Disregarding conspiracy theories, if we accept that the COVID-19 is a virus formed from the transmutation of virus from animals to humans (zoonotic transfer), we must also recognise the foundational wrongs of large-scale, transnational food production systems. Market and capital-based production systems celebrate and promote food regimes that are supposedly cheap, exotic, healthy, and fashionable. Far from addressing issues of provisioning the masses, supplying nutritious food, or delivering a diverse food basket, such food production systems violate the principles of nutritional, immune, and generative well-being.
In as much as India’s food production regime is increasingly being integrated into the high-technology, trans-local, transnational market, and consumer system, there are several lessons that the COVID-19 breakout holds. Rather than the intense, industrialised regimes of food production that are being promoted, and which include increasing chemicalisation, intrusive genetic manipulation, and extractive and disruptive technologies, we must support and conserve the diverse food regimes that have evolved over millennia and, therefore, have in-built resilience.
What needs to be changed are the social forms of the production systems where small landholders have subject themselves to self and external exploitation and for whom such forms of small-holder production systems are no longer viable. That it is the members of these very rural families and classes who are the victims of this fall-out will be the real tragedy of this pandemic. The burden and cruelty of the pandemic’s ill-planned and poorly administered ‘lockdown’ in India, and whose final denouement we cannot even fathom, is manifesting not only in the exodus of desperate migrants but also in the distress that is now emerging among rural working classes. In the northern belts, farmers are unable to harvest the winter (rabi) crops that are due to be brought in and sold in the markets. In the south, the land is to be readied for sowing in the summer season.
These are crucial times for farmers, and these activities not only determine their annual income but also play an important role in their social life. Large numbers of the landless and small landholders are, as are the large numbers of casual workers in the cities, without daily wages and the promise of additional rations are yet to be kept. Touts and middlemen are already making their rounds, asking for their commissions for the sums that they will have delivered to the people’s accounts. Locked into small homes, which defy any principle of ‘social distancing’, the working-class citizen is now a caged subject. Poor and dysfunctional medical systems have become even more ineffective and provide no assurance and succor to the masses.
The pandemic will raise multiple questions about emerging food, health, and governance structures. Seen from the perspectives of its most vulnerable victims, it is time to urgently recognise the need for decentralised, diverse, and democratic production systems that reinforce ecological sustainability, social justice, and economic stability. For this to be realised, we must reckon with the fact that public services of health and education are ancillaries to decentralised production structures and are the bedrock on which people’s well-being can be assured. We must break-out from our blind acceptance of the global production systems that privilege capital, technology, and market over well-being, justice, and stability for the masses. This pandemic is only one of the signs that the existing systems have invoked the wrath of nature, are inappropriate for humankind as a whole, and it is time for us to rethink and reorganise in ways that can re-affirm life for all.
A.R.Vasavi is a Social Anthropologist with the PUNARCHITH COLLECTIVE. She was awarded the Infosys Prize in 2013. Views expressed are the author’s personal.