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Beyond year 2020: Constructive Alternativism is the only alternative

Covid-19 has pushed us towards a new reality. Work from home (WFH) is flourishing, online shopping is booming, online school education is a big relief for many households — and air travel has become truly onerous. But this too shall pass.

If there is one learning from this crisis, it is that we are living beyond the boundaries of nature. As human activity reduced due to lockdowns and restrictions, the pace at which air became cleaner, pollution reduced in water bodies and birds and animals made their presence felt, put the connection between human actions and environmental impact beyond doubt.

The numbers tell a clear story. In April 2020, a few weeks into the nationwide lockdown, particulate matter, PM10, reduced by 60% in Delhi’s air compared to pre-Covid times. PM2.5 was down by 39% too. Mumbai’s best-ever air quality index (AQI) of 17 was recorded on June 4. Compare this with AQI between 301and 400 in January 2019.

With regular life limping back to normal, Mumbai’s AQI has already shot up to 378. In 2019, 21Indian cities featured as the world’s 30 worst polluted cities. During the lockdown, the list had only two Indian cities. CO2 emissions reportedly reduced by 8.6% during January-June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. This is the reduction required every year, without any lockdowns, if we are to achieve our climate goals.

The random, uncontrolled, Covidinduced disruption has brought migrant workers into sharp focus. This large labour force has been an unsung facet of India’s industrial progress and infrastructure creation. Their remittances have been the cornerstone of growth in rural consumption and enhanced rural resilience. Yet, when the disruption occurred, migrant workers bore the brunt of it.

Migrant families usually live in very crowded spaces with poor access to ventilation, water and sanitation. Covid-19 made these living conditions very unsafe, and many migrants chose to make arduous journeys back to their villages and hometowns. The search for livelihood will bring the workers back. But will they get a better deal?

It is widely acknowledged that many micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) will find it difficult to weather the economic storm. Measures have been taken by government and large industry to reduce their hardships. But small retailers and small service-oriented businesses are not covered by these actions. How many such businesses will be consumed by the shock? And what effect will it have on society?

All is not gloomy, though. Airlines are flying at near-capacity, although on a restricted schedule. Two-wheeler manufacturing companies report that they are back to 80% capacity utilisation compared to pre-Covid levels. But these aren’t green shoots, as emissions are going right back up again even at lower levels of activity. Real profit is created by ensuring the well-being of people and the planet. Otherwise, profit realised is value taken away from future generations. Will we create an economy that is vibrant, equitable and operates within natural boundaries?

In the middle of this muddle, we have discovered what ‘essential’ means. It means food and farmers and truck drivers. It means medicine and doctors and hospitals. It means homes and electricity and water and internet and money. It means family and friends. It does not mean hedge fund managers, lawyers, actors or reality TV stars. In this crisis, we’ve seen UN’s Sustainable Development Goal No. 8 (SDG 8) — decent work and economic growth — suffer. All SDGs related to the well-being of people took a severe beating simultaneously.

The economist Milton Friedman had once said, ‘Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.’ We are in a crisis if ever there was one. And one of the ideas lying around is that of building back better. Of pursuing low climate solutions, of accelerating the path to a net-zero emission world, of following the path of ‘alternativism’ to build a better, more humane world.

The reality is that solutions are not going to be found through conventional, orthodox approaches, but rather through constant experimentation and application of new methods, whether they are new business models, new hiring practices, or a unique way of leveraging new technology.

2020 was to be a super year for climate action. It was to have flagged off a glorious decade of development. Prior to 2020, we were trying to reboot the world while it was alive and kicking and making very little progress. The world is gasping now. Will we innovate our way to a better world? Your guess is as good as mine, but I choose to remain a prisoner of hope.

  • The editorial was published in The Economic Times Newspaper