That’s Life!!!

Sheikh Ark

Pic “Ark”. Gulam Mohammeed Shaikh. 2008

As reported by Ashish Kothari and KJ Joy

Address by Meera Gond-Vankar to the Vikalp Mahasangam 10, held simultaneously in 30 locations across South Asia, winter of 2100[i]


elcome to the Vikalp Mahasangam 10[ii], the first time we are organizing a confluence at 30 different locations in South Asia, where thousands of you working on the most exciting initiatives to sustain justice have gathered. Firstly, my compliments and thanks to the incredible team of communicators which has made this possible through the plurinet, the decentralized system that replaced the centrally controlled internet of the first half of the century that just passed. I feel blessed that even as I speak in my language, it is being transmitted in over 300 languages with the help of volunteers from the pluriversities that I will speak about a bit later. I am also deeply honoured that I was chosen to put together this brief account of the transformations that have taken place in the last few decades, based on inputs that came in from countless amongst you who have lived through them. I have tried to be faithful to what I got from you, but inevitably there will be interpretations and mistakes which are mine. There will be many more narratives of this journey out there, and may they all flourish!

I also apologise that when I refer to years or decades in this narrative, I am using the Gregorian calendar. Though fortunately the diversity of calendars and time maps, and indeed of the concept of time, has been increasingly accepted across the world, many of us have grown up using this one as our reference point (even though in my own case, my ancestors used different ones). I hope that you will find easy ways to convert the time periods I use into calendars and time maps of your own liking and convenience.

Those of you who are old enough to have gone through the upheavals in the mid-21st century will remember that we walked through fire. Various kinds of inequities and injustices, ecological collapse, and much else that some of us would like to forget, had peaked by the 2030s’ to 50s’. It was a slow climb out of that quagmire created by the combination of capitalism, statism, fascism, patriarchy, casteism, human-centrism and other structural forces. But climb we did, clinging onto the many but scattered and small initiatives that went against the tide, building on those through networks and solidarity, collectively envisioning better futures. It is the last few decades that have seen us move resolutely, though not without hiccups, towards equity, justice, ecological wisdom, sustainability, and peace, and all that is associated with these great transformations. It is the specifics of this remarkable journey that I would like to elaborate upon today. I confess I received so many great inputs from so many of you, I did not have time to make a coherent narrative, so what follows may seem somewhat disjointed, and is not in any order of priority or importance. It is for each of you to decide what in this story is most important for you, which part of this story you’d like to highlight to your own young ones … or if you are amongst the young ones right now, which ones you’d like to carry with you as inspiration for the rest of your life.

And by the way, I am going to mention several places, movements, and initiatives in my presentation; some of you are from these areas, indeed responsible for the transformations there. But if there are any you don’t know about and want more detail, you know where to look:!

I start with one of the most remarkable transformations: the dissolution of what used to be a sharp divide between the rural and the urban. Over the last few decades, settlements have become part of  larger socio-economic and ecological units of rural, rurban and urban settlements (a continuum with no clear break) that would be able to meet most or all basic needs internally; sustainable exchange zones or swaraj economies have flourished; governance institutions at these larger cultural and ecological landscapes have been established, accountable to the gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas they are comprised of (these have been retained in their ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ form for the sake of continuity). Typical forms of such eco-regional or bio-regional governance are those covering river valleys (or parts of these where the river is big, such as sub-basins and micro-watersheds), or those on/around a mountain range. Early initiatives on this such as the Aravari Sansad or the river basin authorities in the first two to three decades of the 21st century provided crucial lessons, though often they were only partial successes or sometimes, outright failures, and even though with their own faults such as continuation of caste and gender inequities. Ideas emanating from the work of people like Elango R., Ganesh Devy, Ela Bhatt and others were also useful in conceptualizing these regional economies and governance units. Eco-regional governance also began to reconfigure political boundaries within India, and, as you know by now, the conventional units of districts and states have mostly dissolved or merged into those based on ecological and cultural contiguities.

Linked to the above, and contrary to expectations, at the start of the 21st century, rural-urban migration slowed down to a trickle, and thousands of villages began welcoming back residents who had earlier gone away, including young people who were not even born there. This was because rural areas became economically vibrant, their societies progressively less socially divisive and hierarchical, their gram sabhas the locus of enlightened democratic governance that they call gram swaraj. Many of them also become a new home for urban youth from elsewhere, who had given up their deadening corporate jobs and taken to rural living, integrating themselves with the local community in mutually beneficial ways, learning farming and crafts and bringing with them new skills and information of use to the village. Even by the early 21st century we were beginning to see examples of this, in villages like Hivare Bazaar (Maharashtra) and Kuthambakkam (Tamil Nadu), or those where the livelihoods programme Jharcraft (Jharkhand) and Kudumbashree (Kerala) were successful. These processes increased as villages were transformed into rurban settlements.

Simultaneously, most cities appear to be well on their way to becoming sustainable: the mega-city syndrome that lasted a century, has been giving way to smaller, manageable ones. These are considerably reducing their parasitic dependence on the countryside, instead having equal exchanges, meeting much of their water, energy, food, and material needs from within or immediate surroundings; dedicating at least seventy five per cent of their roads to public transport and cycling/walking, every colony dominated by public spaces where children can play freely; most colonies declaring themselves zero-waste; and a large majority of the citizens involved in mohalla sabha level democracy including local budgeting and planning of public conveniences and spaces that began to be called nagarswaraj. Initiatives in Pune, Bengaluru and other cities in the early 21st century had provided some innovations that other urban areas could learn from and take up similar programmes (as startling counter-trends to the dominant megapolis-related problems of unsustainability and non-liveability). Fittingly a national campaign on this was dedicated to Tagore, one of the earliest to write about city-village inequality.

The earlier concentration of industries and institutions in cities slowly gave way to decentralization of production facilities, services, and so on (including health and learning or education). The burgeoning slums of the late 20th and early 21st century underwent dramatic transformations through in situ programmes of dignified housing, open spaces, self-reliance in water and energy, vibrant cultural opportunities, a combination of self-governance and accountable city administrations, and predominantly localized livelihoods. An early example of this was the Homes in the City programme in Bhuj, Kachchh; these and other examples were used around the 2020s’ to get a Constitutional amendment building on the 74th Amendment, to provide all the elements of urban decentralization.

Infrastructure has also been increasingly decentralized where technically feasible, and it is more and more renewable and local material based. Fossil-based materials have been phased out and even if they are used, it is restricted or limited and used in such a way as to strengthen the local and renewable material and not to replace them. Some form of ‘re-wilding’ has also been attempted, with green spaces and wetlands, road-side green corridors, innovative nesting and roosting spaces incorporated into the architecture of buildings (some from traditional designs hundreds of years old), all contributing to the revival of wildlife and biodiversity in cities.

Talking about wildlife, and recalling in particular our age-old belief that we are part of nature, and all of life is worthy of respect, I am happy to report that community-based conservation has spread across most of South Asia, with communities on their own or with help from the government, researchers and civil society, managing and conserving natural ecosystems. Latest surveys show that ecosystems (across the rural-urban continuum) with some special attention to wildlife, now cover a third of the country, having been regenerated and interconnected, providing cover for a dramatic recovery of most wildlife populations. Given the increasing focus on sustainability across much of the rest of the landscape and seascape too, biodiversity would be recovering even outside the thirty three per cent of special attention areas. Conventional exclusionary policies of separating people and wildlife, epitomized by tiger conservation in the late 20th and early 21st century, have given way to the recognition that co-existence of various kinds is possible, with adequate attention to the needs of different species, including undisturbed spaces identified collaboratively by experts from both host communities and outside. A major boost towards inclusionary conservation was legislations like the Forest Rights Act that was enacted in early 21st century, and its successors, related to marine areas and freshwater wetlands, combining tenurial security for communities with responsibilities and capacities for conservation. But equally important was the increased recognition of non-legal, customary or community paradigms of living with nature, not straight jacketed by formal western models. Significant documentation work in the first couple of decades of the 21st century had already shown the reality and potential of community conserved areas (CCAs), and of ecological revival even in cities, (e.g., lakes in Bengaluru and Salem), and these examples were learnt from and built upon over the next few decades. Most important, we seem to be well on the way to thinking of ourselves as part of nature, and of throwing out the notion of separate areas for humans and the rest of nature; we have most of all our adivasi, pastoral, peasant, and fisher populations to thank, for showing us the way towards this mind shift. Within the government, the old Forest Department has been replaced by an Ecosystems Extension Service, tasked primarily to facilitate community-based conservation.

The welcome concern for biodiversity and wildlife has gone hand in hand with some amazing transformations in socio-economic conditions of people. Absolute poverty (including deprivations of any kind of basic needs) has been eliminated … thank you for the applause… it’s all due to your efforts! …with everyone having secure access to all basic needs including nutritious and adequate food, clean water and air, sanitation, shelter, energy, conditions of good health and opportunities for learning. While in the early 21st century a series of rights-based legislations helped in this journey, it was realized that it was not adequate to demand the state’s accountability towards welfare for the deprived. Indeed such ‘welfarism’ at times created a new form of deprivation– that of taking away agency from people, the ability to self-provision, and when (as often happened in the early decades) the state withdrew or was unable to deliver on welfare schemes, it created a situation of complete collapse, with people not even having their own resources to fall back on. The rights-based policies were gradually converted into policies and social processes of sovereignty and self-reliance, in which communities were able to gain the rights, capacities, and forums for ensuring basic needs, by themselves or in regional relationships of localized production and consumption … and indeed the emergence of a ‘prosumer’ (producer consumer) society. This relates also to the nature of ‘work’, to which I will return a little later.

Agriculture, pastoralism, fisheries, and forestry have become dedicated to, first and foremost, meeting food and other basic needs locally, through organic or ecologically sensitive methods. Conversion of agriculture from mainly use-value production (use-value production to satisfy various needs and enrich human life) to mono-cultural, high external input based, cash crop production that took place in the middle of the 20th century, has been reversed. Communities are now able to meet most of their primary needs without going through large-scale commodity market systems. These livelihood systems are seen as part of a larger biomass production system to meet food, fodder and fuel needs, to supply necessary nutrients to the soil, and also to provide inputs into the agro-based, decentralized value addition opportunities. Agrochemicals and undemocratic technologies like genetic modification have been phased out; most such livelihoods are based on local seeds and breeds, and local inputs for fertilization and protection. The movements around seeds, sustainable pastoralism, various forms of sustainable agricultural practices and the campaigns against GM crops and hybrid breeds of the late 20th and early 21st century provided the basis for this shift.

Social inequalities and inequities of various kinds are on their way to being considerably reduced, which has been possibly the hardest struggle to achieve. The most obstinate inequities have been those of caste and gender. For those earlier called dalits, and other socially marginalized sections, while the post-Independence policies of reservations played their role in providing some opportunities for access to education and jobs, by the 2030s’ these were replaced by a series of measures towards economic and social empowerment and integration, including access to land, mixed housing, incentives for social relations across castes. This enabled such sections to flourish while beginning to eradicate caste identities altogether, moving towards an Ambedkarite vision of a casteless society. Formerly  caste and gender based occupations were transformed in such a way that they became caste and gender neutral, and anybody is now able to take up any occupation, having equal access to learning the necessary skills. In the case of gender and sexuality, the first few decades of the 21st century saw increasing mobilization for equal rights to women on a range of fronts (including titles of custodianship to land and equal wages), the recognition of multiple genders and sexualities (the Supreme Court finally relaxed its views on homosexuality, and an increasing presence of young members of parliament reduced the resistance of the conservative lobby), and the legalization and public recognition of same-sex partnerships. Unlike in many other issues of radical change, in these matters a part of the mainstream media also played a positive role of sensitizing the public in the early decades of the 21st century.

Families, as they exist today, are considerably transformed from the past. While they retain their essential feature of being a space for nurturing and care, families as spaces of oppression and exploitation have become considerably uncommon, mainly due to feminist and children’s movements in the mid-21st century. There is now equitable sharing of domestic functions and activities, including child rearing, cooking, caring for the elderly, and so on, across genders (without homogenising them); what has also helped considerably is that these responsibilities are also socialized through neighbourhood groups. Caste and religion is no longer a basis for marriages, partnerships or relationships. Families themselves now exist in a bewildering variety of forms, based on partnerships amongst a diversity of genders, for various reasons including (apart from love!) taking care of children and the elderly.

Possibly one of the most moving transformations has been how society now treats those we used to call ‘disabled’. We all are abled or disabled in various ways, and the anachronism of treating those with some particular physical or mental impairment issues as being disabled, and of marginalizing those who are in some such ways challenged, has thankfully been discarded. All human settlements have been undergoing transformations to make them accessible and inclusive, especially sensitive to those who have special needs. Focused programmes in learning and education spaces, and in various forms of media, have changed mindsets that used to think of such people as inferior in some way, towards simply seeing them as part of human diversity.

One major source of inequality (economic, social, political), and of unsustainability, the private and state ownership of land, is on the way out. In the early decades of the 21st century, some communities like Mendha-Lekha in central India took the revolutionary step of placing all agricultural land into the village commons, while reclaiming their collective rights to forests, water, and grazing land from state ownership. I still remember the story of this event recounted to me by my maternal grandparents, who were from this region. The positive impact this had on their economic and social lives, spurred others to take similar steps. Quickest were adivasi and indigenous areas, which in any case traditionally had more collective ownership or custodianship patterns; non-adivasi agricultural communities took longer to change; and urban areas were the ones with maximum struggle, and where the transformation is still not complete. Family ownership of homes has remained stubbornly resistant to change, but along with other sources of wealth, there is increasing discussion on the need to do away with their inheritance along family lines. In any case, with a far greater degree of equity in other spheres of life, including economic democratization that I will describe below, and with values of sharing and equality being on the ascendance, wealth inequalities with personal inheritance as a major bulwark are now far easier to question.

In a revolutionary transformation from what it was a century ago, and in sync with the re-commoning of land (and other natural resources), the economy has become considerably democratized. Movements resisting the power of private corporations and the nation-state over economic activities, especially of workers in various sectors, led the way. There was a long period in which workers’ unions, especially those linked to political parties, were not the transformative force they could have been, and much of the unorganized or informal sector workforce was left out. However, new kinds of worker organisations including unions of waste-pickers, forest workers, fish-workers, and those from industries and mines who revived the approach of people like Shankar Guha Niyogi of the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh, supported by civil society organisations, gradually brought in a focus on producer control, working conditions, environmental responsibility, gender equality, and remuneration parity. Starting with the waste-pickers and forest workers unions, that displaced corporations and state agencies, the movement to take over production and service facilities took root. This was a long and hard struggle, for owners of capital, big landlords, and agencies controlling other natural resources were not likely to give in so easily, and had the might of the state behind them. What helped was the combination of resistance and take-over movements with those who were showing alternative forms of production, such as the dozens of producer companies and producer-run cooperatives that sprung up in the first two to three decades of the 21st century, careful not to repeat the mistakes of government-established cooperatives of the previous century. Also helpful was an increasingly vocal consumer movement that realized its interests were in aligning with producers, both moving towards ecologically sensitive and socially just processes, and towards a merger in a transformation of the meaning of ‘work’ as described below.

Economic transformation is also manifested in the way this Mahasangam has been organized. We have not spent a single rupee on the local arrangements across these thirty sites; all inputs have come in the form of barter or time-sharing. Democratizing the economy has also meant that the earlier financial hegemony — hegemoney if you allow me a small pun! — of monetary institutions has been replaced by a diversity of local, socially-controlled currencies or non-monetised means of exchange. The rupee still exists, as you know, but is mainly for exchanges amongst regions, and is without its former anonymous power. The great economic depressions of the early 21st century had already put into place serious questions about the role of centralized financial institutions like banks or finance ministries, and at one stage people finally refused to allow governments to bail them out. Instead, movements demanded the decentralization of financial powers and arrangements, including through drastic fiscal reforms, and the creation of localized currencies, and so on. Civil society and communities have also revived or brought in new forms of time sharing to exchange skills and expertise on a non-monetary basis. On that note, let us loudly acknowledge the language volunteers, who are today providing us all the translations to make this address understandable!

Connected to this, are the dramatic changes that have taken place in the domain of livelihoods and ‘work’. After a period of sharp decline in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, primary sector livelihoods or ways of life (forestry, agriculture, pastoralism, fisheries, and so on), and others directly based on nature such as many crafts, began to see a revival. This was partly due to mobilization by adivasis, small peasants, artisanal fisherfolks, herders, crafts-persons and others, asserting the legitimacy of their livelihoods and their rights to land and other resources, creating several national forums for greater impact. It was also a result of the work of community organisations and civil society groups that innovated to find livelihood options for the youth amongst these peoples, integrating the best of traditional and new knowledge, creating alternative spaces for learning (such as a series of shalas in Kachchh, which I am proud to say, my paternal grandparents were part of), asserting the crucial place of women in keeping society alive through such livelihoods (such as in the work of the dalit women of Deccan Development Society, or the rural women of Maati Sanghatan and urban women of SWaCH), and linking them to processes of economic democracy that were taking place in various sectors. Interestingly, there was also a trend of ‘professionals’ in other sectors, such as Information Technology, wanting to move into primary sector occupations; while initially this tended to be disconnected from those traditionally engaged in such occupations, over time it became a process of mutually synergistic learning and support. Manufacturing and services were significantly decentralized over time, linking with the increasing localization of the economy and political governance, with large-scale centralized production facilities becoming redundant in most sectors. Workers in modern facilities rebelled against the deadening, assembly line kind of labour they were putting in, with most profits cornered by capitalist owners. They demanded both, greater democratic control over working conditions and revenues, as also kinds and patterns of work that were more ‘whole’ and meaningful. A seamless rural-urban continuum was built on, and reinforced, the possibilities of families being engaged in all sectors of the economy, no longer categorized as simply ‘primary’, ‘secondary’, and so on, nor rigidly bound by caste, gender or other such identities.

The changes in ‘work’ would also encompass bringing back relations of affect, caring and sharing to centre-stage in the economy. In the several decades of the 20th and 21st centuries in which capitalism and modernity were ascendant, these relations (between people and nature, between people within communities, between communities, and so on) had been ignored, or sidelined, or replaced by commercial and exploitative relations, or commodified by giving them a monetary value, such as happened with the market-based measures for combating the climate crisis. This was pushed back by feminists and others who highlighted the basic human nature of such relations and their enormous contribution to the sustenance of society as a whole (including economy); and therefore the need to recognize and bring them back where they had been lost or displaced, where necessary in modified forms, to shed them of any inequities that may be embedded in them.

As a consequence of the above, we no longer have the 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday routine; rather ‘work’ happens as part of community life, integrated with enjoyment and leisure in a seamless whole and every individual can be many different kinds of things, taking to new levels Marx’s vision of being a hunter and pastoralist and critic, all at once. Also back-breaking, monotonous work has gone; remaining mechanical tasks that are essential for society to function are shared by all those who can perform them. Since there is no space for private accumulation which required labour in assembly line like situations, there is much more time for creative activities like reading, writing, music, dancing, painting and so on, often built into the ‘work’ itself.  All of the above was made much more possible by changes in learning and education (more on this in a minute!), re-instating respect to working with the hands and feet, changing the mindset that divided work and enjoyment, producer and consumer, owner and labourer …and increasing social realization that ‘deadlihoods’ (destruction of age-old ways of life and their replacement by deadening ‘jobs’) needed to be replaced again by livelihoods in various forms. We are moving towards operationalising Marx’s vision of ‘from each according to capacity and to each according to need’.

Consumerism was amongst the hardest of scourges to tackle, ingrained as it had been over generations of advertising-led brainwashing. But greater awareness of the consequences of over-consumption, a mix of incentives and disincentives to curb consumerism, and resistance and protests by victims of destructive development who linked their situation with the consumption patterns of the rich, led to gradual changes. An ‘above sane consumption limit’ having been established in the 2020s’, all those who were over-consuming resources have changed their lifestyles to greater sustainability. In stark contrast to the early 21st century, we are now mildly envious of neighbours who are happy with less, the value of aparigraha, which we can loosely translate as being satisfied with what one has, or ‘enoughness’, having been firmly established in society’s ethical framework. I recall when I was young, my grandparents would frequently repeat Gandhi’s famous ‘greed’ versus ‘need’ philosophy, and I would silently mock them; now most of us realize its enormous importance.

There has also been a remarkable demographic transformation. Firstly, our population has been stabilized at about 1.5 billion, as birth rates dropped dramatically in the 2020s’ and 30s’ consequent to women’s empowerment, improvement in economic security of the poor, and declining hold of religious beliefs privileging male children or prohibiting abortion and birth control. States like Kerala led the way in this phase. Secondly, many of our people have migrated to other parts of the world, welcomed by the people there as a form of multiculturalism and also in recognition of the fact that the Indian subcontinent was feeling stressed due to high human densities.

I may not be exaggerating if I say that an absolutely fundamental part of these amazing transformations has been the change in learning and education. Educational institutions have been transformed into open spaces of learning and welfare amongst the communities as a whole, their facilitators (they used to be called ‘teachers’!) coming from both formal and informal, modern and traditional backgrounds, and learners taking part in setting curricula. Learning has moved more towards a combination of Gandhi’s naitaleem (new learning/education) principle of integrating head, hands (and feet!) and heart, towards inculcating oneness with the rest of nature, and building mutually respectful relations with the rest of humanity. In many cases communities across the rural-urban continuum have reclaimed learning for children as a collective practice, rather than one that has to happen within the walls of an institution. Imagine, the pluriversities where young adults are now able to learn a diversity of skills, values, perspectives, and knowledge systems, and to interact with people from diverse cultures, used to once be ‘universities’ where students were moulded to fit into straitjacketed positions within corporations and government agencies!

One striking result of the changes in learning, education, and skilling is that the dependence on ‘professionals’ has considerably reduced; each of us has the chance to learn the basics of living. For the better part we now are our own doctors, or teachers, or electricians, or cooks, and the like. Of course we still have specialisations, for none of us can be good at everything, but we are out of that phase that lasted several decades into the 21st century, when for every little ailment we ran to a doctor, for every household task we called in a service professional, for every repair we went to a shop. Most of you would not be old enough to recall a time when, if you had a cough or cold, you would line up to see a doctor!

In the first few decades of the 21st century, electronic means of communication spread considerably; many of you may recall or have heard of Facebook, Twitter and so on. Indeed we went through a horrific phase in which many people opted for a chip implanted in their skin, with the aid of which they could transmit all kinds of information about themselves and learn about others, without the need for any face-to-face or physical contact. But serious misuse of this by corporations and governments, the latter in the name of public security, gave rise to mass movements against such intrusive technologies. People increasingly realized the hollowness of exclusively virtual relationships, and there was a resurgence of face-to-face interactions, the re-commoning of village and town squares as places for conviviality and mutual learning, the revival of oral traditions. The term ‘social networking’ was rescued from its digital capture, to actually mean such interactions! Of course electronic communication remains, and indeed I’m using it right now for the transmission of this address, but with the increasingly democratic control of media as a whole, it does not displace normal communications.

Linked to this was the movement to remove the rigid distinction or dichotomy between abstract thinking and experiential knowledge. For a long period in human history, such separations were based on caste, class or gender hierarchies, and over the last few centuries on the domination of ‘western’, ‘modern’ knowledge and epistemologies. These factors were identified and fought against, and all aspects of knowledge were completely democratized. Various forms of knowledge got more integrated and hybridized, even while retaining some distinctiveness, a sort of eclectic unity in diversity. Information in general became freely available, with the Right to Information Act in the early 21st century having played a major role, but now mostly having to be used only in exceptional circumstances, as society has increasingly accepted the principle of knowledge as a commons. Various movements towards open access systems in software and hardware, publishing, medicine, and other fields, that saw their birth a century ago, flourished from the 2020s onwards, and any attempts at privatizing knowledge were stoutly defeated by people defiantly making such knowledge public. This did not mean that individual innovations were no longer considered important; on the contrary, they were given widespread social recognition. Individuals themselves accepted that their ideas and innovations were their gifts to the collective that was sustaining them (a trait that, incidentally, a substantial part of traditional knowledge had, before notions of intellectual property rights came in towards the late 20th and early 21st centuries).

The general trends in democratizing knowledge and acknowledging its diverse nature also affected technology. In the last few decades, technological development and innovations were increasingly subjected to democratic and social regulation to ensure that technologies of destruction and domination are discouraged and nipped in the bud. In the early part of the 21st century there began a move towards recognizing many traditional technologies that had continuing relevance (e.g., mud architecture), bringing them back in some form including through new innovations, (for instance, compressed mud blocks with a mix of materials, including biomass, for added strength). There was also, around the same time, increasing technological innovation that was explicitly kept in the public arena, such as open source digital and mapping techniques. The capacity of civil society organisations to also expose or sabotage dangerous technologies (such as genetic engineering) and their purveyors, or produce alternative technologies that worked as well, or better, also steadily increased. For quite some time state and corporate agencies hit back with law suits and worse, but the force of technological democratization (coupled with the movement towards more open knowledge and information, and the undermining of economic concentrations of power through localization) could not be contained. Technologies became more gender sensitive, and there was a shift from single point/criterion assessment of technologies and choices to multi-criteria assessments based on indicators drawn from concerns of sustainability, equity and democratization.

It followed from the principles of knowledge and information democracy, that the media has also been democratized and diversified. The great concentration of media power that characterized the early 2000s, reaching its pinnacle in the empire of one of the Presidents of the then United States, was gradually broken down by a combination of ethical hackers, a series of Wikileak like events, rising popularity of alternative media that asserted the knowledge commons, technologies enabling much wider public access to information and news, and public discontent with the nexus amongst political, economic and knowledge power centres. A bewildering diversity of media has evolved since then, from community radio and street theatre and public video to newspapers and magazines and others, in an equally bewildering diversity of languages. The internet too has been democratized, with multiple people-controlled nodes for its smooth functioning.

None of the above would have been possible were it not for the strong move towards a radical transformation in politics. Early on in the 21st century, peoples’ movements realized that democracy (demos+cratis=power of the people), was not about elections! Rather, it was about ordinary people everywhere having the power to be part of decision-making.  Democracy was slowly transformed into an embedded form of political swaraj, from a top-down, election-based system into one with the locus of power in gram sabhas, mohalla sabhas, tribal village and pastoral community assemblies, and larger representative institutions formed of delegates or representatives of these assemblies. A slogan started by a tiny village in the heart of India, Mendha-Lekha in Gadchiroli — ‘our government in Delhi and Mumbai, in our village we are the government’ — resonated across India, and saw various appropriate modifications depending on context (‘we govern our village, and our delegates are in the river valley committee’, or ‘our municipality in Mumbai, but in our neighbourhood our decisions count’).  Representative democracy came to be based on this direct or radical democracy. The politics of representation was greatly transformed, emanating from power at the grassroots, subject to strong norms of accountability, transparency, and the right of recall; the nature of political parties got to be less about gaining power (since in any case centralized power was no longer acceptable) and more about genuine representation of cultural and social (including sexual and gender) diversity, organic leadership, and the motivation to serve. Some unease in the relationship between direct or radical democracy at the ground and representation at higher levels remains, but does not seem to have resulted in serious disruptions, since you as an empowered public have not allowed representatives a free reign of power.

(Pause….. as a loud cheer breaks out amongst the Mahasangam participants…)

One complex and contentious question that was debated through this transformation was regarding the continuation and role of the state. As you know, in its widest definition of a governance mechanism at various levels, the state has remained, but considerably transformed from the centralized, nation-state, top-heavy one that existed earlier, to a series of institutions with functions of coordination and facilitation, and no special powers that are not subject to the units of direct democracy. This was clearly one of the arenas of maximum resistance and contestation in the first half of the 21st century, as seen for instance, in the obstacles put by much of the then Forest Department to the democratization of forest governance under the Forest Rights Act enacted in the first decade of the century, and the attempts by right-wing governments to clamp down on civil society dissent. The maturing of peoples’ and civil society movements in this phase, enabling them to work with each other much more than earlier, created a substantial political mass that supported direct democracy and reigned in such attempts by the state. Simultaneously the movement towards eco-regional governance, and to review and relax nation-state boundaries in South Asia (and more globally), which I will describe in a minute,   helped redefine the form of the state. The character of the state underwent a radical transformation – from a capitalist, upper caste and patriarchal state as it existed for most part of the 20th and early part of the 21st century; instead, the state and its institutions came to represent the interests of all sections of people. Its role underwent a change from a coercive force to one of a facilitator, helping to integrate different interests, conflicts, and so on, that could be resolved at the level of the communities. Remarkably, we are even seeing the dismantling of the police force, and South Asian peoples as a whole are discussing the possible dismantling of the army; if we all agree to this, it will be one of the most amazing transformations of human history.

This also brings me to the issue of crimes – ‘crimes’ in inverted commas. For a long period of human history, we considered any deviation from what was considered as ‘normal’, as a crime. Fortunately, enlightened leadership through the mid-2100s’ questioned this, and eventually such a view faded away with the gradual realisation that there is nothing like a ‘normal’ behaviour against which certain behaviours can be stamped as ‘deviant’ and thus criminal. Pluralism is not only tolerated, but actively encouraged. And at another level the material conditions that existed which forces people to carry out activities that hurt others or affect relations with other fellow beings in the form of violence, robbery, bribe, trafficking, and so on, do not exist any longer. In other words nobody is compelled to enter into these activities to meet one’s needs. This does not mean that presently there are no activities that we may still consider as crimes. We have to acknowledge that human nature is not necessarily always benign and generous, even if these characteristics have been significantly enhanced over the last few decades. We do have reason at times to feel angry and hurt and hostile and even vengeful. So ‘crimes’ still exist, in the form of people doing things that hurt the interests of others, but with decades of encouragement to our positive and generous side, and the decrease in competition to ‘acquire’ resources, these occur to a much lesser degree. Also, the way such activities and instances are dealt with has qualitatively changed.  People who enter into such activities are no longer considered as criminals and put behind bars. Instead they are seen as people who need help and community counselling centres and rehabilitation processes help them realize the hurt their actions cause to others, and how to overcome the impulses or attitudes that cause them. Instead of stigmatizing such people, the emphasis is on empathy and behavioural change. Around 2030 capital punishment was abolished and increasingly, corporal punishment too has been substantially phased out.

I have mentioned ‘culture’ several times above, but it will not suffice to talk about it in passing only. A strong fulcrum of all these transformations has been India’s incredible cultural diversity and depth. These have become a cause for celebration and strength, rather than the source of divisiveness and conflict that it had become, under the influence of right-wing political and cultural bigots, in the early part of the 21st century. Several prominent individuals and groups had begun movements against the intolerance marking this phase, aiming to reclaim different cultures and identities as the bases for meaningful sharing and learning, indeed as the source of excitement and joy (how boring if we were all the same!). Diverse languages, cuisines, belief and knowledge systems, ways of living and loving, all these and other aspects of culture were once again given pride of place  to counter their rapid erosion under the onslaught of capitalism and modernity or right-wing proselytization. Amongst the most important moves was that of changing education systems to integrate local languages, include oral traditions, and to celebrate both local and other cuisines, ethnicities, and other aspects of culture. Already in the early 21st century organisations like Bhasha in Gujarat and SECMOL in Ladakh were showing the way.

In the spirit of diversity, multiple ideologies that promote equity and social justice, sustainability, democratization, dignity, peace, non-violence, and such other positive values, have flourished.  From 2010s’ onwards we saw a process of grassroots-up visioning, dialogues of practices, concepts, values, world views across India and with peoples in other parts of the world. These were combined with lessons from relevant existing spiritual and secular world views and the great thinkers and doers of the past, into an evolving synthesis of values and principles, leaving room for various ideological branches to flourish and co-exist. The Vikalp Sangams (Alternative Confluences), of which this Mahasangam is a continuation, were a small part of this. Through this the basic values of diversity and pluralism, solidarity, caring and sharing, equity, justice, oneness of life, interconnectedness and reciprocity, peace, creativity, respect for labour, simplicity, and so on, were revived or reinforced. We now have a huge diversity of peoples’ charters across the subcontinent, but most of these are based on a common understanding and acceptance of these and other values, which provide a thread linking us all.

Based on the above, religious centralization and inter-religious conflicts have also been on their way out, as each individual and community realized the power of its spiritual and ethical self; enlightened spiritual leadership would remain but attempts to convert this into dogmatic, blind-faith dominated, undemocratic institutions such as the religions that dominated the early 2000s, would be constantly challenged by movements arguing for pluralism and diversity. For a while, there was tension between science-based movements that were seen to be arguing against spiritualism and religion per se (though their focus was more on removal of ‘blind faith’ and superstitions), and movements seeking to reinforce basic spiritual values and ethics. But enlightened leadership on both sides realized that co-existence was not only possible but essential, especially to undermine the power of the scientific and religious orthodoxy. A number of powerful statements on climate crisis and environment by those from within mainstream religions, going against the tide (such as those by the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and several leaders from Islam and Judaism in the decade of the 2010s’), helped build such bridges; the resurgence of indigenous peoples and their nature-based faiths provided additional momentum. The hold of organized, institutionalized religion on the lives of the people, which was on the rise in the 20th and early 21st century, has reduced considerably by the end of the century; instead people have become more ‘spiritual’ and as Mahatma Phule said, ‘seekers of truth/s’ (satyashodhaks).

But what is life without aesthetics and fun? An incredible diversity of arts and crafts has flourished, reversing the decline seen in many traditional forms in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This was linked also to the transformation of livelihoods and work and the revival of cultural diversity, as described above, and the realization by ‘ordinary’ people of their intrinsic abilities to be creative and of the possibility of integrating art in daily life. One of the most interesting processes was the break-down of the division between ‘classical’ and ‘folk’ arts, as music, dance, and other art forms began to be delinked from caste and gender connections, and alternative learning centres encouraged learning by anyone interested. This did not of course mean that excellence and brilliance were not recognized; indeed they are, through social means of acknowledgement and reward, and public sponsorship and patronage. We do it in the opening ceremonies of these Sangams and Mahasangams too! New forms of the mentorship or teacher-learner tradition that have discarded anachronistic links with caste, gender or other such problematic identities have come up. Indeed, we are increasingly seeing the integration of arts and values, the view of nature as art and of art as truth: a sort of ‘aesth-ethics’.

As in the case of arts and crafts, the arena of sports has also witnessed an explosion of talent. In the 1920s’ and 30s’ there was increasing abhorrence against elitism and vulgar commercialization in sports, protest against the ‘pedestalization’ of cricket, and a demand for democratic, widespread access to facilities and training centres. While a competitive spirit remained, acknowledging that it is part of being human, much greater emphasis started being put on cooperative sports and the cooperative spirit balancing out the ills of aggressive competitiveness. Public patronage played an important role in reducing dependence on the state, and eliminating corporate sponsorships. Elite sports like golf declined in response to the general trend towards equality and democratic decision-making of the commons. We now have a situation where almost everyone is a sportsperson of some kind, where excellence is still celebrated but not given superhero status, and where people from India do very well in global events, not only as individual competitors but as ambassadors of cooperation. I am happy to say that through sensitive attention to those with special needs, and the spirit of cooperation taking over, the old distinctions between ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ have begun to dissolve in sports too.

Everything I’ve described above has been remarkable. But perhaps the most noteworthy has been the change in our relations in South Asia. While India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and China still retain their ‘national’ identities, boundaries have become porous, needing no visas to cross. By the middle of the 21st century various oppressed nationalities of the 20th and early 21st century in the region could chose their own political future. Local communities have taken over most of the governance in these boundary areas, having declared shanti abhyaranyas (peace reserves) in previous conflict zones like Siachen, the Kachchh and Thar deserts, and the Sundarbans (the last had become a serious arena of water and land conflict due partly to the climate crisis, during the 2030s’ and 40s’). The same applies to the Palk Strait, with fishing communities from both India and Sri Lanka empowered to ensure sustainable, peaceful use of marine areas. A Greater Tibet has become a reality, self-governed, with both India and China relinquishing their political and economic domination over it and rather extending a helping hand where necessary. In the Greater Thar, communities of livestock herders in both India and Pakistan have been similarly empowered for self-governance. In all these initiatives, narrow nationalism is being replaced by civilizational identities, pride, and exchange, a kind of swasabhyata (own ethnicity) that encourages respect of and mutual learning between different civilisations and cultures. Both nomadic communities and wildlife are now able to move freely back and forth, as they used to before these areas became zones of conflict and were dissected by fences. In short the trans-boundary elements of nature and resources in the region — like water, forests, migratory species — are being increasingly brought under a regional public framework of good governance.

Indeed, the people of India and the rest of South Asia have been significant movers of an increasingly borderless world, in the sense of the gradual dissolution of rigid nation-state boundaries. South Asia learnt from the mistakes of blocks like the European Union, with its strange mix of centralization and decentralization and continued reliance on the nation state, and worked out its own recipe for respecting diversity within a unity of purpose. This is heavily based, as mentioned above, on community-based governance in areas of what were formerly nation-state boundaries. Peoples’ movements across South Asia were key actors towards devising the democratic Global Peoples’ Assembly that, sometime in the mid-2100s’, began to replace the United Nations. This Assembly has a series of governance mechanisms that do not give permanent or long-term power to any people or individual, are accountable to direct democracy and eco-regional units on the ground, and are meant exclusively for absolutely essential functions such as governance of the global commons (the seas, the atmosphere, and so on,) and facilitation of equitable and sustainable cultural and economic relations.

Indeed, let us acknowledge that the transformations in India are not entirely its own doing. We used to pride ourselves for being an ancient civilization (or several, in fact!), for having the world’s largest knowledge base, and so on. That pride took quite a beating when we realized, many decades back, that these things meant little if we continued to let our environment be destroyed, tolerated half of our people living in deprivation, and allowed ourselves to become a colonizing country by exploiting countries weaker than us. It was only when we realized that we could learn enormously from peoples’ initiatives across the world, just as they could learn from us that transformations could be made more effectively and widely. Still, I guess we could take some pride in having been instrumental in starting (with others) the Global Alternatives Sangam, which ran for some decades till it was incorporated into the Global Peoples’ Assembly.

Which leads me to a final point –for the sake of tradition, we have been calling this unbroken series of gatherings Vikalp Sangams or Alternatives Confluences. 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 processes 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?


 [i]) 2100 as per the Gregorian calendar; for the equivalent in other calendars of the region, listeners and readers may please look up Vikalp Mahasangam on the plurinet.

[ii]) Alternatives Mega-confluence; a process called Vikalp Sangam was initiated in the early part of the twenty first century, which morphed into various kinds of gatherings and confluences across the subcontinent, aimed at sharing initiatives of and collectively envisioning more just, equitable, and sustainable societies. While mostly localized and small in size, once in 4-5 years much larger gatherings have been organized as Mahasangams.

Reproduced with kind permission from “Alternative Futures: India Unshackled” edited by Ashish Kothari and KJ Joy. Authors Upfront. Delhi 2017
--Original title: Looking Back into the Future: India, South Asia, and the World in 2100
--Visual not part of book. Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery. New Delhi.

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