City City Bang Bang, Columns

Localism in Covid times?

In some countries, it looks as if the pandemic has been largely contained, at least for now. Normal life is beginning in those places, even as other nations struggle with a continued rise in numbers. But even in those countries that are opening up, the one sign of a return to normalcy is neither visible nor on the horizon is the idea of opening up one’s borders to international visitors. Given the nature of the virus, containment is the only strategy that is available, not only to nations, but to states, cities, neighbourhoods and apartment blocks. 

This is a dramatic change of script. The idea of the world being an inextricably connected place has dug deep roots. While the inexorable rise of globalisation is facing a political challenge in many parts of the world, economies are so deeply intertwined that a dramatic reversal in direction has been difficult to imagine, let alone bring about. Also, given the role that the digital world plays in our lives, information and influences are almost impossible to contain. This pandemic has managed to force every nation in the world to rethink its relationship with the rest of the world.

The idea of self-sufficiency or at the very least limiting the circle of one’s dependence is the new ideal. It is an ideal born out of necessity as the lack of mobility has restricted options and forced us to look at what lies close at hand. The local grocery store who can deliver to one’s doorstep, the local community that can come together and create a support system, there is even talk of neighbourhoods setting up quasi-medical facilities in order to minimise the need for hospitals, given the acute paucity of beds. 

Along with creating a sense of shared destinies amongst a small unit of organisation, there is also a sense of fear and suspicion of ‘outsiders.’  At one level, the fear is secular as all outsiders are by definition equally suspect, but it also carries with it significant dimensions of religion, class and regionalism, as old prejudices are funnelled through new fears. States have closed borders, and residents fret about anyone coming in from the outside even if they are returning home from their places of work. 

Governments everywhere, barring a handful of exceptions, have failed us. This is partly as a result of the scale of the problem and partly on account of their ineptness. The responsibility for looking after oneself thus has devolved to local units of self-organisation, the most prominent among which are the RWAs. Ordinarily, the expertise of most RWAs lies in squabbling about maintenance fees and parking problems but the current crisis has forced them to grapple with a problem of much greater scale and complexity. The RWA becomes the default authority that frames the rules that govern a situation that no one has planned for. It is a thankless job, and herding a diverse group of very vocal and unreasonably self-confident voices is a job meant for the steely, but it cannot be escaped. At one level, for a lot of neighbourhoods this is the institution that has kept a semblance of order going, but equally the RWAs often use their self-conferred authority to take some discriminatory, whimsical and downright ludicrous actions.

Thanks to digital technology, one could argue that localism in a real sense can never really exist for one is always connected to the larger world. This is true, but only to some extent. For one, at the time when it was needed most, this ecosystem failed us. Deliveries took a long time to resume and have remained somewhat erratic even now. More importantly, social media, while seemingly offering us access to the whole world, has in fact served to create parochial units of homogeneity, exemplified best by whatsapp groups. This is a concentrated form of localism, even if it is not based on the idea of physical proximity.

It would seem the government’s call for atma-nirbharta and its latest slogan, Vocal for Local seems to be aligned with the larger mood of the times. This would be the right time to turn the idea of nationalism inwards, and harden the mental barriers between India and the outside world. However, by its very nature the spirit of localism is an organic ground-up response, and it is unclear if a state-mandated directive will be able to translate into reality. 

It is easier when the idea of the local is weaponised and pointed against a specific enemy. This helps tangibilise the idea of the local, and gives it a sense of purpose. The current border issues with China provide just this kind of fodder, and the idea of local comfortably morphs into that of ‘not Chinese’. Again, this is easier said than done for the Chinese penetration of Indian commercial space is quite deep and unlikely to lend itself to easy erasure. 

In any case, in a globalised world, the question of what is truly local is hardly a straightforward one. There are highly local companies that are largely funded by foreign entities (most internet start-ups). There are international-sounding brands that have Indian owners (Britannia). And there are Indian brands that have been acquired by multinationals (Thums Up, MTR). In addition, a lot of products sold by Indian brands are sourced globally. 

Localism can be an organic force that democratises, by giving local communities greater agency and ensuring that democracies become truly participative. Or it can lead to a narrowing of the imagination, a closing of the mind. While one strand in this pandemic-influenced phenomenon is certainly that of local communities coming together to manage their own realities, the larger movement is towards a form of political and cultural isolationism. It draws power from a larger political narrative that has already ground. The need for every country, state, city, neighbourhood, apartment block and family to put itself first does not augur well for the future.

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