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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 5, New Delhi, January 16, 2021

Pandemic and Transition Towards a Green and Just Economy | Soumyadip Chattopadhyay

Friday 15 January 2021

by Soumyadip Chattopadhyay *

The Backdrop

While the possibility of flattening out of the covid-19 curve remains a purely speculative exercise, India has actually experienced flattening out of its economic curve. The micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), providing 110 million jobs in India, are battling for survival as prolonged shutdown and various restrictions on economic activities have put their solvency at jeopardy leading into unavoidable layoffs and significant job losses. A large section of the Indian populations depending on daily earnings have experienced large scale economic distress and food insecurity. Some specific categories of people including women, older workers and people belonging to socio-economically disadvantageous caste groups as well as religious minority are found to be more vulnerable. The migrant workers have been disproportionately affected becoming jobless, moneyless and homeless. In order to mitigate the economic hardship of India’s poor, the Central and State governments announced a slew of relief measures including direct cash transfers and provision of in-kind support through rations of grains and pulses. However, the access and effectiveness of these schemes have been inadequate and also ill-conceived with it’s near-exclusive focus on easing supply constraints at the expense of enhancing aggregate demand in the economy. Importantly, Covid-19 will certainly not be the last epidemic of a novel infectious agent nor stopgap relief is a substitute for sustainable livelihoods, even in the best circumstances. So, it is very imperative to account the lessons learnt and to be better prepared for the next time around.

Interlinkages between Human Health, Healthy Environment and Decent Work

In practice, interlinkages between human health, a healthy environment and decent work for all has been reemphasized by the COVID-19 pandemic. Climate change, massive deforestation and human’s insatiable pursuit for economic growth have inflicted severe disruptions to the ecosystem and these, in turn, facilitate transmission of animal viruses into human population more frequently and more intensely. In case of zoonotic diseases like COVID 19, the relationship between air pollution and health risk is direct with significantly higher health risk for people living in polluted environment. Interestingly, a positive yet temporary effect of response measures to COVID 19 has been observed in terms of improvement in air quality and reduction in carbon emission. In India, the major cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Kolkata — have recorded drops in air pollutants and dramatic improvement in air quality.

Green and Just Transition - Work and Livelihoods and Economies

Given the potential of health-environment nexus in aggravating the risks of COVID 19, a new set of public policies need to be considered in which economic benefits, in terms of resuming business activities and job creation, coexist with ecological benefits in terms of preservation of natural resources and mitigation as well as adaption to environmental challenges. Any mitigation and adaptation strategy would involve the scaling down of carbon and resource-intensive industries and economic activities. A recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) study rightly proposes careful investment planning to infuse “public money into sectors with high employment creation potential and low carbon intensity (the care economy and education) and with high climate mitigation and adaptation potential (renewable energy, energy efficiency, green buildings and infrastructure, public and clean transport, sustainable agriculture)”. Moreover, different forms of environmental degradation negatively affect workers’ health and income and ultimately their food security as well as their productivity. So, any adaptive strategy would inevitably require occupational safety and health measures coupled with social protection policies. In addition, any environmental degradation and pandemic cause severe disruptions in work and livelihood of most vulnerable workers (e.g., indigenous and tribal peoples and people belonging to disadvantaged groups) who heavily depend on natural resources and public services. The impact has also assumed to be more severe for women as climate-resilient jobs are more likely to be created in currently male-dominated industries like renewables, manufacturing and construction. In India, there are evidence of women and disadvantaged caste groups being more adversely impacted in their world of works. So, creation and attendant transition towards new jobs and economic activities must not only be green but also just.

Quite understandably, institutions, policy-making and implementation are key to the green and just transition. In particular, a development that is sustainable and environment-friendly needs to incorporate decentralised, micro-level approaches. Involvement of local government, local partners, local people and proper coordination with the central and state governments can lead to the integration of social and environmental objectives within the paradigm of economic development. All these require scientific data based on local resource endowments and skill development of the stakeholders to map as well as process the data. Local contextualization of livelihood sources along with risks and coping behaviour of the people and communities is extremely important due to their dependence on political, social, economic and historical realities of specific places. In some cases, lack of consensus marks the conceptualization and operationalization of skill development necessary for the green transition and, as a result, skills development policies for the green transition have remained fragmented and largely unresponsive to the labour market needs.

Successful experimentations, albeit few, are there in India. In two easternmost districts of Maharashtra, proper implementation of community forest rights via assignment of forest land to the indigenous local people and involvement of gram sabha to manage forest resources and produce made them economically better off in terms of improvement in the income and livelihood opportunities and arrested their migration to neighbouring states. Capable local leadership and properly designed training program, being responsive to the local labour market needs, acted as the catalysts in ensuring environmentally sustainable economies and societies. In Kerala, three organizations: the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) and the Kerala State Land Use Board (KSLUB) experimented with the mapping of local natural resources by the villagers in the 90s. This initiative witnessed a unique blending of scientific evaluation of resources with the traditional wisdom, values and ethics of the local people and provided an alternative to prevailing resource management models plagued with environmental degradation. The Kudumbashree model of local contractors being given local work such as plumbing, carpentry, cobbler - leatherwork, coconut harvesting and processing to improve local economic development was also institutionalised for peoples benefit including social and economic justice.

Summing Up

In essence, the COVID 19 pandemic has exposed many fault lines of the existing economic system and policies. Opportunities should not be lost to develop public and private policies in addressing the current pandemic which is intertwined with climate change crisis and gradually transitioning towards a green and just economy. Basic objectives of such policies would be twofold — to facilitate income, employment and capacity generation for improving livelihoods of Indian urban and rural poor and to ensure the environmental sustainability of these policies and, thereby, to strengthen climate resilience of the Indian poor.

(Author: Soumyadip Chattopadhyay is Associate Professor, Department of Economics and Politics, Visva Bharati University Santiniketan — 731 235)

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