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Slowdown hangs heavy on us, when to exhale?
March 02, 2009
A year ago, in this very column, I discussed the myopia of Budget 2008, which did not touch upon events then beginning to unfold. Since then we have seen the world collapse and, perhaps, even change forever.
First came the food crisis in early 2008, and countries realised the value of growing food locally. Then, even as food prices stabilised somewhat (they remain high), oil prices jumped so high that even our normally unflappable finance minister yelped. The world did learn the pain of high price. Not enough, of course, for it to get serious about re-inventing energy security. But it did learn.
By September 2008, our economic czars, exhaling from oil-relief, had to hold their breath again as every week brought a new surprise and a different corporate downfall. For once, even the know-it-alls -- the Davos glitterati -- seemed uncertain of the future. They still don't dare exhale.
The seizures did not stop there. Every day, week or month, a part of the world experienced unusual weather -- hurricanes, floods, unseasonal rainfall, bitter cold or intense heat, forest fire. It is difficult to compute the effect of such events on economic activity.
But the world hurt badly, and is still hurting. The growing intensity of 'natural' events and variable weather is a clear sign of climate change, as science also tells us. We were, are, witness to another level of global collapse.
In all, our world has changed, even if we do not accept it, or do not want to change with it. Therefore, what will make countries more resilient to face the future?
Governments, which till yesterday pushed for integration of global economies, are now realising how vulnerable this makes them to external collapses.
Export-oriented economies are the worst hit in this recession. Indian commentators, who loved to love China for its export-oriented strategies, are today saying India's investment in agriculture and rural resilience may have just worked. India has been able to cope with global vagaries by building durable domestic markets.
How was this done? First, the country increased the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for agriculture in the past years. That means farmers are the real heroes today. They have grown more. The country has harvested more. There is local food production, adding to local food security.
The second big-ticket difference came because of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which created jobs and built resilience.
The challenge now is to use employment creation to build rural assets for double benefit -- jobs and sustainable livelihood. It is this 'employment' challenge the future world must grasp.
Till now, we were tutored employment would come from the very sectors -- industry and services -- that, today, are collapsing like ninepins. We never believed in land, or alternative, employment options, and so policy wilfully worked to destroy existing work options.
Take the big fight of the years gone by -- the entry of big retail to take over the mom-pop business of small shops, and the entry of contract-corporate farming to take over small-holder farmers. These 'small' people were dismissed because they were not organised, not part of established business, as we knew it.
What got missed was the fact these small-holders -- of shops or farms -- are large employment creators. More importantly, they are better able to cope with uncertainty -- their costs are lower and they adapt quickly to changes. They are more resilient. The future is here.
This investment in local infrastructure for local livelihood is also an important part of the climate puzzle. The fact is global consumption patterns are built on the use of large amounts of cheap goods, imported over long distances.
This over-consumption is good for integrated economies, and bad for the environment: It leads to massive use of natural resources, massive waste and earth-devastating pollution.
But today, when national economies are built on the wasteful consumption of some, it is difficult to de-link. Too much self-interest is built into this wasteful economy. Nevertheless, let us also be clear: We cannot consume to be rich and still think we can save tomorrow.
It is here, again, the pieces come together. The world has to re-invent economies for tomorrow, make them less economically vulnerable and more climate-secure. It is here opportunity exists: Investment in the local economies of the poor.
The businesses of the small, combined with green enterprises -- from decentralised solar to smart-grids -- will be the future of business. There is a real need to think of the ultimate small revolution. In a de-globalising world that's integrated, yet smaller.
Only then can all of us exhale.
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