Cooperation Ministry or cocooning cooperatives?

At a time when the nation increasingly looks up for intercultural dialogues to create new pluralistic discourses of political economy, the Ministry of Cooperation represents the likelihood of monolithic free trade catechisms, proliferating multinational investments, and spreading communication networks which altogether threaten to dismantle the local economy.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah
Union Home Minister Amit Shah

In 2005 when our research team from the Governance Knowledge Centre of the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU was evaluating DARPG (Department of Administrative Reforms & Public Grievances) selected best governance practices, Modi’s market cooperatives of Gujarat turned out to be a strong initiative to protect his state against an ongoing worldwide recession. However, more than a decade later his replication of his Gujarat experiment by creating a new Ministry of Cooperation(MoC) comes as a surprise. It seems to be a borrowed past sans current realities. Is it a namesake for a pre-existing arrangement, a design for pre-election statecraft, or a nomenclature faux pas? To be given in the hands of a minister who is already so overloaded with performance pressure demands of an intensively centralized Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) where none of its tasks falling in place— for instance, disaster (Pandemic, forest fire, floods, glacial lake outburst) management, increasing criminal impunity, women safety; and internal security is even more astounding. Notwithstanding the Centre’s assurance that it will help realize the vision of ‘Sahkar se Samriddhi’ it remains an impossible marriage between an episteme and a corporeal.

The Home Ministry has no commonality or shared domain with the grassroot village cooperatives and as seen, the cooperatives shrink at the sight of Home Ministry officials near them. Now, this sight would become unavoidable considering the same office entertaining all uncommon concerns. While the first represents centralization, regimentation, and retribution having an edifice built over stringent laws such as Indian Penal Code (IPC)1860, Indian Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) 1898, Epidemic Disease Act (EDA)1897, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA)1967, National Security Act (NSA) 1980, Disaster Management Act (DMA) 2005, etc, the other is a world of freedom, innovation, communication, culture, negotiation, and mutual hand-holding. As a microcosmic crucible of noisy bazaar economics, grassroot communities discover, learn and undertake microcredit transactions in local produce (vegetables to sugarcanes) and indigenous handcraft (weavers to wool spinning) to sustain themselves against a dominant but predatory model of national economics. I had come across one such cooperative in the Niwari village of Bundelkhand in MP. During the 2006-7 global credit banking recession most tribal people had lost their jobs in construction, road building and transportation, etc but this ‘haat’(local tribal mandi) where the poor tribal communities came together with their usufruct (whatever they procured from forest such as firewood, big leaves, fruits, nuts, buds, medicinal herbs, plates made of teak leaves, ropes and many more) at a common place every morning and did a good business which even included their hiring for decorating and singing at marriages. A gripping sensation of fear and desuetude has swept through those multifarious cooperatives and the most insecure are women and labour cooperatives of Kerala , UP, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. These cooperatives have been grassroot energy tanks that contributed to improving per-capita income for the marginalized across the country. How could these two entirely different domains of conformity and creativity be expected to work together?

Through a new ministry, the Home Minister is allocated an additional charge of regulating grassroot cooperatives or local economy per se. It is indispensable to understand that ‘cooperatives’ represent a basic unit of a market or a grassroot economy whereas, the fact that economy is embedded in economics makes these units culturally and historically entangled. Economics performs and shapes economy or it can be said that a genealogy of a market concept (progress of ideas) such as a mandi, bazaar, community-based organizations or an Ema market as in Manipur is interdependent upon an anthropological history of market structures (how society shapes it’s market organizations) such as hierarchy of controls for specific products. Such embeddedness as Karl Polanyi suggests in The Great Transformation is both possible and filled with lessons. To ignore these lessons due to the ‘tunnel vision’ which bureaucracy exhibits in achieving small ideological victories for the government could prove as costly for the nation as the failed Perestroika of the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev. Peculiar anthropology of local markets is a congregation of those century-old local and indigenous communities which are neither understood by central commands nor entertained by emerging global forces. Those district magistrates not exposed to the critical global discourses may just surrender as agents of the Home Ministry rather than suffer a double burden of their ignorance and accountability to the MHA.

One can also sense some incredulity in setting up this new MoC when the Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare (DAC&FW) has always existed as one of the three constituent Departments of the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare. Prior to it in earlier years there was a Department of Cooperation in the Ministry of Agriculture which was more focused with a targeted approach towards cooperatives’ movement. So far this Department was headed by an Agriculture & Farmers Welfare Minister and assisted by three Ministers of State. With a prolonged and unrelenting farmers movement and the Agriculture Minister’s inability to resolve it the Agriculture Minister has little legitimacy left to face agricultural cooperatives which are now much agitated and hostile towards a government they now see as an agent of big companies. The delinking of the ‘task of cooperation’ from that of agriculture and farmers’ welfare only creates another silo within which it would be impossible to proceed without the agriculture ministry. So, the agriculture minister would become an inconspicuous information provider to the Home Minister who in turn would apply his experience of the Gujarat Model to MoC.

The ‘Cooperative Societies’ is a state subject under entry 32 state list of Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Even the cooperatives functioning from more than one state are covered under a separate Act of Multistate Cooperative Societies Act of 2002 under the Central Government. The Indian Constitution through its 97th Amendment in 2011 had added to the IX Schedule, Part IXB (Art.243ZH to 243 ZT) which provides for incorporation, regulation, and winding up of cooperative Societies based on the principles of voluntary formation, democratic member control, member economic participation, and autonomous functioning. The incorporated articles empowered the State Governments to obtain periodic reports of activities and accounts of Co-operatives Societies. These societies represent a sustainable example of microcredit transactions and grassroot level demand fulfilment. The Amendment had ensured accountability of Cooperatives to the State Governments which has now been allocated to a Central Minister who is also the Home Minister.These Cooperatives have played a phenomenal role in the making and unmaking of governments at least in Maharashtra with Sharad Pawar and Congress continuing to remain undisputed political masters of the state’s grassroot economy. Both rural and urban cooperatives are holders of wealth, resources, and social capital which politicians encash during election time. So the new Ministry is also seen as a design to topple federal structure while at the same time a masterstroke to disrupt the power platform of farmers before the elections in coming years.

It seems that the government only focuses on elections whether its institutional preparedness, resources generation, or seeking public trust which are now wholesomely directed to ensuring an election victory. This aggrandizing trend is explained by the famous Virginia school economist Gordon Tullock through an appropriate mathematical formula in economics which brought out a politician as a person who made his living by winning elections and to expect altruism and benign faith-building from him is a desire of a moth for the star. It is not of much interest to them whether tunnel vision bureaucrats roar of embellished ethics or indulge in covert corruption to achieve petty minor ideological victories for keeping them in good humour. As an end result, governance is mortified as election machinery.

There is a nomenclature problem as well with the title of the Ministry. As long as it was clubbed with agriculture and farmers the word ‘cooperation’ notified an activity which rendered grassroot cooperation much needed to market their products, but once segregated ‘Cooperation’ would carry a much wider meaning cutting across almost every ministry. Since the MoC is for cooperatives alone, it could have been titled as a Ministry of Cooperatives as a better reflection of its focus of work and stakeholder imperative. In some haste, much thought has not been given to it and the title is carried forward as a ‘cut & paste’ word popped out of tunnel vision. The world is increasingly transdisciplinary and unless bureaucracy and political masters break out from their silos they remain narrow and lopsided. Cooperation demands mutuality of learning and a form of symbiosis in approach to collaboration. There is a need for tolerance, faith, and building of trust. The famous story of the 1980s from the Sologne region of France as studied by Marie-France Garcia brings out a process in which local community-based calculative agencies emerge to transform a table strawberry market into a sustainable market. The factor of trust helped to keep everyone together in market transactions. Amul story is also built on mutuality of trust and commitment of local communities. What would be a threshold of interference by a Central government is yet to be established and for that reason remains arbitrary.

At a time when our nation increasingly looks up for intercultural dialogues to create new pluralistic discourses of political economy, the Ministry of Cooperation represents the likelihood of monolithic free trade catechisms, proliferating multinational investments, and spreading communication networks which altogether threaten to dismantle the local economy. Demonetization had initiated a shedding of unorganised sector and now acreation of MoC appears like a Promethean lust to be godlike in implanting grandiosely global formulae to hasten premature wilting of humble grassroot initiatives called Cooperatives.

The author is president, NDRG, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.