Asia for the poor

CHENNAI – These days, all eyes are on Asia. While the economies of Europe and North America are tumbling down one by one under the pressure of a continuing financial crisis, those of emerging Asia are flourishing.

Nowhere is this burst of economic dynamism more palpable than in China and India, the two largest nations in the world that were once regarded as the emblems of underdevelopment. Yet not everyone is happy over Asia’s rise.

Experts have warned that if this massive continent follows the path of Western development, humanity would need the equivalent of nine Earths to feed its hunger for resources. Planet Earth’s ecology, already at a critical stage, had borne the brunt of the devastation that attended the rise of an industrialized West. It can ill afford the environmental costs of a 10-fold replication of that experience. There is a sense therefore in which the warnings about climate change are understood in the region as an attempt to stop Asia from growing.

Though there may be an element of truth in this, the fact is that Asia has seen for itself some of the worst effects of climate change. It cannot ignore its responsibility to help keep the planet alive for future generations. But this debate is complex. Twenty years have passed since the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, yet basic disagreements persist.

But, there are social activists and thinkers all over Asia who don’t accept the terms in which this discourse is framed. They reject the technological fixation that often dominates the current talk about the “green economy.” They prefer to anchor their interventions on the promise of a more just social order and a more respectful relationship with Nature. This philosophy is inherent in many grassroots initiatives all over Asia. Their voices have been brought together in Chennai India, at a small meeting organized by the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation, through its Magsaysay Institute for Transformative Leadership, and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.

I was invited to the meeting as a former chair of the RMAF. But most of the participants are former Magsaysay awardees who have distinguished themselves for their remarkable work with the poor. Listening to them is, to me, the best cure for intellectual cynicism and despair.

At this meeting, it is my first time to hear Ela Bhatt, who is 80 and a recipient of the RM medal in 1977. Upon graduation from law school, Ela had joined the Textile Labor Association, a trade union established by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917. This experience exposed her to the condition of self-employed women workers who, lacking an organization, were vulnerable to all kinds of abuse and harassment. This gave her the idea of setting up the Self-Employed Women’s Association (Sewa) whose principal objective is to organize women workers for full employment. Today, Sewa is India’s largest union, offering its more than a million women members financial, health, childcare, insurance, legal, vocational, and educational services.

I expected to see a fiery speaker bristling with progressive rhetoric. Ela is none of this; she is gentle, soft-spoken, and almost inaudible. She speaks not about the economy in general but about the rural economy, and, in particular, about the relationship between work and human needs. It is work, she posits, that links nature and culture. If we lose control over work, much of the basis of our culture is also lost, and soon, we also lose interest in protecting nature. I quickly realize she is arguing not from a Marxist concept of alienation but from the Gandhian perspective of simplicity. What do we do in a world overrun by consumerism? Live a simple life so that others may simply live, she says, echoing Gandhi.

She puts forward the “100-miles principle.”  This principle challenges communities to source their basic needs (food, shelter, and clothing) and basic services (education, healthcare, and primary banking) from within a 100-mile radius. This strikes me as a plea for disengagement from a global system that seems to have succeeded in colonizing nearly every facet of our everyday lives. Ela says she has tested the viability of the concept in various communities, and she quickly recognizes the enormous difficulty in enforcing the threshold. But she believes the stakes are great enough, and the struggle to empower local communities and reverse the tide of ecological destruction must begin from this principle. “Security stems from local innovations.”

The same theme recurs over and over in the reflections of the other innovators in the room. The excitement of submitting their respective ideas to critique and affirmation by their peers was visible. The youngest in the group was Harish Hande, one of last year’s awardees. Harish has a doctorate in energy engineering from the University of Massachusetts. Returning to India after graduation, he has devoted himself full-time to providing solar electrification to his country’s rural poor. He believes that poor communities cannot and must not wait until the national grid reaches them. “Decentralized energy solutions can be provided at their doorstep … if the technology, finance, and market linkages are spoken about in the same breath.” This entails a change in mind sets, he says; the poor must be treated as partners, not as beneficiaries. As producers, not just consumers.

I come away from this meeting with only one thought. The world has been looking up to Asia for the wrong reason. It is not its rapid economic growth that is worth celebrating so much as the heroic attempts of a good number of its thoughtful citizens to make the lives of the poor the center of their innovative efforts.

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