Gram Swaraj becomes relevant than ever before in the modern context. Cooperatives like Self-employed Women's Association have made a distinct mark on the uplift of rural women.
Ironically, when the concept of 'Gram Swaraj' was propounded by Mahatma Gandhi, it was scorned by a section of the intelligentsia who branded this as regressive. With Gram Swaraj, Gandhiji envisioned, to put power at the hands of the people and made villages the basic unit of politics, economy and society. His idea was not only to decentralise the economy in which each basic unit would be self-sufficient in meeting its main material needs - food, clothing and housing but also to empower the whole population and unite them into a composite whole.
This legacy was carried forward and manifested in Jawaharlal Nehru's socialist ideals and gave birth to the modern industries in India on one hand and cooperatives on the other and 'Swaraj' was re-born. In the modern context, it meant self-sufficiency in production of food grains, milk, steel, cement etc. but achieving all this with minimum exploitation of people as efficiency and economy were not enough if they did not allow the common man to have a stake in the life and destiny of this nation. As a result a mixed economy setup was thought fit for India and the framers of the economic history put a special emphasis on the role of cooperatives in the functioning of the economy, considering the size and the composition of its population. In short, cooperatives not only became a manifestation of ideals of the father of the nation but the vision of the cooperative movement went beyond its narrow interpretation as an economic organization of society and encompassed a wider perspective. The concept of cooperation was not alien to India and even before the formal cooperative structure came into existence people in the village always use to pool resources for the good of the entire village communities collectively creating permanent assets like community tanks or village forests, pooling of resources by groups, like food grains after harvest to lend to needy members of the group before the next harvest, or collecting small contributions in cash at regular intervals to lend to members of the group via chit funds. The phads of Kolhapur where farmers impounded water by putting up bunds and agreed to ensure equitable distribution of water, as well as harvesting and transporting of produce of members to the market, and the lanas which were yearly partnerships of peasants to cultivate jointly, and distribute the harvested produce in proportion to the labor and bullock power contributed by their partners, were similar instances of cooperation.
A firm thrust propelled the growth of the cooperative movement in the India and led to the establishment of some of the most successful cooperatives like Amul, the brand formed by the milk producers' cooperatives in Gujarat that went on to give birth to India's world-renowned White Revolution and proved to be a tool for empowerment for the rural masses especially women with production, processing and marketing done through the farmers-owned cooperatives. The National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) was set up to replicate the Amul pattern of cooperatives in milk throughout the country. Another story is the success of IFFCO, with almost 5.5 Crore farmer members, the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited (IFFCO) has played a major role in producing and providing adequate quanti ties of plant nutrients for achieving self-sufficiency in food grains production and helped in the rapid growth of agriculture and ushered in the green revolution that made India a food surplus country and it is a role model for cooperatives around the world and has promoted the growth of agricultural cooperatives in a big way. Cooperatives in various sectors like credit, agriculture, fisheries, marketing etc. have seen successes and made their contribution to members' economic security and to the overall economy. Cooperatives, in all spheres, today cover approximately 99% of Indian villages and 71% of total rural households in the country and today contribute 50% in sugar production, 33% in wheat production, 64% in storage facilities (village level PACS) , 36% in fertiliser distribution,25% in the production of fertilisers and almost 18% in agriculture credit.
This demonstrates the strength of the cooperatives and in this day and age when we there is glaring economic disparity, inequitable wealth distribution, concentration of wealth in few hands and the country is gripping with a challenge of getting more and more people in the fold of modern economic development, Cooperatives might just be an answer to all the problems. The failure of the public sector in several cases is a worrisome trend. Privatization has also failed to make an impact in the rural areas. Therefore there is great hope on the co-operative sector. But unfortunately as the cooperatives grew over the years there are certain problems gripping this sector also and these challenges if they are not addressed at the earliest will have severe consequences some of the problems include 'bureaucratization' of cooperatives, lack of information about the objectives of the movement, rules and regulations of co-operative institutions and no special efforts have been made in this direction, local politics, caste-ridden elections to the offices of co-operative societies, bureaucratic attitudes of officials, inadequacy of trained personnel , slow growth of the cooperative movement and lack of education are some of the problems gripping this sector.
I would also like to mention the stupendous work done by the Vaidyanathan committee whose recommendations should be implemented at the earliest.
The Cooperative business model has been successful not only in India but has proved its mettle by surviving in the most difficult global economic situations. The United Nations estimated in 1994 that the livelihood of nearly 3 billion people, or half of the world's population, was made secure by co-operative enterprise and these enterprises continue to play significant economic and social roles in their communities. In Kenya, 63% of the population derives its livelihood from co-operatives, in the United States, 30,000 co-operatives provide more than 2 million jobs, in Denmark, consumer co-operatives in 2007 held 36.4% of consumer retail market, In Japan, the agricultural co-operatives report outputs of USD 90 billion with 91% of all Japanese farmers in membership, in New Zealand, 22% of the gross domestic product (GDP) is generated by co-operative enterprise. Co- operatives are responsible for 95% of the dairy market and 95% of the export dairy market, In Canada four of every ten Canadians are members of at least one co-operative and In Indonesia, co-operatives provide jobs to 288,589 individuals.
These are one of the many examples that demonstrate the strength and scale of cooperatives globally and we can see the manifestation of 'Swaraj' and 'Gram Swaraj' in particular around the world and it's not incidental that United Nations to declare 2012 as the 'International year of Cooperatives'.
Therefore, 'Gram Swaraj' becomes relevant than ever before in the modern context. Cooperatives like Self-employed Women's Association have made a distinct mark on the uplift of rural women.
Cooperatives can make 'gram swaraj' a reality in the modern social, economic and political context. n
(Author is Managing Director of IFFCO)