In India, cooperatives, known as samavaya samiti come in various shapes, sizes and visages. There are regional variance and sub variance, often bounded in local governance and cannot be templatized as a simple formulaic approach for the entire nation. Yet, the innate strength of this organizational structure makes it a robust and stable step to formal enterprise development and should be recommended to all organizations facilitating development of marginalized genders, communities and even regions and sub regions.
The principle of cooperatives has long been recognized in India as a powerful model for connecting small-scale producers and consumers, and leveraging economic growth and empowerment at the grass-roots level. Recent initiatives supported by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung India Office have built on this tradition with a 21st-Century emphasis on renewable energy and gender equality. Currently under their aegis, the Sustainable Design Research Consortium (SDRC) is engaged in mentoring women led clusters to engage in assembling and repair of solar powered products and installations which will contribute to not just their livelihoods but to improving the quality of life of the communities who still face electricity access and reliability issues.
“India got its independence in 1947, but the women of the country have not yet achieved independence from the shackles of household expectations and societal considerations.” These are the words of tribal community member Rina Hembram, denied the right to education by her own father while her brothers were duly educated. She is now a proud solar technician and runs her own business even though she has no formal technical education. Elsewhere in West Bengal, in another small village where most of the people are below the poverty line, came a social enterprise to organize an extensive campaign regarding the need to develop a sustainable circular economy based inclusive business model involving primarily the marginalized women.
The gap between self-organizing, informal ecosystems and emergent enterprise infrastructures is best bridged by the cooperative model. Such a model, according to the International Cooperative Alliance, is one based on self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. It protects the interests of the participant members without making the structure excessively statute-heavy or unwieldy. The shared identity that the women solar technicians drew strength from also helped to achieve the success of the movement towards a strong climate action driven regenerative and ethical business model for socio-economic development of these underserved women and community development.
Cooperatives as a structure for socio economic development have been prevalent in India since 1904 – a fairly long time. The initial model was based upon the idea that it would be a structure supported parastatally to ensure a group of people could get together and sell their wares which they either produced or sourced locally to local customers – like a haat or indigenous bazaar - but necessarily under a roof with certain pricing and control structures which would serve a two-way function:
a) A sustained livelihood for local producers, small holders, and artisans on a regularized basis, creating a local micro-economy from the seller side.
b) Easy access to necessary, domestic and sometimes semi-luxury consumer goods made available to a social stratum who would otherwise have neither access to or knowledge of the same (buyer side).
For many of the facilitating organizations that are trying to develop self-organizing, self-sustaining circular structures, there is a perceived need that the buyer-seller ecology will have to be robust in all the three bottom lines of social, environmental and business indicators apropos the principle of sustainability. Triple bottom line theory expands business success metrics to include contributions to environmental health, social well-being, and a just economy. Mandates and legalities that make systems difficult to negotiate will have to be done away with. Considering the education level of most of the members and participants this is a given. The natural propensity of civil society and developmental sector organizations has been to create agency and equity through fast-tracking creation of self-help groups (SHG). While in essence this approach is both functionally facile and noble in ethos, it does not align the producers towards even a partially mature resilient and sustainable business structure. Those producers, today, include the entire gamut of trained women who are part of the value chain of solar photo voltaic technologies sitting in their own back yards. This is not a flaw in the model. Formation of an SHG is an excellent tool and the first step towards building socio-economic alliances. For these to be sustainable, however, the answer is a cooperative.
There can be a typical think tank contribution as well- clearly formulated policies to make it easier to set up cooperatives in future. These can serve multifarious developmental purposes including but not limited to what is globally known as Just Transition. If not the endgame in itself, such a step would certainly serve as a useful first step in the right direction.
Sanjukta Mukherjee is the co-founder of a think and action tank Sustainable Design Research Consortium working on climate action, circular economy, Just Transition, gender justice and human rights. She is a Green Building Assessor, IEMA accredited Environmental Lead Auditor with post-graduate qualifications in urban environmental management and currently on the verge of receiving her PhD focussing on social entrepreneurship ecology building and optimisation.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.
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