Talisman does exactly that, more relevant for the policy makers, as we celebrate the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of the man who gave it to us.
“Whenever you are in doubt when self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask if the step you con template is going to be of any use to him.”
This is the Swaraj, that the people will increasingly be looking for.
In short, tackling hunger in comparison will be far easier than re-establishing trust, dispelling attendant fear and hence the way in which we tackle the first issue will to a large extent determine our success in the latter, with of course no time to loose.
“In Xinyang, ….as people were dying in large numbers around them (from starvation), the officials around them did not think to save them. Their only concern was how to fulfil the delivery of grain.”
-Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Untold Story of the Great Famine 1958-62, 2012
The deaths under this famine are estimated to be anywhere between 15-30 million (and 76 million if you include people who could not be born) and were a result of a combination of factors and policies that could have been averted. And if I recall correctly, having read somewhere that, it was during this period that lack of crops forced the people to eat whatever was available in the reptilian world-insects, cockroaches, lizards, dogs, to the extent of stray references to cannibalism. Yu Dehong, a Chinese government official recalled his own first hand account of Xinyang (from Wikipedia), “People said that dogs were eating bodies. Not true, I said. The dogs had long been eaten by the people.” This becomes important as we begin to see the re-opening of the wet markets in China and completely forget the impact that hunger has on our cuisine, not choice, so much as perhaps, forced circumstances of abject poverty and not shortage of food but much like the economic concept of ‘poverty amidst plenty’.
Closer home in the Great Bengal Famine of t1943, death toll was estimated at 1.5 million (by Famine Commission) and approx. 4 million (Amartya Sen) and as per Sen’s detailed analysis was not so much because of Food Availability Decline (FAD) but because of shifting exchange entitlements that went unanticipated by the officials, compounded as they were by other aggravating factors, including over dependence on rice crop. And according to Amartya Sen the groups worst hit, were ‘fishermen, transport worker, paddy huskers, agricultural labourers, craftsmen, and non-agricultural labourers, in that order. And the least affected were peasant cultivators and share croppers.’
This assumes importance because decreased labour availability for harvesting not just wheat but other rabi crops, including prepping for the kharif crop season will compel enhancement in daily wages for farm labour, and while purchasing power of consumers is down, the policy making conundrum of pareto optimal resource allocation will bring the consumers of Public Distribution System (approx. 5 crores of 6.8 crores in Rajasthan alone) in dangerous juxtaposition with the agricultural wage labour due to their sheer minority and seasonality of occupation as compared to the teeming hungry millions.
How our legislation and regulatory policies stand up to the test of this pareto efficiency that makes at least some people better off without making any one worse off, will be the test of times, in days to come for the governments everywhere. I wonder how this will impact, our agriculture, food palette, research, technology, credit, labour, wages, trade etc or more elaborately-
-our food, food choices, cuisines, consumption patterns, demands, nutritional health, technology in food processing, packaged food and food budgets at micro-macro levels
-crops, organic farming, crops v/s vegetables, carbs v/s proteins, cash crops, horticulture, seed replacement ratios, crop diversification choices, areas under cultivation, farm mechanization, next crop cycle and agriculture, as also inputs and fertilizers
-input costs, MSP, food prices, credit liquidity, indebtedness, wages agricultural labour and fate of farmers and farmer agriculture reforms, storage, warehousing
-consumer price index, hoarding, supply chains, ability to upscale on short timelines, delivery mechanisms, food market, cost of transportation, other market linked and regulatory issues and e-commerce, agri start up, service sector and such like
-research in agriculture and farm mechanization and farm practice efficiency issues, land consolidation, land-tenant-labour dynamics
-agricultural trade negotiations, export-import policies, fate of the production-consumption cycle, harmonization of domestic and international food standards, extractive institutions and governance, the world over.
As an aside, this economic term was devised by an ‘Italian’ Economists Vilfred Pareto, just thought of recalling his contribution as we find Italy being one of the worst sufferers outside of China, where covid-19, originated.
“The [bubonic, 1346] plague hit and quickly wiped out about half the English population. Such catastrophes can have a huge effect on the institutions of society’….’scores of people went mad. The massive scarcity of labour created by the plague shook the foundations of the feudal order. It encouraged the peasants to demand things change’…..[that] ‘many of fines and unpaid labour be reduced’…’wages started to rise’…’servants not willing to serve unless they receive excessive wages’…’The attempt by the English state to stop the change of institutions and wages that came in wake of the Black Death didn’t work. In 1381, the Peasant Revolt broke out, and the rebels….even capture whole of London.”
-Daron Acemoglu &James A Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, 2012.
So much for lessons from history, which enable us to join the dots, to anticipate what may lie ahead, if we don’t learn from history, the consequences from a likelihood of history repeating itself, are anything, but grave.
Incidentally, the Black death or Bubonic Plague of 1346, transmitted by infected rats, was quite coincidentally, spread from China, its epicentre, then by Italian traders travelling on the silk route which ended up infecting the whole of Europe, in much like manner, as now.
But we are not stopping at this mid point in history, because when we talk of Food, we cannot but not talk of population and climate change and their intricate intricacies. And to not forget also, what Thomas R Malthus says of History, “The histories of mankind are histories only of the higher classes”, which is because the winner gets to write it all, hence we will be required to be mindful of ensuring that our focus remains strongly on the subalterns in the food chain, the deer as much as the lion.
In his book-The End of Plenty, Joel Bourne, talks of Malthus’ study on the brutal relationship between population and food, with subsistence increasing at arithmetic rate and population increasing by geometric progression, the twain that keeps species alive is pretty much apocalyptic, like the floods that challenged Noah’s arch. Bourne, quotes Charles Mann that,” Fifty years ago (1970s) as many as one out of every three people lived in hunger. Today, the figure is one in eight-histories, biggest, fastest increase in human well being….’Simply put, the world’ agriculture systems may not be able to provide enough food for the nine or ten billion people who will be alive in 2050.”
The public policy makers, will have to imbibe what Norman Borlaug, the heralder of Green Revolution said, “If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.” Thus, ensuring fair play in the changing dynamics on farm lands between not just land owners, farmers, tenants, agriculture labour, but also between traditional money lenders, modern banking systems as conduits of liquidity, the middle men, ahartiyas, retail and whole sale markets and the policy architecture on one hand and the consumers on the other, will be priority, along with simplified, and more empathic grievance handling mechanisms. In the fair, equitable and transparent interactions provided by the policy is how the post Covid-19 challenge will need to be tackled. Justice, Equity and Inclusivity.
And to our common agenda of saving one race-the human race and one planet-this earth, we will also be required to pay close attention to our environment for as Bourne says, with global warming, and every four-degree rise in temperature, the world’s current farm lands will become unsuitable for farming. Add to this the quality of workforce, already fatigued and anxious from the aftermath of Corona.
‘Roti’ or ‘bread’, today has become the common denominator of our anxiety, and face of what abject hunger can come to mean both for individuals and policy makers. While some people may crib about making roti’s, as painstaking exercise, there are many who are compelled to pick up a stale half eaten stale roti from the dustbin and still many others who are forced to partake theirs from street dogs. Unfortunately, some such cases, have witnessed close and upfront when I was studying in Berkeley, California, which is home to unaccounted for homeless, just sprawled on the roads, eating from out of dustbins, as we do from our fridges, only not with equal ease. This is the battle line between us and them, which needs to be erased, world over.
No wonder then, the battle for survival is as much for hunger, as it is for health. And we are not Marie Antoinette’s with the luxury to offer cake where no bread or roti exists. Manifesting bread, will require mighty common sense and policy balance between bread makers, bread earners, and bread eaters, between citizens and consumers.
V SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY
“When you mix wheat flour to make dough, a number of things happen. Broken open starch granules absorb water, which releases enzymes that begin to digest the exposed starch. This in turn creates sugars that the yeast in your dough feeds off to make carbon dioxide gas, which makes the dough begin to rise. This is the crucial part of baking…the result (of which) is a protein complex called gluten…The whole purpose of kneading is is to untangle the gluten network and help it become stronger…which when baked gives you light and fluffy bread. This process is one of the oldest know food-preparations techniques.”
–Marty Jopson, The Science of Food, 2017
For those of you, who like me are still learning to make round roti’s, and are also equally wary of bread, Jopson comes to rescue and assures us that it doesn’t matter what kind of bread we eat- plain white flour, brown or multigrain fibre rich, the actual factor, scientifically speaking it is how our body responds to eating bread, which is dependent on our genetic make up and bacteria in the gut.
This brings me to the question of welfare economics and how we have turned public goods (much like bread), into private goods (with rival brands) making things erstwhile easily and cheaply available to all, restricted to only few who have the means to buy. This is not just the paradox of poverty but of apathy amidst abundance. When people cannot afford even a slice of daily bread or roti, our privileges begin to hurt.
We must learn from history, to avoid having to learn from pain.
In the end, allow me to leave you with a story of a farmer who has two daughters- the elder married to a farmer and younger to a potter. While the farmer’s wife wants rains, the potter’s wife wants clear skies. This in brief is the paradox of policy makers, negotiating with too many diverse stakeholders with divergent sets of conflicting interests, the aggregation of which is the role and rather challenging responsibility of the government, for in making pareto optimal choices in welfare oriented policies they cannot afford to make one daughter happy at the cost of the other, that too as already limited resources become even more scarcer.
While the buck may stop here, at our doorsteps, in terms of people’s expectations from governments, the trail goes back right up to all of us, and our role as responsible citizens, over mere aspirational consumers of goods and services.
About the Author
The author is a civil servant by profession and is currently posted as Secretary Science and Technology, Government of Rajasthan. She is an empathy, writer-poet, artist and avid reader by choice.
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