After the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many consigned ideologies and alternatives to the rubble of history. The end of the cold war was explained as the victory, not just of liberal ethos and individual freedom, but of dynamic, market-driven capitalism championed by likes of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Manmohan Singh. India’s left also embraced this belief in practice, promoting foreign and national capitals and capitalist-led industrialization. They hoped market miracles would generate employment and wealth. Women such as MedhaPatkar, a social activist and a fierce opponent of the globalized developmental model and Sudha Bhardwaj, a trade union activist in Chhattisgarh seemed as thoroughly on the wrong side of the history as it was possible to be.
Now, almost three decades on; ideologies, alternatives, left politics, non-political party initiatives are back in action. The voices against globalization, liberalization, capital and market are storming back because they have been able to form an incisive and futuristic critique of what has gone wrong in societies and economies and what is to be done in future. Whereas the mainstream politics have all too often given up the battle of ideas and practices and retreated towards sectarianism, fear and nostalgia, diverse sets of activists, researchers and media practitioners have however, focused on poverty, equality, environment, culture, knowledge and how to vest power and politics in people and citizens rather than corporates and political elites.
Such renewed vitality to envision India’s future is remarkable. Ashish Kothari was young when the wall fell. His youth was marked by protests and resistance; those years were a time of prioritizing ‘business and growth over ecological and human rights’. K. J. Joy, a full-time activist with Mukti Sangharsh Movement (MSM), was growing up with the socio-political movements in the 1980s. In 2000s, they came together, they went beyond left, right and center. As thinkers, practitioners and synthesizers, both have edited and published the voluminous Alternative Futures: India Unshackled (Authors Upfront, New Delhi, 2017, MRP: INR1195), a valuable collection of 35 essays on India’s future. They sketch new ways to build India, an accommodation between economics, ecology, culture and society. Their alternatives go considerably further than the class-based communist or the caste-based justice politics. They envisage a different level of societal intervention in production and planning – either directly or through voluntary co-operativisation – that has few antecedents in modern India.
For the Indian new generation which has grown up since the rise of the new globalism, alternatives are not a familiar word. However, on the critical intellectual and social horizons, a number of organizations, movements, individuals are more questioning today than they used to be about market and capitalist economy. Indeed, what is being called ‘alternative futures’ have something of the political and cultural moment built in the present. Sites like Vikalp Sangam or Alternatives Confluence, films, clips, dialogues make such moments more durable and dense.
This positivity aside, there is a need to develop more a well-researched perspectives on emerging alternatives in India. ‘Another World is Possible’ should go beyond political rhetoric and open space events. When Ashish Kothari and K. J. Joy write of the need to collate ‘some broad common trends, such as the quest for ecological sustainability and socio-economic justice and equity, the exploration of a more accountable and deep democracy, and the celebration of diversity of various kinds’, the knowledge, labour, disappointments and successes experienced by people across a broad swathe of areas in the country over the past three decades give their words credibility. These people have seen the political regimes supporting the corporates take control of their land and forest. They felt economic growth has been mainly benefiting a small section of the society. They have anger against the political and social elites who are brazenly unaccountable and authoritarian.
In response to this situation on the ground, some organisations which have embraced the community initiatives some years ago have worked decisively towards policies that deepen democracy. Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Praavita Kashyap with the MKSS narrate how the social movements challenged the elite and have creatively used the non-electoral democratic space to have their voices heard, such as MazdoorKisan Shakti Sangathan’s campaign for Right to Information, and other rights-based legislation. K. J. Joy demonstrates the biomass-based rural revitalization in the country. Aseem Shrivastava and Elango Rangasamy give the example of Kuthambakkam village in Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu, which anchored itself in the vision of Gram Swaraj. The village have adequate livelihood opportunities including for dalits, good roads, an effective drainage system, safe drinking water, energy-efficient lighting and housing for all. There are several such bright examples in the book.
Based on successful models and experiments, the editors and authors develop their broad ideas about society, community, democracy, freedom, justice. Categorized under four broad themes – ‘Ecological Futures’, ‘Political Futures’, ‘Economic Futures’ and ‘Socio-Cultural Futures’, they would like to expand the meaning of the existing ideas and practices. They are not satisfied only with the protection of existing democracy and freedoms; instead they want to expand and fulfil freedoms yet to be obtained. Spreading ideas of democracy – ‘the idea of a radical social democracy that draws on both Ambedkar and Roy and indeed takes what is possible in the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore’, Aditya Nigam says, will allow people to make choices about what they want in their lives, and democracy without such vibrancy is incomplete. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a media practitioner and author, makes a strong case for the future of alternative media where media practitioners should collaborate with whistleblowers, representatives of civil society, and political activists to bring out unpleasant truths and deliver greater transparency.
Much of what the alternative futurists believed in and practiced in the 1990s and 2000s have since been debated, not just by civil society organisations, movements, new socialists and leftists, but by a broad swathe of democratic opinion. Still they are new ideas and works in progress. A democratic and dynamic approach to biodiversity conservation (Kartik Shanker, Anna Oommen, Nitin Rai), the principles, structures and pathways of environmental governance in India (Sharachchandra Lele, Geetanjoy Sahu), the future of water (Shripad Dharmadhikary, Himanshu Thakkar), energy futures (Harish Hande, Vivek Shastry, Rachita Mishra), legal futures for India (Arpitha Kodiveri), pastoral futures (Ilse Kohler-Rollenfson, Hanwant Singh Rathore), urban future (Rakesh Kapoor), knowledge futures (Rajeshwari S Raina), future Bazaar (Rajni Bakshi), alternative transportation (SujitPatwardhan), biomass-based rural revitalization (K. J. Joy), Anna Swaraj for food sovereignty and agro-ecological resurgence (Bharat Mansata, Kavitha Kuruganti, Vijay Jardhari, Vasant Futane), technological alternatives (Dinesh Abrol), future of adivasis, dalit, religious minorities, health, education, languages (Gladson Dungdung, Anand Teltumbde, Irfan Engineer, Abhay Shukla, Rakhal Gaitonde, Rajesh Khindri, Tultul Biswas, Ganesh Devy) – the goals of millennial futurists are radical and wide-ranging. They appear as individual pieces in the book. Nonetheless there are common threads. The futurists think that environmental destruction has gone out of control and that the economy is rigged in favour of corporate interests. They argue that the people yearn for power and decision making to be redistributed by the state to mitigate the imbalances in the society. They think that the present course of top-down development led governments to ignore the increasing unrest and struggles of people. And they believe that the domination, hierarchy, modernity which drive society, culture and the economy no longer serve the interests of common people and must be reversed radically. In part, they give economic and social arguments. But the arguments for reimagining society goes beyond economics – and its roots spread far beyond the existing progressive canon.
The organisations and authors who are working for a new future want to do many things together. They imagine utopia. ‘What is that makes our lives meaningful’, in the words of Arvind Narrain. According to the author, there are at least two concepts deeply meaningful to human existence: ‘The first is the notion of love for one person and the second is the notion of love in a wider sense, which can be characterized as the love of justice or empathy for the suffering other.’ Ashish Kothari and K. J. Joy look back into the future and imagine India, South Asia and the world in 2100. They propose in the end: ‘When they started and for the better part of their history, they were indeed promoting alternatives to the dominant economic, political and social systems of the day. Now that the process of justice, equity, and ecological wisdom are firmly rooted and flowering, I propose that we make a change. From next confluence onwards, shall we call them ‘Vividh Kalpana Sangams’ – Confluences of Diverse Imaginations?’
Choices are many. However, how best to apply these on ground can be hotly debated. Some are keen on ‘regionalization and localization’. Some would like to think in terms of ‘class consciousness’, ‘reform’, ‘revolution’ and ‘transformation’. The trade unionists will offer brilliant solutions through workers’ revolts.The ideas of gram swaraj, decentralization, peoples’ empowerment, self-rule can run parallel to the possibilities of political power, state, prosperity and centralized redistribution of wealth. Resistance to alternative futurists can come in various forms. Critics may say that these goals are not possible; that, as a matter of fact, their policy ideals will not achieve their goals at macro/national levels; that even if the policies were to work, they would be too hard to digest; or that, whether they work or not, they are not desirable in the modern world. The political economists can argue the impossibility of dismantling the deeply-entrenched economic and political systems. Some would welcome the emergence of alternative futures doctrine, but at the same time, they will not find them as a sufficient answer to globalisation’s complex problems.
There will always be questions raised about people’s will. It is right to say that people should have control over their lives, locality, natural resources and that the opportunities in their lives have not increased. The resentment about inequality and injustice will be accepted. Nonetheless, is there a widespread desire for radical change in the society? Are Indians in support for change, redistribution, alternatives more than they were in 1990 or 1980? How do we measure public opinion in a political democracy? Who will represent peoples’ desire for change? Why and how would one generate confidence and trust in alternative futurists?
Yet, this book has a refreshing willingness and energy to challenge the status quo. The editors and authors are ready to travel through long journeys and complicated questions. Rightly said that such a collective effort ‘can help us to get out of the shackles of the ever-growing cynicism of ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) syndrome and provides the contours for a better tomorrow’.