In May 2020 I reported stories from some parts of India where communities had shown resilience in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown imposed by the government, March 2020-onwards. Over the next few months we collected more such stories, with a focused collection on indigenous and other forest-dwelling communities, and then a compilation from the Western Himalayan region. Now, as we pass the first ‘anniversary’ of the total lockdown imposed in late March 2020, and as another wave of Covid-19 is leading to fresh restrictions and semi-lockdown conditions, it is timely to reflect on these and other initiatives: what lessons do they teach us for being resilient in times of crises? Is India’s government listening to these stories and learning the lessons?

First, let’s get a glimpse of the range of inspiring stories from the western Himalayan region of India.

Stories of inspiration from the Himalayas

In the state of Uttarakhand, the Mahila Umang Samiti, a collective of many women’s self-help groups spread over 100 villages, used the savings collected over several years to help hundreds of villagers who were in need. With markets shut and individual farmers unable to sell their produce, it procured produce of 400 farmers, and carried out house to house deliveries to customers. It also started an online delivery system. Over 1.25 million rupees worth of produce was transacted.

In Kashmir, bird enthusiast Irfan Jeelani began posting bird pictures on social media in the lockdown period. In a situation where tourists were not coming, he initiated the idea of ‘birding from the balcony and in the backyard’, encouraging people to post pictures. This culminated in the formation of a club, Birds of Kashmir, and subsequently in training programmes for youth to become bird guides. About 30-40 youth are ready to take local people and tourists birding, creating awareness about Kashmir’s wildlife as also earning a livelihood. Birds of Kashmir now has 4000 members from various countries.

Connecting to nature and generating livelihoods from it was also the pathway taken by the NGOs Titli Trust and Centre for Ecology Development and Research. They had started a nature guide training programme in three landscapes of Uttarakhand just before the pandemic hit. During the lockdown, the physical training programme was transferred online, and expanded from birds to include flora and butterflies. The youth guides are encouraged to take pictures and make lists, and post these on various sites, which keeps up their interest, and state of readiness to resume physical guiding when tourism restarts.

In the cold desert area of Spiti in the state of Himachal Pradesh, communities realized early on that they were especially vulnerable to Covid-19 if it entered their area. A Committee for Preventive Measures and Sustainable Development was formed with broad representation of various sections of society. Strict safety rules were formulated, health measures put into place. When their tourism and cash crop economy collapsed in the lockdown period, many villages decided to go back to their agriculture for self-sustenance, using traditional crops. The Committee has since then been working on integrating these issues into a more comprehensive rethinking of development priorities for the region.

The importance of self-reliance for essentials like food was also realized by women of Maati Sangathan (collective) in Munsiari area of Uttarakhand. While many of them had taken up home-stay based tourism as a source of livelihood, they had also retained farming and conserved their forests, which helped them cope with the lockdown. They innovated also with starting a Voices of Rural India (with 5 other organisations in India), offering honoraria for villagers to put out stories, becoming rural journalists of sorts. A digital centre was initiated to bridge the digital gap, and online sale of local produce initiated.

Migrant workers returning to the village of Simkhet in Uttarakhand were housed on the premises of a school that had suffered much damage in a flood in 2019. Seeing its state, the workers wanted to renovate it while they were stuck in the lockdown. A couple of youth working in civil society organisations, Adharsh Krishnan and Pushkar Bhat, the latter from the village, decided to crowdfund the renovation. Within a short time funds were raised, and the workers rebuilt the school. It now boasts full facilities and equipment for educational purposes; and the effort brought together the village community for a common purpose.

In about 70 villages of Uttarakhand, the People’s Science Institute helped 300 families with threshing and marketing their produce, since they would have been unable to reach customers individually. Its ongoing work on the recharge of springs continued throughout the lockdown, with online training of village level Water User Groups. This has helped local women enter what was considered a domain of men or outside ‘experts’.

In the cold desert region of Ladakh, the Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust, which has pioneered tourist homestays in the Himalaya, felt the need for alternatives to tourism which collapsed in 2020. For a while they also stopped their ongoing training of women on handicrafts and handloom. But the women demanded that this be resumed, asking for skill-building like dry needle felting, which uses local wool to make soft toys. All the materials for this are available locally, and the training programmes saw high attendance. Additionally families were encouraged to restart collection of wild vegetables and herbs from their natural surrounds.

Also in Ladakh, a tourism company, Overland Escape, which has been focusing on domestic tourism, faced closure in 2020, threatening jobs of about 45 employees. But its initiator Tundup Dorjey did now want to take this easy route. When he heard an announcement that Ladakh needed vegetables and medicines from Delhi to be brought and distributed, he pressed his vehicles and the staff into this. In a short period he was able to make revenues from shops and door-to-door delivery, which was formalized into a service called Gortsa. This has enabled him to retain all the 45 people.

In an entirely different sphere of life, the Jagori Rural Charitable Trust found that the lockdown was negatively impacting adolescent girls in Kanga district of Himachal Pradesh. Traditional and new forms of discrimination are directed at them daily, and isolation due to the lockdown enhanced this. Access to education, and to menstrual products, also became more difficult. Through its Aware Adolescent Girls Action for Justice Project, Jagori was able to reach nutritional kits and sanitary napkin packets to many of them, sustain some form of communication that provided support to several hundred girls, and continue an ongoing process of empowerment.

What lessons can we learn from these?

Already from the first of stories that I reported about in July 2020, crucial trends and lessons were emerging on how and why some communities were able to cope with the Covid period much better than others. More lessons were added by the second and third compilations.

Local self-sufficiency or self-reliance in basic needs is possibly the biggest realisation that communities and organisations working with them have had. An economic model that creates dependence on far away markets and services and resources, for things as basic as food, health, and livelihoods, is prone to breakdowns of the kind seen globally in the Covid period. We are likely to see more such disruptions in the coming years, as climate change induced disasters hit, as the global financial system suffers another meltdown like 2008, or as other pandemics break out (eminently likely given how we continue to devastate natural processes that otherwise keep such viruses and diseases contained). If economic globalization has left hundreds of millions of people across the world so vulnerable, clearly the radical alternative to head to is economic localisation.

This however is incomplete without challenging capitalist or statist control over production and consumption. In our collection of stories from forest-based communities, the most important lesson emerging was the crucial role of local, collective governance of nature and natural resources, including land and water. It is where communities have been able to secure their Community Forest Resource rights under India’s Forest Rights Act, that they have greater resilience. This includes access to survival foods and other resources from forests, as also community funds generated by sale of forest produce. The same goes for farmer control over agricultural and pasture land, seeds or animals, water, and the knowledge needed to use all these sustainably. As one of the key compilers of the second volume (on forest-based communities), Aditi Pinto says, “community empowerment, particularly by ensuring tenure security and devolving natural resource governance and management power, can restore ecosystems, create sustainable economies and community resilience to cope with natural and human induced calamities such as the Covid pandemic.”

Also highlighted in these stories is the importance of diverse options for dignified livelihoods. Sole or predominant dependence on tourism, or cash crops oriented to external markets, was shown to be extremely vulnerable. Where communities also have other options, including agriculture, traditional crafts, and local manufacturing, there is greater resilience.

Economic democracy also goes hand in hand with radical political democracy or eco-swaraj, where collectives in face-to-face conditions are able to take decisions on matters affecting their lives, while also making elected politicians and bureaucrats accountable. The prompt action by Spiti’s community in forming a committee that could take decisions with regard to safety in Covid times, is an example. In many of central India’s forest communities, the move towards self-rule or self-determination, akin to that of indigenous peoples in many parts of the world, has asserted that governance in their own villages and territories has to be by them, not by politicians and bureaucrats from outside.

The story of the adolescent girls in Himachal Pradesh reminds us that a movement towards economic and political democracy has to be accompanied by struggles for social justice and equity, removing sexism, patriarchy, casteism, racism, and other forms of inequality and discrimination.

Several stories such as the ones on online training and the use of social media, also point to the need to democratise technologies and the media, and make them more widely available to remove inequities like the digital divide (though this does not necessarily challenge the ownership of the technologies themselves). Even more basic, in these alternative initiatives there is also the use of multiple knowledge systems, building on what the local community already has, integrating what is coming from outside if found to be useful. This challenges the hegemony of one form of knowledge, modern science and technology.

A sense of community, or of collectives and networks of solidarity, runs like a thread through all the stories of resilience. Women’s and youth leadership, and the facilitating role of civil society or sensitive government officials, also emerges in many of the initiatives.

None of the stories documented are perfect, none can be said to have achieved comprehensive transformation towards justice and sustainability. But each of them demonstrates elements of such a transformation and the possibility of more.

Overall, as the compilers of the Himalayan stories, Ritwika Patgiri and Aadya Singh say, “these stories show that there is hope, community work and support can overcome all hurdles.”

Is the system listening?

Examples of such inspiring initiatives have been documented and highlighted for many years in India and elsewhere. But often the dominant system is reluctant to listen, or even feels threatened as its centralized power is being questioned. In India, since the early 1990s when its economy was opened up for ‘integration’ with the global economy, there has been an increasing trend towards corporate domination of economic life. This has accelerated in the last few years of the current right-wing government. Its aatmanirbharbharat (self-reliant India) budgetary packages have been more about unsustainable mining, privatisation and corporatisation than about supporting communities to be self-reliant and resilient. Even its ambitious renewable energy programme, one of the biggest in the world and widely praised, focuses more on centralized, megaparks in the hands of big corporations, with attendant ecological and social consequences including take-over of community lands, rather than decentralized sources that communities can build and run more sustainably. There is absolutely no attention to containing overall demand for energy (or in other sectors, materials like minerals), such that even what may be ‘renewable’ in principle becomes quite unsustainable (solar energy is not produced only from sunshine!).

For ecologically and socially sensitive areas like the Himalaya, policies and programmes that support nature-based and local knowledge-skill based livelihoods are urgently and sorely needed. There has been massive outmigration from this region due to lack of such opportunities as also changing aspirations amongst the youth; but in the Covid period, tens of thousands of people have gone back to their villages and towns. Many of them do not want to come back into cities and industrial areas, but have no viable options in their own villages. In such a situation, documenting, highlighting, supporting, and spreading the kind of initiatives highlighted in the ‘Extraordinary Work of ‘Ordinary’ People’ series, is the most important task for any sensitive civil society group or government agency, and of course for the communities themselves.