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Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2002
Ensuring sustainable livelihoods:

challenges for governments, corporates, and civil society at Rio+10
8 - 11 February 2002, New Delhi

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8 Feb. 2002 9 Feb. 2002 10 Feb. 2002 11 Feb. 2002
DSDS 2002: Plenary session 1, 9 February 2002

Agenda 21: ensuring sustainable development
L.C. Jain
Chairman, Industrial Development Services, India

Ensuring sustainable livelihoods: some critical steps

At the core of sustainable livelihoods is assured and easy availability and access to food to every human being anywhere in the world – to ward off the biological tyranny of the stomach that demands food twice, if not thrice a day.

Ironically, it is the so called remote sensing capability developed by the scientific community in India and elsewhere, which has come closest to provide what scientist Dr. U R Rao describes as "a holistic approach for achieving sustainable development to meet the growing needs of the increasing population through ‘Integrated Mission’ combining space remote sensing inputs on land and water resources with collateral socio-economic information". He adds that: similar strategies are the only hope for developing adequate food and economic security on a sustainable basis to the poor in not only in India, but also Asian, African and Latin American countries.

Over 70 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi had advocated a near fool proof strategy of ensuring food availability and access to the masses especially the poorest of the poor. He proposed that production of food must be as proximate as possible to consumption. In the matter of food grain production he advocated maximum possible self-reliance at village level. He wanted all Indian villages (where 80 percent of the population lives) to grow the food grains required by each of them to feed the local population – using discreetly the local resources of soil, water, vegetation, gazing grounds.

Many economists subscribing to the theory of comparative advantage scoffed at Gandhi’s prescription of self-reliance. However later a number of the objectors realized the value and validity of Gandhi’s approach when their studies revealed that even when the production of foodgrains in the economy was comfortable at the aggregate level, the poorest in remote villages had little access to food. Currently, this truth has erupted in India in the most embarrassing if not cruel fashion: Government is holding 60 million tonnes of foodgrains in its buffer stocks while 50 million human beings hungering for food have no access to it.

The Scientific Community has also called for an end to the practice of planning exclusively on sectoral basis or what has come to be called ‘beneficiary oriented approach’ to pave the way for adoption of ‘integrated mission and holistic approach’, as aforesaid, to ensure food production and livelihoods to the masses specially the poor and poor regions.

Operationally, such a strategy requires an effective and accountable local institution at the level of a village or cluster. The imperative of having such an institution has gained wide recognition. In India the Constitution was amended in 1992 to provide for such an institution (panchayat) elected by the local population every 5-years, to plan holistically at each village level for economic development and social justice.

Three million representatives (one third of them women as mandated by the Statute) have since been elected to manage some 300,000 village panchayats. Efforts are afoot to endow them with authority and resources for the responsibility cast on them to plan and promote economic and social justice in their respective area. What is holding up rapid advance in this direction are pre-existing bureaucratic attitudinal and administrative road blocks or weeds to allow for these infant-seeds – the representative panchayats, to sprout. The seeds are bound to sprout hopefully sooner.

The grassroot institutions are only a necessary condition for ensuing sustainable livelihoods. However, to reinforce the necessary condition it is important to impart sufficiency to the endeavour: more has to be added through dedicated scientific and social support to the labours of these panchayats. A good harvest can thus be expected in the near future.

Simultaneously, to ensure food security for each and all, it is necessary to develop a local buffer-stock of foodgrains – thus rationalizing and reducing the role of centralized bufferstocks to one of supplementing / complementing the local buffer-stocks in emergencies.

Such a strategy and systemic approach is also the best safeguard for the environment. As communities become increasingly dependent on local production of foodgrains – they will necessarily have to take care of the health of their life-supporting resources – soil, water, vegetation, grazing grounds at the same time preventing degradation of such resources by anyone through unwise overuse or detrimental neglect of the health of such resources.

There is a profound Chinese proverb which imbibes the essence of sustainability:

  • If you are planning for one year, grow rice

  • If you are planning for ten years, plant a tree

  • If you are planning for one hundred years, provide education to the people.

One cannot over emphasize the importance of giving access to education to all men and women across the world – First, Second or Third.

Relying on research evidence and project evaluation, Mieko Nishimizu, Vice President, World Bank concludes that no country can succeed in eradicating poverty unless women are healthy, educated and empowered. She adds "The development challenge we must confront today lies not in what we do, but in how we think about what we do". This wisdom is a million times more important, if sustainable livelihoods is our aim.