The current Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the deep structural socioeconomic disparities in Indian society. The false neoliberal logic that economic growth is desirable in society as an end in itself because slowly yet surely the accumulation of wealth will trickle down to the lowest and most marginalized sections of Indians has been proved to be a hallucination induced by elite economists and policymakers.
The reality which most Indians experience today proves that the path of neoliberal economic growth taken by our country has deepened social and economic divisions between those who already had much, to begin with, and those who have lost the precious little that they had before the neoliberal assault on their lives and livelihoods began. This is evidenced by the unprecedented accumulation of wealth by India’s elites on the one hand and the loss of livelihoods and the creeping impoverization of the poorest and most marginalized Indians on the other.
The ongoing pandemic has lifted the veil off the fantasy that the engine of economic growth will nudge citizens out of poverty into a secure and stable middle-class existence. The global economic crisis today is the worst that the world has seen since the Great Depression. When we include the projected impact of global warming into this equation, our common future is one filled with uncertainty and risk rather than safety and security. In this predicament, it is clear is that the mantra of business, as usual, can no longer hold.
A sober realization of this difficult fact will help us in posing better questions and accepting better answers than we are presented with currently. History is testament to the fact that every crisis is also an opportunity and contains the seed of regeneration and it is up to us to decide which path leads to the security and welfare of us all. When we turn to history we see that the hardships suffered by Americans during the Great Depression resulted in the New Deal and the creation of a social security net for all Americans.
The government actively intervened to ensure that American citizens were protected from the vagaries of life in a capitalist society and provided with a minimum set of social protections. A social safety ‘net’ was created to catch those who were most likely to fall through the cracks due to poverty and other disabilities. Those unable to earn their livelihood because of the loss of job were provided unemployment benefits until they entered the workforce again.
Those diseased due to unhygienic living conditions and malnutrition were provided affordable and adequate healthcare, the disabled were guaranteed a minimum income so that they do not have to beg on streets, and children unable to go to school due to lack of money were educated by the State free of cost.
In doing this, the government ensured that the citizens of the country became physically, socially and mentally healthy and active so that they could remain productive workers. By ensuring that their basic needs were met, the American government created a strong, able and healthy workforce that was required to rebuild the economy left devastated by the Great Depression and avoided the social conflicts that could have destroyed American society.
This short lesson in history provides us with a clear path to a future which is less depressing than our mangled present. However, all of us will need to shed our parochial self-interests and focus on the collective good as empowered citizens of a liberal and democratic nation. A country cannot be expected to grow and provide for the needs of the populace if the masses are hungry, illiterate and divided among themselves. The creation of a universal social security net for all Indians irrespective of religion, class, caste, gender or any other identity is the most important task ahead.
This will ensure that every Indian citizen will be provided by the government with basic public goods like education, healthcare, and security of livelihood and income so that Indians can live a dignified life no matter where they are located in the social hierarchy. To achieve this end, the empowered citizens of the country need to support and push for the implementation of the right to food, right to health, right to education and right to work for all Indians, to be funded by the taxes collected by the government.
We also need to acknowledge that the global climate crisis will have severe ecological and economic consequences for India in the coming decades. This realization must inform policy decisions which do not look at economic growth alone as the panacea for all our social problems. The environmental disasters unfolding with greater severity across the world will wipe out many economic gains.
The humans of the 21st century have no other option but to exist in harmony with nature and this demands that we do not look at nature as a resource to be exploited for our consumption alone. The deepening crisis of our present civilization demands global actions and responses working together with people, institutions and governments from all over the world. We can be a part of the solution to both the ecological and economic crisis rather than become the problem if we choose to do so.
The New Green Deal movement is a tiny shoot that has emerged with immense potential in reshaping the socio-economic relations that can enable the required transformations needed to ensure that our collective future is less threatening and dangerous than our precarious present. The current crisis continuously overwhelms our individual abilities and efforts to ‘cope’ with the challenges before us and leaves us too tired to even think of a better and more secure future.
Universal social security is the foundation which can create socially empowered citizens who able to transform India and take on the dark forces of destruction that threaten our common humanity.