We are living through a crisis that is throwing life out of gear in all aspects- be it our personal behavior, public interactions, work environment, education, recreation, entertainment, and conduct of business transactions. Every new day seems to be bringing up yet another challenge for the decision-makers and policy administrators, health care workers, personnel of law and order, as well as the ordinary folk. No one is immune to the fallout of this crisis. It has also revealed the best and the worst in us, as social beings. I tend to believe it is also time to reflect on our style of life, the way we connect with each other, with nature and its resources.
One of the things that the crisis has done is to bring forth the brutal and tragically harsh realities that we somehow live with as normal, but rather should not. Our attention was drawn to the existence of millions of people who had migrated to cities and towns in search of jobs and a better life, leaving behind their families and communities. Suddenly they were stranded right where they were, with no job, little money, no social security, scarce access to any amenity and lacking the basic needs to live with dignity.
The irony is that these people, grudgingly accepted as necessary to carry out certain economic activities in big cities which the “educated” will not do, and yet kept invisible, were the first to be shunned and blamed and treated like a virus once the lockdown was announced. We have all seen the images while sitting in the safety of our own homes. They deserve better – from the government, from people with conscience.
The North-East has a fair share of this invisible population – most of them young. Why would they leave a region that is so very abundantly blessed with natural resources? Why would they leave their land fallow and take up jobs elsewhere and live a life while cut off from all that they are familiar with? Not enough jobs? Do they not know how to make a financially sustainable living in the region? No institutional support to give a ‘saleable’ shape to what they can create with their indigenous skills and local resources? No confidence to experiment? Dreams of a glamorous life outside the region? Despair at the social and economic environment? There are endless questions.
Many young people from the region would find themselves out of work at present and many of them would have lost their jobs too. Even if there is a hope that some might get their old jobs back, we are not sure when, since every business will take time to limp back to normal. Some may not even want to go back because of the trauma they could have suffered during this time. What would these young people, most of them honing valuable skills, do now?
Young people from the North-East go out of the region, not because they starve – they are mostly what we might call aspirational migrants. They go not just to get something to survive, but because they aspire for better living standards. Now they have turned into “aspirational returnees”.
In this context, when they return, what is their frame of mind? What happens to their aspirations? What are they coming back to? How will they be looking at the future? How is their sudden “empty” return going to affect their families and their community?
Conversations with such young people have pointed in two directions.
On the one hand there is a great opportunity to push hard and innovatively on what our people are natively good at – land, crafts, handloom, music, art, hospitality, local cuisine, and similar, so that instead of them going out to make money, money flows inward. This possibility can be harnessed through vocational training and skill building, training in (micro) entrepreneurship and other related services and support.
On the other hand, the large-scale unemployment and limited resources and opportunities can lead to increased social unrest, conflict, addictions, corruption. We need to recognize the larger personal, psychological, social, cultural issues to which the Nort-East is particularly vulnerable, that might come up in the post-COVID period.
Putting these two scenarios together, we see the need for a comprehensive intervention package to deal with these issues so that whatever progress we foresee happening with education, vocational training and skill building, and entrepreneurship promotion will not go waste because of an aggravated volatile social situation that the region has been trying to put behind.
There is another scenario that requires attention – life styles promoted by blind addiction to comforts that are unsustainable. Throughout the duration of the lockdown, one of the biggest struggles has been for food. There is a thought now for the farmer, for the vegetable vendor, the milkman, for the small kirana shops – this has to grow into respect. Respect for food and for those who struggle to grow and deliver it. With the disruption in the supply chains and the new rules regarding social behavior, malls, shopping centers, restaurants, and other symbols of progress are being unable to sustain us. Is a world without them or with a reduced role for them possible, where local food, local cuisine, local economy and cheerful informal human interactions are the norm even while doing business? It was possible till a few decades ago. It is still happening in the villages, which are in some ways safer and better off than cities and towns during this crisis. It was the community that gained by what we consumed, and not some anonymous shareholders of global corporations that sell us everything right through all seasons, with little care for the implications on our health and well being. Processed food infused with an extra load of chemical preservatives, salt and sugar have played havoc with our bodies, giving birth to unscrupulous business in health. The throw-away culture promoted in the name of ease and comfort has polluted our land, water and air. Clean water has become a huge business, clean air is on the way to becoming a business (ironically, when the air in our cities became cleaner due to lockdowns, we were afraid to breathe – we had to wear masks!). Life itself is being seen as a business.
COVID-19 is a threat to life, yes. At the same time, it is also forcing us to pause and make choices in favor of sustainable life.
The Hub Jorhat is gearing up to empower local communities and to train local young people in becoming entrepreneurs. The present crisis offers scope to ask a few questions to steer us forward:
- Who should find visibility through what The Hub does?
- What should the enterprises promoted by The Hub and the social initiatives it engages with attain, and in favor of whom?
- Can The Hub promote innovations in the field of education, health, agriculture, local cuisine, culture, music, art, handicraft, technology, and all that would benefit the ever-present invisible section of the society and community while exploiting the global connections made possible through technology, media and the supply chains of the global economy, while transforming them into vehicles of sustainability, empowerment, justice and equality, as well as increasing concern for the environment, respect for the local, and happy living in solidarity? The answer seems to be positive.
The Hub Jorhat could not have come up at a better time!