In the not-so-recent past
During the sunset-years of the 19th century, a radical thought was taking shape in India. The “Swadeshi Movement” which was officially launched in 1905 had its theoretical aspects defined in the late 1800s. Stalwarts such as Naoroji, Tilak, Ghokale, Aurobindo are credited with the thought leadership for the same. History tells us that the Swadeshi movement is a “nationalistic movement”, i.e a political movement. But at its very core, this movement was an economical one, born from the understanding that the oppression of the Indians within India was predicated upon the economic control of the entire Indian populace by a few Englishmen.
Being “nationalistic”, today is not considered good behavior by many; it certainly is not seen as progressive. We now associate it with mostly the right-wing, jingoistic and populist style of politics that has taken roots in most parts of the world that has sailed the democratic and secular oceans to arrive at this point. What happened? One reason could be the mix-up involving “method” and “intent”. Movements like the Swadeshi were born out of the need for human beings to unshackle themselves from an oppressor, “a real adversary” (so to speak). Today’s nationalism is born out of the need to manufacture non-existent enemies or distract us from the real ones or both.
The modus-operandi of the Swadeshi Movemement was to “go local”; to boycott foreign products (very specifically, British) and opt for local produce. Underlying this was the confidence that came from “Atmashakthi” (self-strength) , a term coined by Rabindranath Tagore during the same years, when he was putting together his thoughts on Indian Nationalism. In other words, to even begin thinking about boycotting something, to say a “firm no” to external help or input, one first needed to build the inner strength to be self reliant and be confident enough to endure what comes after.
The Swadeshi movement later paved way to progressively mature and effective movements. With the entry of Gandhiji into the Indian Independence Struggle, “Swadeshi” found new intent, meaning and methods where he combined his success of the Satyagraha (that he conceived while in South Africa) with the good-parts of the Swadeshi movement to come up with the tools and ethos which made possible a national conscience strong enough to put up a non-violent struggle against the British-might.
Our grand experiments with “local”
Colonialism, and India’s tryst with it aside, the need for “going local” has been the need-of-the-hour for long. Every individual who has considered or worked towards an “ecologically viable”, “socially just” and “economically alternative” society knows the importance of “going local”. In fact to understand the benefits of going local, one only has to stare at the disadvantages of a world that went global; to be specific, the disadvantages of “globalization”.
It has been a perpetual struggle between these two forces. One that wanted to establish a global-order and another that resists it by celebrating diversity, “the local” and decentralization. If there is a tiny amount of hope today with some skill and culture left in parts of the world that are not yet completely transformed, it is because of the small victories of the latter group. In India especially, even today, we retain some traditional agricultural methods, weaving practices, skills and products that demand respect for human labour simply because we upheld the notion of local over global; a storyline of struggle that connects movement to movement, generation to generation. But was that enough?
We have deluded ourselves in some cases of “going local”; in most cases, we have celebrated too early. This is because we overestimated our success. The very fact that, as a society, we democratically elected a corporation-friendly, yet traditional-sounding ideological concoction, as our leaders and governments today, should be proof enough that we have completely missed our goals. Our attempts all these years to stay local has been within the perimeters set by the “market”; issue of having to “comply”. We have had so many of our “local” stories that gladly claim to be “Swadeshi” but actually can only be considered local “productions” at best. Even the not-so-nuanced original “Swadeshi Movement” was about “local consumption”. Gandhi’s and Kumarappa’s interpretation and experiments with Swadeshi have been about both consumption and production.
These are strong reasons today to rise above our own petty self-declared victories and march towards what is truly local. If nothing, the collapse our years of “half-baked” local movements in current times when a pandemic has struck the world, should serve us as a reminder that our job is far from complete.
It was only a matter of time before the hyper-nationalistic party, that forms the Indian Government today, decided to use “local” in their vocabulary. It is also very amusing that Tagore’s “Atmashakthi” has been aptly re-purposed into an “Atma Nirbharata” (presumably meaning the same thing but with a twist for the slogan-entertained citizen of the present).
The call to go local is not new even within the short history of the current ruling party. “Make in India” was a campaign that ran before this and regardless of what the “thinkers” thought about it, the average person’s idea of this matter varied from “International companies employing Indian workers” to “Made in a factory that is physically located on Indian soil”; a vague enough cloud of interpretative smoke behind which we can continue to worship the only God we know now; that of Capital.
During the Coronavirus crisis of 2020, the call to “go local” will again have all sorts of interpretations. For some – with an overconfident zeal- it has become a chance to raise some dirt against our behemoth neighbour, China. For others, this is an opportunity to “somehow stay alive and relevant” in the dark-and-dying days of Capitalism. So going local today will only mean one thing for businesses that never came up with the true intent of creating local economies; to extract “whatever is left” in terms of resources and run away with the last few crumbs of the pie.
“Local” is but one word in a dictionary and this word is loaded. Hence it is easy to be used to abused, which it will be. So was “Swadeshi” and so was “Swaraj”. We need to look at all the words involved and truly take them in. Self, friends, family, village, community, nativity, interdependence, social, sacrifice, commons, sustainability, ethics, rootedness, belonging etc. Understanding those terms, seeking out and making changes, starting with the self, is essential for understanding what is meant by “local”. But that is not what the politicians will tell us. We need to be wary.
Striving to be “local
For us to even consider having made a dent by “being local”, we would have to first look at “local consumption”. This is not the same as a city-based-consumer buying a product that has the label “locally produced” (be it food, durable or clothes). It is about actual fuel-miles that the product took to reach the consumer, beginning from raw-material extraction that formed its component parts. Taking an example of unstitched cloth, “How far is the weaver from you?”, “Where is the lady who spun the yarn?” “Where was the cotton grown?” are what defines the product to be classified as local. This works for all products and services. “How far is your kid’s school teacher?”. “Where are my cups and saucers made?”. “Did I make that compost I used for my organic herb-garden, or did I buy it from Thailand from a local community?”.
So when the health conscious consumer in Mumbai buys organically grown fresh vegetables from rural Maharashtra, or the ethnicity and ethics conscious consumer in Bangalore buys hand-crafted products from rural Karnataka, we are barely scratching the surface. This is true when we also find false equivalences between organic and local, ethical and local, environmental-friendly and local, handloom and local etc. Which usually leads to newer forms of markets but never truly addresses the real problem, that of consumerism.
The other larger issue when striving to be local is about mixing up the urge and well-meaning intent to be local with nationalism and regionalism, with complete disregard to areas, sizes, climactic conditions and watersheds that form the basis for defining real “locals”. If we were to exist in the southern-most tip of India and home-order something from Assam, can it be deemed local? In large states (that are the size of some of the world’s countries), does it even make sense to create the food miles necessary to transport goods from one corner to the other? Thinking “local” should be elevated above petty administrative boundaries.
Limiting “local” into “products” is also an issue. There is a lot more to local than that; languages, knowledge, customs, know-how and ways-of-life. We need to be able to re-adapt some and value them for what they are. We should avoid being led into a guilt-trip (a trick often played on us by our own modernity) that all local is automatically barbaric, bad and evil. In fact an objective mind should look at “local” for its spatial, economic and environmental value alone. The evolution of “local” from some ancient-form into a newer-form is not “global” (an easy mistake to make), it is just newer-local, a current-and-improved form, as we individuals and communities learn and move on. Hence understanding local and appreciating it for “concepts” before “products” will actually go a long way in understanding production and consumption itself.
It is very tempting to give ourselves the “local” label very quickly, either because our existing delusions need validation or we are part of the same group that needs to pathologically align with the political conscience of this country. Both are not going to help in the long run. To be local, we need to look at the full circle and begin at consumption and then go towards production. This also means, we have to produce for necessity and not for the sake of production itself (which is one of the pillars holding up Capitalism and all of the monsters it spawned, including the current Coronavirus crisis).
The word “local” itself is not lying to us; the people who use it are. It only has a “space implication”, i.e of distance between us (the consumer) and the site of production. Our ideas and thoughts need to have far-reaching implications and consequences but our resource extraction and consumption should now have short-distance gratification and value. To be “truly local” we need to aim for a diverse and colourful world composed of a plethora of “local economies” of interdependent and small communities that strive to give-and-take locally from each other as well as this planet.
– Ratheesh Pisharody
Writer, Bangalore, email@example.com