Indian Migrant Crisis: a call for societal transformation or an irreversible collapse?

A soul unknowingly born in a world
So broken and so inhuman
Crushing his innocence with structural inequality 
That we create and endorse every day

Their pandemic is not COVID
It’s a fragmented society, failed governance, fake capitalist dream
And heartlessness of people like you and me
Residing in the top slots of the pyramid
Unaware of the collapse at the bottom

(Lines from the poem A Long Road of Inhumanity)

This article explores the deeper layers of the current migrant crisis and proposes areas for collective action. These insights have emerged from the Dignity of Labour Action-Learning Dialogues, initiated by citizens and changemakers to provide immediate relief support and co-create long-term systemic solutions. 

 

PART 1: Beginning of a societal collapse

Why is the current migrant crisis a trigger of the systemic collapse that has been brewing for a long time?  

In 2014, Nasa funded a study that brought natural and social scientists together to study— What made the greatest civilisations like Roman, Han Dynasty, Mauryan, Guptas, Mesopotamian and Mayans enter into a cycle of irreversible collapse? 

They found a common pattern that’s repeating itself right now. Highlighting the prospect that “global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to… unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution“. This happens when few elites exploit all resources and remain oblivious to the catastrophe brewing at the bottom. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, barely survives on subsistence. This eventually creates inequality-induced famine (or similar disasters) leading to the collapse of society.

In January 2020, Oxfam reported this pattern by highlighting that “Wealth of India’s richest 1% is more than 4-times of the total for 70% poorest” 

On 24th March 2020, we experienced that first major blow of this extreme inequality when the Indian government announced total lockdown. While city elites and the middle-class resorted to their reserves, 139 million migrant labourers suddenly had no job or means to survive in the cities that they built and took care of. 

They account for ~35% of urban India, who travel 1000s of kilometres across the country to earn livelihood in the industrial cities. They work as cheap labourers on construction sites, sewage cleaners, and on other poorly paid hazardous jobs. They come to cities with dreams but end up living in abject poverty in urban slums with almost no welfare. Many of them face problems of non-payment of wages, physical abuse, accidents and even death

Most of us living in cities are aware of the plight of the migrant workers, yet we take it for granted as collateral damage for our development. However, the pandemic has ruptured our illusionary dream and activated a collective trauma that we can’t deny any longer. 

Collective trauma and denial 

Within weeks of lockdown, 23 million migrant labourers had no option but to walk thousands of kilometres back to their villages on foot without food, water, shelter or transport. 

It’s difficult to be a human and not have your heart broken by looking at the images of millions of working-class men, women and children stranded on highways. Inhuman pesticide cleansing of returning migrant labourers. A father breaking down, unable to reach his sick son. A toddler waking with his dead mother on a railway platform. Children walking barefoot on concrete roads. Innocent eyes with tears that were never wiped. Some died of hunger. Others survived to encounter a lifetime of misery. 

These heartbreaking images reflect intense trauma of the poor and blatant apathy of the affluent, just like the way Nasa study had predicted.

The Indian government enforced the lockdown at 4 hours notice with no consideration for 139 million migrants. Many businesses refused to pay wages and triggered the crisisThe Supreme Court let down migrant workers for more than two months before it recognised their inhuman misery. 

Amid the crisis, the state government, of the most populated state, suspended the labour laws to support industrialists while pushing labourers into the vicious cycle of bondage labour. The urban middle-class either remained silent or blamed the migrant labourers as “irresponsible” for walking on the road and putting the rest of us to risk. 

These reactions made me wonder— Why can’t a large part of the affluent class see and feel the misery of working poor at the bottom? 

As we read this article, the survivors among the 23 million are reaching their villages carrying fatigue, shame and anger for what they have been through. Their impoverished villages have quarantined them and have no resources to support their livelihood. Rest of the 139 million poor are still in cities and are running out of their savings. Covid-19 is on the rise among the overcrowded and unsafe slums where most of the migrant workers live. 

The pandemic has exposed a crack that runs deep to the foundation of our socio-economic system. It calls for courage to surface the deeper truths and compassionate action to transform the system that creates inequality and suffering for millions of people on our planet.

~~~~

 

PART 2: Uncovering the deeper structures and agreements of violence: 

What is our collective role in co-creating this crisis?

 

Dayna L Cunningham, Executive Director, MIT CoLab, recently shared at the Presencing Institute’s Global Forum that societal divides are the result of “structural violence“. These are “series of human agreement” that lead to the misery of a group of people. It’s an invitation for us to reflect— What are the structures and unconscious agreements that lead to the misery of 139 million migrant labourers in India? 

 

While the current migration crisis is a complex societal challenge with multiple dimensions, let me explore two underlying meta socio-economic structures:

  1. The economic class structure that treats labour as a commodity 
  2. The social caste system that locks millions into intergenerational suffering 

These two structures leverage each other to create a sophisticated web of misery. Each of these structural arrangements has unconscious agreements made by us individually and collectively. As I wrote this essay, I got in touch with how I am part of these agreements and the role I play in creating structural violence every day. It’s a painful self-realisation and a necessary one if we wish to transform the current crisis. 

For many of us it’s difficult to stay with the collective pain. We long for immediate solutions. However, unless we stay long enough to examine the underlying root causes, today’s well intentioned quick-fixes can become tomorrow’s new problems. I therefore invite readers to join me in exploring the root causes before we reflect on solutions (in part 3 of this article). 

 

Economic class structure: treating labour as a commodity  

Post-colonial governments adapted the dual-economy model that fuelled urban industry through cheap labour migrating from poor villages. Industrialists leveraged it by exploiting the temporary, just-in-time, low-cost migrant workforce. Lawmakers managed any potential unrest by amending the labour laws in favour of enterprises which in turn funded the elections. Urban middle class thrived as white-collar instruments as well as mindless consumers of this dualistic, exploitation-based economic system. We turned a blind eye to the poor workers living in unimaginable conditions in our cities, sidewalks, slums, construction sites. We sanitised our hearts by calling them “migrants” (does not belong here). In exchange, we got cheap, unorganised maid-servants, sewage cleaners and drivers. 

While supporting relief work for stranded migrants, we came across the story of more than 1000 construction workers from Nagpur. Their employers gave them Rs 3000/- (~40 USD) and fired them. When asked, business contractors justified that it was enough for labourers to survive 2 months of lockdown if they eat rice every day. The recent documentary “Saboot Evidence” made by People Archives of Rural India, demonstrates that the employers of migrant workers have violated most of the labour laws by firing them without notice or settling any of their dues.  

Some business contractors even assaulted their workers when they expressed their desire to return home. Contractors feared losing low-cost labour from their construction projects. Once the lockdown was loosened, the same contractors who led to the exodus of millions of workers, started wooing them back with flight tickets and extra salary.

This whole human drama makes us wonder— Why do we treat a fellow human like a commodity that can be exploited as per market conditions? What are our collective agreements that allow this inhuman treatment of the poor working class? 

Underlying agreements: 

As I introspect, I came across some collective agreements that result in the current economic paradigm and are internalised by us in our daily life. 

“Poor people do not deserve equal rights or equal access.” 

This assumption is visible in double standards of the middle class. When it comes to our own job, we want salaries that cover not just our needs but also our future, insurance, welfare, holidays and more. But when it comes to domestic workers, we negotiate the minimal possible wages with no conversation about their health insurance, welfare, future aspirations, housing etc. Most of them work for more than 12 hours with minimal or no off-day. 

I recall driving past a slum area in Mumbai with some guests who lived in gated-townships in Delhi. They peeped into a 3 by 6 feet shanty on the footpath and were shocked to see television and quipped “Look they are so well-off, and we think of them as poor!”. When I pointed out that these slum dwellers have no access to toilets, water or healthcare, I got a reply that I was being too idealistic. It seems, as a privileged upper class, we have normalised the inequality to the level that a poor possessing a TV is disrupting. However it is normal if they do not have access to basic human rights and needs of water, education, health and sanitation. 

Many businesses have institutionalised this agreement. They proudly announce their employee’s welfare programs. But they outsource the responsibility of blue-collar workers to the third-party contractors, who generally do not care for labour welfare. Thanks to the few generous industrialists like Ratan Tata who called this out in an interview “the way these labourers were left to fend for themselves with no work, food or place to stay speaks volumes on lack of business ethics”.

We saw another glimpse of this assumption when the government provided free air rescue for Indians stranded internationally but made the poor migrants pay for train tickets. It seems our collective minds are obsessed with the needs of the affluent while the poor remain in the complete blindspot.

“It’s okay to exploit another human for our convenience” 

When I was buying my flat in a township, I did cross the slums at the construction site where Migrant Labourers lived. A part of me did notice their extreme poverty, lack of safety and innocence of their children. A part of me knew that it’s not fair, not human and perhaps not even legal. I still signed the cheque. I became part of the system that legitimised enslaving and exploitation of the poor. 

Whether we build our house or buy it, we pay for the bricks that make our walls and foundation. We get the good quality ones at best rates. These bricks are made by men working in brick kilns, who are given fraudulently manipulated loans (as low as $100) to keep them and their families in bondage for years, “costing the slaveholder little more than subsistence food and lodging each year. All of which maximizes the slaveholders’ profits — estimated at an average of $1000 per year per bonded laborer — at the cost of human misery.” 

How many such bricks are there in our living rooms, offices and foundations? What then is the real cost of our houses? Who has paid for the rest? How many times a day do we legitimize exploitation and modern slavery— from houses to coffee to the electronics that we are holding right now? 

How different are we from the colonialists? They used military power to push poor into slavery. We use sophisticated economic class systems that create similar results.  If we are not actively engaged in uplifting fellow human beings from the historical systemic slavery, we are part of it. Whether we know it or not. Whether we like it or not. It’s happening! 

We may wonder why does law permit such exploitation? Why government colluded with business in midst of crisis to suspend labour laws and expose labourers to slaveryPerhaps our economic and legal structures are built on deeper societal agreements that make it okay to lock fellow humans in intergenerational misery.

 

Social Caste System: Justifying intergenerational suffering 

Sai Balakrishnan, Faculty Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, has published research that maps this flow and analyses the migrant crisis and its roots in regional and caste politics. He writes, “It is crucial to note that historically marginalised groups—Dalits and Adivasis [tribals]—disproportionately make up the distressed migrant labour force”. Few higher and privileged castes like “Jats, Patidars, Marathas, Vokkaligas, Gounders, Kammas, Reddys” etc. took advantage of the green revolution and built infrastructure for growth. However, they needed cheap labour that came from poor castes residing in poor states. 

A report from The Guardian accounts that most sewage cleaners come from “…Valmiki community, regarded among the lowest in the intricate caste system. When they migrate to cities, they are excluded from any jobs but cleaning. At least one Indian worker has died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks every five days since the beginning of 2017, according to the first official government statistics on the work, considered one of the country’s deadliest jobs and most insidious form of caste discrimination”. 

Whether as industrialists or city householders, we live in comfort because of an old exploitation system that we institutionalised through our scriptures. 

This is the privilege blindspot of our society that higher caste takes for granted and lower caste accept it as fate. “Studies provide evidence on the barriers faced by workers belonging to historically disadvantaged caste groups in the Labour Market”. 

Most of the educated upper and middle class in India must have written an essay on “evils of caste system” in their schools. Yet it persists. Why? What are unconscious agreements that we fail to acknowledge? 

 

Underlying agreements: 

Our collective agreements related to the caste system are more inaccessible and unspeakable. Perhaps each one of us needs to examine on our own: how are we playing into the caste and race discrimination? 

Caste and race privileges (or lack of it) are divinely justified.” 

Many of my colleagues coming from higher caste outrightly reject the above statement, but those coming from lower castes feel acknowledged in it. So many times, we come across brahmins or thakurs or sindhis asserting their racial identity to justify their status. Likewise, we name the communities of potters, cobblers, sweepers, plumbers to justify their misery. They even have separate Gods and place in the divine order.  

Last summer I visited an old roadside cobbler to get the sole of my shoe fixed. He sat on the footpath in front of a mega-shoe-mart. I was perplexed by the irony of the societal divide. I asked him about his well being. He shared with me about his financial struggles and societal discrimination as a matter of fact. Then he pointed out the little poster of Sant Ruidas who is a divine spirit, a saint and a cobbler. He told me that his professional suffering is his destiny and that Sant Ruidas will protect him and his caste from any evil. On that very evening, I had a meeting with the Dean of a corporate learning centre. As I was explaining the research basis of my work, he suddenly stopped me and said that I don’t have to give all that research validation cause he is a Saraswat Brahmin and well-deserving of his role as the Dean. I was surprised by his sudden introjection and emotional charge. I had said nothing about his role or status. Later I realised that just like the Cobbler who is justifying his misery through his caste destiny, the Dean is defending his privilege through his caste status. 

This is a deep unspoken belief that gives unconscious permission for higher castes/races to claim their power, and it makes lower ones to internalise oppression. 

Manual is menial” or “cleaning my shit is not my job”. 

An extension of the internalised caste system can be seen in the way Indian affluent, and middle class engage with manual work like cleaning toilets. Parents train children saying if you don’t study, you may become a cleaner or labourer one day. Hidden in this insult is an assumption that manual work is menial work, and it’s only meant for underprivileged people. Most adults living in upper-middle-class households have rarely cleaned their own toilets. We may champion the cause of women empowerment but rather hire a woman coming from marginalised communities to clean our toilets. We justify her low wages as “generous enough” for the unskilled labour. When the lockdown made it risky to have maid-servants, we were confronted with our own lack of skills. Desperately trying to get our cheap low skill labour back or invest in expensive cleaning gadgets. It’s not just a “skill” issue. It’s a “will” issue that comes from a belief that “cleaning shit is not my job”. Often the unconscious and unspoken belief is that shit cleaning or all other menial work is the job of shit cleaners or Dalits– the lower caste of India. 

As long as we look down on a part of our own work and life as menial or lowly, we can’t think of eradicating the caste system. What’s disowned within us is projected on underprivileged sections of society and creates casteism. 

 

My teacher, Systems Thinking pioneer, Peter Senge, often says, “You can’t change a system unless you see your handprint in creating it”. What he meant is that unless we see our role in creating the current crisis, we remain outsiders or victims. And victims don’t have any agency within them to transform the system. Structural violence exists because of our collective agreements. Each one of us needs to introspect and examine:

  • How am I promoting, ignoring, endorsing or not-challenging the current agreements? 
  • What were the moments when I could have spoken but didn’t?
  • What is my privilege or power that I may be taking for granted?

Reflecting on how we create structural violence is a pre-work before we could transform the system and develop new agreements for structural love. 

~~~~

 

PART 3: Recreating new structures and agreements based on dignity and love

What is our role in transforming the current system? 

One of my friends who was helping migrant labourers in Nagpur (in central India) met a group of construction workers who had already walked ~400 kilometres on foot and had another 500 kilometres journey ahead of them. They were exhausted lying half-dead on the roadside. He offered them food and asked them how they will manage the rest of the walk? 

One of them replied— “We have no option, no job, no money, no food here. Back in the village at least we can die with dignity.” 

This one statement broke my heart. 

These are the men and women who build our cities. We turned our back on them. They have the courage and capacity to walk 1000 miles. What they long for is not money, work or food. They long for dignity! 

Moved by the collective pain, some of us initiated “Dignity of Labour (DoL) Dialogues” — an action-learning platform to bring citizens and changemakers together, to co-create solutions for relief and long-term systems change. Over the last 2 months, we did several online dialogues engaging up to 900 changemakers worldwide, supported over a dozen initiatives in India and co-created new prototypes. 

Dayna Cunningham motioned in her video that antidote to structural violence is structural love. That may emerge as new agreements based on empathy, dignity and love for every human being. 

There are major structural reforms urgently needed at policy level to create inclusion and dignity for all. Here are some of our insights on how we can individually initiate the transformation from structural violence to structural love:

 

1. Release the default pattern of shame and blame. Listen with an open heart. 

When we started DoL Dialogues, many of us were feeling extremely pained and sympathetic to the migrant labourers, angry with policymakers and helpless and stuck as middle-class. We got stuck in a reactive pattern of either shaming oneself (introjecting) or blaming the system (projecting). Creating a stuck drama of guilt-ridden privileged or angry activists. Either way, we were robbing the whole system of its agency to create change. 

However, after listening to stories of migrant labourers from the field and embodying various roles using Social Presencing Theatre, we started seeing and sensing the struggles and agency with each role. We learnt that: 

  • The migrant labourer has most agency in the system. They are the ones who build the cities. They are walking 1000 miles, and when they find their ground, they can recreate a new grassroots economy. Our paradigm shifted from seeing them as helpless victims to co-creators of a new economy. 
  • Policy Makers needed the most help. We realised that they are overwhelmed by the crisis and stuck in their old privilege paradigm. They need support to be vulnerable and open. 
  • The middle-class has the most leverage. It has equal access to the migrant and policymakers. But they are stuck in their fear-based ego bubble. They long to join migrants and return to earth and their home. 
  • We found another subtle role that mirrors the longing of humanity. The “Consciousness” that lives within each of us and is manifested as artists, storytellers and conscious media. It has the power to empower all other roles. 

All these insights became available to us only when we dropped our shame and blame pattern and started listening to the whole system with an open heart.  

2. Reframe Relief work as introspective atonement/ praayashchit (shadow work)

Manasi Saxena, Founder of enCOMPASSion, shared her inspiring story of leading relief work for migrant labourers on DoL platform. She reflected that “charity is not enough”. It can create dependence and divides if we become judgemental and not mindful of our privilege as volunteers. 

Sometimes the one providing relief or support may operate from their ego-self (“I have more and so I can help or solve or fix their issue”). This results in a victim-rescuer dynamic, where the rescuer fails to acknowledge the agency in the one they are helping. 

This conversation made me reflect on the meaning of “dana” (donation) from Vipassana practice. Dana is an expression of loving-kindness and gratitude where we give we thank others for allowing us to serve and let-go of our own ego-attachments. Thus it’s done without any self-identification, conditions or control.

Many of us city dwellers extended our generosity by continuing to pay full salary/ wages to the maids, cleaners, workers even if they could not come for work due to lockdown. It is a great opportunity to practice “dana”. Unfortunately, some of us started operating from the ego. We began cutting wages and demanding our servants to come back. 

In doing so, we are missing an essential spiritual dimension of this crisis. If we reframe this as an opportunity to provide relief to those who have served us, our unconscious arrogance will give way to gratitude. The same giving or donation will become a spiritual act of atonement. Each floor we sweep, each dish we wash and each toilet we clean will become an expression of thanksgiving to all those who took care of us. 

The current migrant crisis is offering an opportunity to attend our collective shadow. 

From that lens, I sincerely appreciate all the communities that came forward to serve migrant labourers with pure love— cleaning their feet, feeding them with love, providing personal transport etc. My wise friend Samata Vashisht shared— “when we give unconditional love, we can heal our collective past in an instant”. 

 

3. Recreate structures of love through the web of micro-actions 

Once we see our role in co-creating the structural violence, we can also make choices to recreate structural love. How do we do that as ordinary citizens? 

First, we need to notice the agreements that we consciously or unconsciously make to create structural violence: How we might be perpetuating the caste and class system in our home or at work? 

Then, we could think of one micro-action that would shift the whole paradigm. And slowly practice it in spite of the status quo on either end of the divide. 

Finally, encourage others to join us in that micro-action and create a web of goodness. 

Vinay Kumar, a scientist, working in Bangalore, role-modelled the process as mentioned above for us. When the migrant çrisis hit Bangalore, he was appalled by the citizen’s apathy towards the poor. Vinay’s first micro-action was to provide food and bike-transport to migrants on the way to his office. He then used his phone to create a short video to make visible the reality of the crisis. The video went viral and initiated the #migrantlifematters campaign and a network of hundreds of citizens organising relief and influencing government for immediate action. 

The same process of micro-actions and wave-of-goodness apply to businesses that employ migrant labourers. Irrespective of our role, power, position in a system, we can take a moment to reflect how we actively or inactively support the agreements that keep workers locked in poverty. And then take one micro-action today. And invite others to join tomorrow. One of the changemakers from our network, Vikram Sood, is a passionate Social Entrepreneur who hired carpenters from West Bengal to work in Bangalore. Amid lockdown, he helped them go back to their villages. On reflection, he decided to shift the machinery and tools to their villages so that they can work from home and break the pattern that forces them to migrate in search of livelihood. His action and story inspired many participants from the business world. 

It’s time that we all create new agreements for the wellbeing of all. Imagine a million acts of love transforming the massive structures of violence. Imagine that you and I are part of that story! 

 

4. Regenerate rural economy to heal the urban-rural divide 

While doing Social Presencing Theatre to understand the deeper dynamics of this crisis, I chose the role of a Migrant Labourer. The process allowed me to embody their current reality and to let it move to wherever it longs to go. Initially, my back of bend with immense invisible load and head was low with a sense of shame and failure. As I moved to the edges of the system where I felt the presence of my village, my spine became straight. My shoulder broadened, and my heart opened. Now, I could see the whole system. Standing in my village, rooting in my dignity, I could not only support myself but also the policymakers and the entire nation. 

This embodied insight was validated by a village woman farmer from Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP)  grassroots women network, who messaged me “we don’t want anyone going back to cities and sacrifice their dignity again”. 

Later I learnt that she, along with other village women, raised Rs 90,000 through their Self Help Group (SHG) and helped 5 migrant youth to start a new agri-based enterprise. 

While the pandemic has broken the capitalist economy, these grassroots women are presenting an alternate rural, organic model that is regenerating the local economy and integrating the returning migrant labourers. Join us on 30th August to hear Prema Gopalan, Founder SSP India and other women leaders share their story. 

Another Changemaker, Purnima Upadhayaya, who leads KHOJ, NGO in Melghat tribal area, asked us to reconsider Gandhi’s vision of local self-sustained village economy (Sarvodaya). She shared that the villages that adapted the local economy model had less than 10% migration and were able to sustain better through the crisis.  

One of our thought leaders, Dr Arvind Chinchure, proposed that we need to shift the centre of the economy from a few urban centres to a cluster-based connected rural economy. He believes that by applying modern principles like Industry 4.0, we can create a distributed economy that addresses the root cause of the migration crisis and restores their dignity of labours as local entrepreneurs. 

What does it mean for the rest of us? — as businesses, consumers, investors and storytellers?

It is a call for policymakers to shift the attention and investment from industries that thrive on cheap migrant labourers to distributed micro-enterprises that create value for people and the planet. 

It is a call for businesses to innovate their business models to leverage technology and create value without making villagers migrate as cheap labour. 

It is a call for NGOs and social enterprises to rise as a network that can support the new economy by building grassroots capacity at scale. 

It is a call for those living in cities as consumers, investors and storytellers (media) to commit to this new economy by consuming and promoting what’s local, fair-trade and organic. 

It is a call for all of us to make a radical commitment and unplug from the seductive slow poison of mindless consumerism, exploitative capitalism and ultra-urbanisation.  

~~~~

This pandemic has exposed the broken foundation of our development narrative. In the heart of our heart, we always knew that the current socio-economic system is not creating wellbeing for all. The painful exodus of 23 million fellow humans on highways has given us a glimpse of the massive disasters awaiting for 116 other migrant labourers suffering in cities. The ripple effect of this may eventually impact all of us.

NASA analysis highlighted that great civilisations collapsed after reaching their high points of development. We are seeing a similar pattern being repeated on a global scale. 

Referring back to NASA study, I wonder what must be going on in the minds of people when their civilization showed initial signs of collapse. When they noticed the ecological disasters and socio-economic divides, did they get together to transform that opportunity? 

Deepak Chopra made a crucial point while introducing his new book “Meta-Human“. He said that “Humanity is poised at a fork between the extinction of human spices or next leap of evolution”. Either we rise together beyond our old patterns founded in ego, greed, societal divides and evolve to the next level. Or we go down the path of extinction. “It depends on us. If we go extinct, universal consciousness will say— it didn’t work. Dinosaurs didn’t work either. Let’s keep trying”.  

I do feel we are at the very end of this fork and the current migrant crisis is a call to choose the path. 

Each one of us has a choice, and each one of us matters!

~~~~

Manish Srivastava (srivastava@presencing.com) 

22.08.2020 

~~~~

Gratitude:

I am grateful to:

  • Sonali Gera, Anupam Rawat, Nirvana Laha and Vijaya Nair for reviewing and encouraging me in publish this article 
  • All changemakers from Dignity of Labour Action-learning platform who have inspired these insights 
  • Presencing Institute Social Arts team for helping me deepening my wisdom through contemplative arts  
  • 139 million migrant labourers who inspire us with their resilience and spirit to serve

Pls feel free to share your views and engage in further dialogue at the facebook group

Longing for Dignity

Transforming  human trafficking ecosystem

Sometimes we need to walk to the edges of our civilization to see deeper truths. Human trafficking is one such edge. It is a story of how human can reduce humanity to an object for flesh-trade.

I was ignorant and apathetic to the world of human trafficking until two leading non-profit organizations, working on anti-trafficking, invited me to facilitate a dialogue. They asked me to help them solve complex systems challenges in their field that was leading to internal ideological conflicts and impacting their collective work.

We convened a group of men and women committed to fighting against this gruesome act of humanity. At the end of the first day, we sat in a circle and shared painful stories of how young girls and boys are sold, how their innocence is manipulated, and their dignity is destroyed. As they introduced me to the dark world of human trafficking, I felt deeply sad, angry and helpless. I had no courage to facilitate a dialogue on such a painful topic. At some level, it was hard for me to relate to their complex challenges.

Honouring the FieldKali trampling Shiva. Chromolithograph by R. Varma.

Coincidently, the workshop was scheduled during Navratri (April 2017)– a festival where Hindu’s worship nine avatars of Goddess or Divine Feminine over nine nights. On that particular night, it was Day 7, Kalaratri pooja. I invoked the Goddess in my meditation and confessed my limitations as a man holding a conversation that related to deep dishonouring of the feminine. I asked her to help me in my role as a facilitator. Image of Kali with Shiva lying on her feet popped up with two clear insights: 1. Listen to the body (Kali doesn’t like anything heady) and 2. Surrender (as Shiva did)!

Next morning, instead of conversations, we used an embodied contemplative theatre practice called 4D Mapping to understand the social system that leads to trafficking of girls. 4D Mapping is one of the practices of Social Presencing Theatre developed by Arawana Hayashi. In this, we work with complex systems challenges, embody key stakeholders and co-create a social sculpture of current social reality. This process makes visible the hidden dimensions of the social field and generates in-depth data about the shifts that could move the whole ecosystem towards its wellbeing. Most importantly, this process required us to surrender our agenda and listen to the wisdom of our bodies.

Participants played different roles representing victim girl, her family, her dignity, police system, shelter homes, anti-trafficking NGOs, the justice system and customers. As we embodied the roles and relationships between various actors, all the stories from last night and many generations, become alive. We were uncovering the primal patterns of systemic oppression: where suppressed-sexuality turns women into objects of sex; and upheld-morality fights back to give her justice. She suffers on both ends. Sacrificing her dignity and freedom. While we walk the clean streets with our pants zipped and collars upright.

Collective Resonance: 

When we sat back in a circle to reflect on what we just experienced, the whole room went in deep impregnating silence. There was an unspoken resonance vibrating through space, transforming words into tears. After a while, few spoke from their heart. Others nodded in deep acceptance.

A man who played the role of a ‘victim girl’ shared that while embodying her role, he could feel her trembling fear and pain in his body. He added that while every other player in the act were pulling or pushing the girl to justice, all that she longed for was acceptance and dignity from her family.

A woman who played the role of a ‘policeman’ shared that while playing the role, she felt exhausted and misjudged by others. All that policeman wanted was appreciation and dignity for his work.

Another woman who embodied ‘family’ found herself powerless and filled with shame. All through the exercise ‘family’ kept lying on edge away from ‘dignity’. She said, “I know the girl longs to come back, and everyone else judges me (family) for letting her go, but I have no dignity left within myself. I have no agency or power either.”

Everyone in the room, including me, cried as we embraced the fact— we all were somehow victims and contributors, unfairly stuck in this systemic suffering. And each one, irrespective of our gender, longed for acceptance and dignity.

Collective Resolution: 

Slowly our heart-felt reflections transformed into collective resolve.

A program leader opened her heart and said “I think we got it wrong from the beginning. We got so invested in our idea of justice that we turned insensitive to girls need. How different are we from the trafficking ecosystem that robs her of her dignity? We need to redefine our purpose from anti-trafficking to pro-dignity”.

A young man who works with communities and shelter homes said “I have been feeling this for long. Her dignity dies at the source: when her family sells her due to their vulnerable social-economic conditions. We should work at the source instead of trying to fix the problem after she has lost all hopes in the trafficking system”. Another leader declared: “Let’s redirect our attention and funds for bringing dignity to girls and working with their vulnerable families”.

In following days and weeks, insights were translated into new projects. Relationships between the partners has deepened and so is their collective advocacy for draft bill on anti-trafficking in India. However, there was another piece of the puzzle lying in the outer circle.

Customers & Citizens: Two sides of the same coin?

Throughout our reflective dialogue, I kept wondering about the mysterious role of the customers. How could men be so inhuman to turn a woman or a child into an object for the sex-trade? Don’t they get curious about her feelings, her fears, her helplessness?

In the paralysed stuckness of the customer, I could see wounded masculine energy that falls prey to their own repressed sexuality, and, gets stuck in corrupt game of sex, money and power.

Towards end, my attention shifted to yet another invisible role– bystanders or citizens. Those of us who are aware but choose to disengage from the dark quarters of sex-trafficking or prostitution. We do not want to get our linen dirty in this mess. We would instead write college essays on ‘legalization of prostitution’ or share WhatsApp jokes on ‘Bangkok holidays’. Aren’t we part of the social system that creates the ground for sex-trade? Haven’t we invented and upheld morality that shames sexual desires? Pushing it to shadow realms of prostitution and pornography. In that sense, how different are we form the customers who create demand and activate the human trafficking system?

We generated powerful felt-insights when we created the embodied map of the stakeholder, oppressors, rescuers and oppressed in the social system. I wondered, how we would place the feminine, masculine, child, shame, sexuality, dignity within our hearts? Who oppresses whom? What accentuates the customer? What disempowers the bystander? What is the divine within us really longing for?

Returning to the Woman within

After the workshop, I sat alone in the room, feeling the resonance of the dialogue we just had. Unresolved, I turned again to the Goddess, the divine feminine. She responded from within:

A woman is reduced to an object for sex
So you can strip her of all her dignity
And redeem yourself from your shame

A stone is turned into a revered Goddess
So you can project her dignified presence
And redeem yourself from your guilt

Where have you lost it, O civilized man?
Couldn’t you pause and feel the woman within?
She longs for dignity and your presence!

—————
This experience led me to a poetic exploration of the inner dimensions of masculinity; and it’s journey from woundedness (exploiting feminine) to wholeness (honouring feminine and healing the world); in my upcoming book “Trading Armour for a Flower: Rise of New Masculine
—————

– Manish Srivastava


Gratitude:

I am grateful to the leaders and team members of Kamonohashi Project and Save The Children India for this opportunity to learn and work with them. They are doing incredible work to transform the trafficking ecosystem. Pls, visit their website to learn more about their work and contribute to their projects.
Kamonohashi Project: https://www.en.kamonohashi-project.net 
Save The Children India: https://savethechildrenindia.org 

Death of an Entrepreneur: Part 2: “Grandiosity and Shame”

Café Coffee Day founder #VGSiddhartha death revealed the debt crisis in India. It also revealed an empathy crisis of the world we live in. 

Frozen TV Screen in a Cafe Coffee Day

When a self-made, socially-committed entrepreneur commits suicide, we are left with an unexplainable void. In my last blog (Death of an Entrepreneur: Our collective Blindspot), I explored how we all are becoming the part of the invisible forces, within our social ecosystem, that makes and breaks an entrepreneur.

I received many responses from other entrepreneurs, bankers, tax officers, psychologists and artist. They resonated with the blog and shared how they feel stuck and helpless in the ecosystem that accounts for the death of talented and conscious entrepreneurs like Siddharth. Some of the readers knew Siddharth personally. They shared stories of his commitment to uplift underprivileged communities, educating youth and his diligence to pay off all his debts. Yet, he ended up seeing himself a failure and killed himself.

Interestingly, some readers saw it differently. They hold Siddharth as a defaulter who took the system for granted and killed himself when questioned. They wonder how can one have empathy for those who default the system and fail their dependents. This contrast in viewpoints made me wonder why do we fail to see and feel the ecosystem that we are part of. How do we get obsessed with the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor, while, the script and the scriptwriters go unnoticed?

Perhaps, how we see the world depends upon what lenses we wear. Do we tend to look narrowly at immediate parts or we look at the whole? Do we look mechanically at structural/ logical elements and externalise responsibility? Or we also look empathically at emotional/cultural dimension and take collective ownership of what happened?

This made me draw a matrix to map all response. There seem to be four distinct viewpoints:

Narrow mechanistic view (Fault-finding): Holding the entrepreneur accountable for his or her wrong decisions and lack of responsibility. From this viewpoint death of entrepreneurs like Siddharth is a result of their own mistakes and failure. They misuse the system and fail to deal with when questioned. This is similar to the patriarchal, alpha male paradigm that blames the entrepreneurs (the masculine provider) for defaulting the system and shames him for making his family or tribe suffer.

Systems mechanistic view (System-analysis): Holding the system accountable that’s victimising the entrepreneur. This viewpoint shifts attention from the individual to the whole system and analyses the structural and policy dimensions. Many business leaders and politicians have been speaking from this viewpoint, when they refer to tax-terrorism and insensitive policies by the current government.

Both the above viewpoints on left side of the matrix, are logical and persuasive. But they lack empathy. They look at the issue and try to quickly fix it by holding either the entrepreneur or the system accountable. They don’t put themselves in the situation. To understand the right side of the matrix, we need to step into shoes of the entrepreneurs like Siddharth. Something we were able to do when we created a Social Presencing Theatre based systems map (refer last blog)

Narrow empathetic view (Mental-wellbeing): Reflecting on the mental and emotional stress an entrepreneur undergoes that makes him take such drastic step. Those holding this viewpoint empathise with Siddharth and call upon other entrepreneurs to take care of their mental well-being. They advocate that entrepreneurs must have close friends and professional support to help them through these situations. 

Holistic empathic view (Co-sensing and transforming the ecosystem): Reflecting not only on the emotional struggles of the entrepreneur but the larger field that co-creating the suffering. Those holding this perspective are like gardeners who go beyond sympathising with the dying plant and attend to the whole ecosystem. They feel the collective pain and reflect on their own role in co-creating the mess.

The holistic empathic view reminds of something my teacher and systems thinking guru Peter Senge told me ten years back.

“You cannot change a system unless you see your thumbprint (role) in creating it”.

This quote changed my perspective in life. Unless we see how we are creating the current state of suffering, we will only remain helpless victims of the same. And victims have no power to change the system anyways. From a holistic systemic viewpoint, we all are interconnected. We can see how we are co-creators of the capitalist economy that creates, exploits and kills entrepreneurs like Siddharth.

As investors, we are only invested in higher returns on the capital we invest in. We create pressure on enterprises to take the risk and return higher dividends. We don’t care anything about sustainable practices of the enterprise or well-being of the entrepreneur. Together with banking system, we have co-created a short-term, individualistic growth culture cares little for people or planet.

As the government, we want to control and claim higher taxes. We citizen elect governments and become part of the impersonal machinery that puts undue pressure on entrepreneurs. I recall how voters celebrated the demonetisation and GST policies while so many small scale entrepreneurs struggled to survive. It was painful to see an entrepreneur friend of mine breaking down financially and emotionally during that period. 

As employees of these enterprises and banks, we want job stability, salary raise and secure lifestyle. We don’t know the risks and burden an entrepreneur takes to feed his enterprise. As family and friends, we often want the status quo of lifestyle to continue. Praising the patriarch and never letting him off the hook. As a community, we shame and blame if they fail their role as providers. Makes it difficult for entrepreneurs like Siddharth to retreat, surrender or restart.

As a society, media and consumers, we have co-created a narrative of “grandiosity and shame”. We feed on rag-to-riches, alpha, hero stories. We inspire our youth to think big, dream big, and leap beyond their own bearings. We have created systems that seduce them do so through low-risk loans, venture capital and so on. 

We first feed them to the “grandiose” narrative. A few may succeed, temporarily. Sooner or later they fail. Then we trigger the “shame” narrative. Shaming them for failing the system, the family, the community, their own image. Some sneak away unceremoniously out of the limelight. Some bear it all and commit suicide.

 

Something in this story reminds me of the 2017 biopic “The Mercy“. It is a real-life story of a  businessman, Donald Crowhurst, from the United Kingdom. He had a beautiful family and a decent lifestyle inspite of his struggling business. He got seduced by the grandiosity narrative and, in spite of being an amateur sailor, he applied for the Golden Globe Race to sail solo around the world without any stop. Media made him an instant hero. Investors put their money to help him build a new boat. Rest of us projected our unlived hero dream on his frail shoulders. A few weeks before his journey he realised that he has bitten more than he could chew. As a technologist, he was certain that his new boat would fail. Yet the media refused to listen, investors got hold of his house mortgage, everyone put pressure on him, and he, himself, could not fail his family. And so he went on the expedition. Though he sailed half way around the world, impressive for an amateur, he could not return as a failure and face the shame. He jumped in the sea and committed suicide. When the news of his suicide reached his wife and children, media surrounded their house, hurling insults and demeaning him. At one point his wife opened the door and said

“I don’t know if my husband slipped and fell, or if he jumped… as you’re now saying. But I would like you to rest assured, that if he did jump, he was pushed. And each and every one of you here had a grubby hand on his back. Every photographer, every sponsor, every reporter, every sad little man who stands at a newsstand to feast on the scraps of another’s undoing. And once he was in the water, you all held him under with your judgement.

Last week you were selling hope, now you’re selling blame. Next week you’ll be selling something else.

But tomorrow and every day after, my children will still need their father. And I will still need my husband.”

 

Manish Srivastava

http://www.sacredwell.in

——————-

Gratitude & Dedication:

I was inspired to write Part 2 of this blog by Shamnad Basheer. A spirited soul, a legal academician, social entrepreneur and innovator. I had met him and fourteen other inspiring legal professionals at a gathering in Kerela organised by Agami last month (some of work is reflect in Part 1 of this blog). 3 weeks back, Shamnad was travelling in the region where V.G.Siddhartha came from and shared inspiring stories encouraging me and others to “step beyond atomistic thinking and reconnect with the whole we are part of”. Unfortunately, Shamnad died in an accident on way back from Chikamangaluru on 8th Aug 2019. In a short span of few weeks, he inspired me to keep activating the ecosystem of goodness. Unfortunately, he is not here to read this piece. 

~Manish

 

Death of an Entrepreneur: Part 1: “Our Collective Blindspot”

When a plant dies, the gardener does not blame the plant. He checks the soil, water, sunlight, in short, the ecosystem that helps a plant nourish or perish.

VG Siddhartha, the founder of Cafe Coffee Day (CCD), committed suicide. He has been known as role-model, self-made, successful business entrepreneur. Industry leaders remember him for his sincerity, dedication, and commitment to social upliftment. CCD grew rapidly and became a brand known as Starbucks of India. Newspapers say that he was under heavy debt and broke down from continuous harassment from government and banks. Three days back, he went missing and left a letter on social media. The letter reflects his good intention and his breakdown to the institutional pressures.

Maybe there is more to the business story that we will know in days to come. Right now, as a social witness, I am saddened to see a life gone. Like many entrepreneurs of the capitalist economic system, he took too many risks, grew too fast and collapsed.  We can blame him for impractical decisions and being too aspirational. He blamed himself for the same and took away his life. I wonder why he did not use his political connections and flee the country like many others. Maybe he was too thin-skinned to not take responsibility for his actions. But wait a minute. Is he the only one to be blamed for what happened? Is he the only one failed in this story? 

Coincidently, two weeks back, I was working with a group of social entrepreneurs and innovators from the legal field. They were convened by Agami to reflect on how we could transform the current legal system in India. One of the cases we worked with was about “how Alternative Dispute Resolution could help financial institutions resolve disputes with loan defaulters?”. 

We used Social Presencing Theatre (SPT), a contemplative social art practice, that helps in making visible the hidden dimensions of our current systems challenges. After understanding the complexity of our challenge we identified key stakeholders and co-created a social sculpture (a systems map) representing how these stakeholders are stuck in the current reality.

Our systems map had two main players— “the bank” and “defaulters”, who were influenced by other stakeholders including lawyers, the justice system, financial institutions, family etc. While we mapped the inter-relational dimensions of the legal system around the bank and defaulters, the map also illuminated the systems blindspot— the powerful financial system that produces and promotes capitalist web and punishes when one falls out of it. Somehow the players representing “finance system”, including government & investors, remained almost invisible to other players. They were powerful and kept controlling others indirectly, while the rest of the system struggled to work with the stuck between demanding bank and struggling defaulter. This made us wonder— who creates the defaulter in the first place? 

In the case of CCD, VG Siddhartha was the good-hearted “defaulter”. He was created and destroyed by the crony capitalist systems that we are part of. Unfortunately, we have co-created a capitalist economic system that thrives on rapid growth and risk-taking of individuals like Siddharth. And when they struggle, we call them as “defaulters” and suck every ounce of spirit till they drop dead.

We all are part of this system. We don’t think twice before demanding high dividends from our shares invested in these corporations. We want our coffees and products cheap and of high quality. We, just like those impersonal banks and demanding tax authorities, are least invested in the success or failure of the one who is creating value for us.

No loan-seeker goes to banks intending to become a defaulter one day. No bank professional wakes up intending to harass an entrepreneur. We all are equally stuck in same system. We need to ask— what are the deeper systems that are promoting the values of unchecked growth that leads an entrepreneur to a point where they have no option but to fail or flee? A change at that level would ask us to step beyond our current sectoral role into larger systems transformation role. Something that is much more complex, collaborative and necessary.

Afterthought: (added on Aug 3, 2019, after a conversation with few friends): While entrepreneurs and bankers are obvious stuck players in this situation, there are powerful, impersonal Invisibles. This includes demanding investors, regulating government and mindless consumers. All demanding higher returns, seeking higher control and extracting higher value. None of them cares for the well-being of the entrepreneur. They need “more” and are “happy” as long as the business entrepreneur serves their demands. Together they promote and control the ego-driven, limit-less growth paradigm that seduces, creates, exploits and kills an entrepreneur.

We weave the carpet for our heroes to rise
We set up the guillotine for them to be sacrificed
While the higher throne remains unchallenged and smiles
Who needs a warrior once the kingdom survives!

Manish Srivastava

http://www.sacredwell.in

 

Gratitude:

I am grateful to the Agami team including Supriya, Keerthana, Artika and my co-conspirator, Sonali Ojha.  In these moments of sadness, Agami brings hope by gathering 15 path-breaking young social innovators who are committed to transforming legal ecosystem in India. The pictures above show them in action— mapping the ecosystem by activating the wisdom of the social field.