In a recently published piece, David Griffiths and Sarah Jackson begin with highlighting some of the paradoxes which have plagued us of late. Weeks ago, who would have thought that staying away from ageing parents would convey kindness? That government would release prisoners to keep us safe? That the United States, once the world's hegemon, would run out of face masks?.That a new vaccine would be needed for us to safely leave home, attend school, work, and live freely?
It was something with a similar kind of paradoxes in mind that a group of people (organised collectively by vartaLeap Coalition, ComMutiny and Nudge Foundation) met over what was called a (un)webinar. The latter is important because, with the unleashing of Covid-19, a new kind of hyper-connectivity has been unleashed via zoom (and its various avatars) webinars all across. Zoom's worth right now is more than the world's seven biggest airlines put together. So a world of paradoxes where the human touch is more and more at a premium. But the effort of this group was precisely to subvert what mediums like webinars are structured to do: a one-sided conversation or long lectures. The underlying thought was to look at the ways in which we use the medium to create more intense interactive spaces where more than one person could have her say.
The atmosphere was charged as even before Arjun Shekhar, the chief moderator of the session, took the mic., over 135 people had logged in. Arjun laid before us the three paradoxes under the broad themes of Lives and Livelihoods, Narratives and Reality and Democratic Rights and Public Health. The three parallel sessions (co-hosted by different facilitators) were designed to tease out some of the dilemmas that our world is facing today and also to recommend a set of guidelines for what states could do and what the young people could do engaging with these dilemmas.
The first group focussed on, for example, the paradox where a part of the populace is continuing to run its lives while remaining at home, while another large section is walking on the streets under the blistering sun, but whose lives have virtually come to a standstill? To break it down further, how do we resolve the argument of easing down labour laws to kick-start the economy at a time when a large section of the working population has already lost its means of livelihoods? Some riveting discussion took place.
The predominant view was that state/s needed to focus on rural and agriculture, but also diversifying means of livelihoods at a time when a large number of enterprises are not registered. Subrat, a participant recommended that there was a need for some kind of registration for workers/entrepreneurs to be able to access credits and loans from the banks.
Meenu, another participant, stressed the need to re-look at the entire exercise of reskilling the entrepreneurs from an experiential lens. Others cautioned against forgetting those who were still left behind in the cities without any jobs or shelter or for that matter the children of millions of those whose schools are shut and who can't access zoom classes.
A key recommendation, of course, was to roll back the proposed dilution of labour laws. For the youth, who have shown exemplary energy during this pandemic organising relief and ration for millions of stranded workers, the recommendation once again was about ensuring their formal leadership at the local level and to channelize their leadership through larger efforts of solidarities and collectivisation.
The second group looked at the dilemmas posed by official narratives around COVID and its aftermath and divergent nature of realities that surround us. A central theme that emerged was around knowledge and information. While the state is promoting apps like Arogya Setu and zoom is becoming the medium of the classes, how do we accommodate a reality which says only 8% of the people in the country have smartphones, in other words, a vast digital divide?
So on one hand, the state seems to be eager to collect more and more information encroaching into the realm of privacy, on the other hand, communal propaganda and fake news seem to be pedalled in the name of information. Recommendation, of course, was to caution against both and then to ensure a set of guidelines for state and mainstream media and youth and all other stakeholders to use information responsibly, without colouring it through prejudices of caste, religion, ethnicity and gender respecting individual privacy. In all of this, a looming question that got highlighted repeatedly was that of gender, the rise in domestic violence, the rights of women workers, their plights around securing sustaining their families facing penury.
The discussion in this session also overlapped with the third group which focussed on the need for transparent and credible information around public health respecting democratic freedom. The further marginalisation as a result of the pandemic, where at-risk groups like women, children, LGBTQI communities, religious and other minorities, have been left even more vulnerable than before, with less access to the justice system.
There were debates on the issue of privacy and how the democratic freedoms we enjoy today (which are a result of generations of advocacy and activism), are at the risk of being completely reversed in the name of the greater good. Predictably the recommendations were around more transparency and more federalism, more consultative space to the states and more choices to the people by means of transparent and timely communication.
A system which laid emphasis as much on a public health system as enforcing lockdown, respecting national and international human rights law. Space where youth became responsible champions in digital and non-digital spaces, also carrying the senior generation along asking the right questions and using information responsibly. Questions were raised on focus for children, youth and youth migrant labourers in the current narrative. There were recommendations on expanding our view to include the realities, revive existing institutions, approaches to form new narratives that shape the way ahead.
It is undeniable that our generation is witnessing something which is often referred to as the 'black swan moment'. It has also laid bare some of the realities which always existed but we were in denial of. It has indicated some newer pathways for us which would become the templates for the future. Yet, these paradoxes also indicate that unless we carry everyone along in this quest, it would be a lost moment. The formulation of these paradoxes is indicative of that. Who knows it may also be a white swan even! The point from where humanity turns the corner onto the right road! And it's this paradox between the black and white swan that we have to open ourself to.
(The author is the Executive Director of Amnesty International India)