13 April 2021 10:37 PM

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CHANDRU CHAWLA | 9 MAY, 2020

Slow Train Coming - Lessons From COroNaFUSION

‘Gonna put my good foot forward’


A nanometer sized organism has thrown our orderly Sensex fueled lives into disarray. We are all left wondering about its aftermath and about the new normal. Or about the forced changes into our lives as we move on, struggling to retain our health, our jobs and our sanity. What will we remember this period by?

The images of despair, with millions of our fellow human beings walking miles and miles, away from the heartless cities that they didn’t trust? Or the images of arrogant, narcissistic leaders, who despite having the means, didn’t do enough? Or the images of hope, as millions of people at the front line, who continue to fight valiantly, without adequate armour and at great risk to themselves, to protect us from both the pandemic and the hunger and starvation?

All the stories of hope have a common thread of kindness and compassion. Whether it is a recovered patient who is keen to donate his plasma to save others, or a hotel owner making his hotel available to feed people, or ordinary people helping others with food, clothes, daily essentials to get by, or some company owners trying valiantly to keep jobs alive, or some people taking undue risks to get others home – we have all reached into our inner reserves to find that most problems can be solved with kindness, calm, generosity and a resolve to do the right thing.

We may have realized that we have this in abundance, but for many years, it has been subverted by this desire for manly, militant, patriarchal thinking and muscular action. By this desire to be always achieving something – the conquest of wealth, of infinite growth, of unbridled consumption, of defeating a rival, a competitor, a religion, an ethnic group, an enemy nation

What has made us happy in the last few weeks? Unconstrained family time? Seeing Nature revive? The realization that one’s basic desires and needs are very limited? Coming to terms with our mortality? Experiencing joy from simple acts of giving? The lazy, languid chats with our friends and companions? The realization that we are all one and our destinies are connected? The knowledge that our lives functioned very well without temples, churches and mosques? And that we could easily engage with our faiths privately? That public displays of faith were unnecessary and even irrelevant?

Did the patriarchy that dominates our lives hit us? The one, that reflects silently through crude sexist jokes and crass banter? Did our notions about the homemaker change? Did we realize that a large part of our lives is run by people whose work doesn’t get recognized and compensated? Did we revisit our understanding of “dignity of labor’? Did we notice, beyond our WhatsApp dominated lives, the chain of ordinary people, who make our privileged lives possible.

This period of “doing nothing” forced us into “Slow Living”, which like an Indian Slow Train, expects the traveler to relish the journey and savor the unhurried conversations and stories that it brings. What lessons, if any, did ‘Slow Living” impart to us privileged few, who are managing this phase without our “economic backs” being broken? If this phase of recovery is a long haul, what do we take with us for the long haul?

What does the Earth mean to us? Our soils, our seasons and climates, our rivers, our oceans, our flora and fauna. All of them. The whole Biodiversity. We are seeing firsthand and at a fast pace, what a nanometer sized organism can do, when habitats are disturbed. We have already lost 90% of the large fish in oceans, 60% of all mammals, nearly 50% of our topsoil, a few thousand species going extinct every year, over half of the earth’s aquifer systems going defunct and 1.2 billion acres of rainforest lost in just one year. When we see two mature trees being cut, do we see development of people? Do we forget that two mature leafy trees can support the oxygen needs of a family of four and any proposed development must compensate for this loss, among others? Replanting or transplanting trees rarely compensates for this loss.

Would it not be in the national interest to seek fair “Environmental Impact Assessment” of any large state or private project in our vicinity, that alters the landscape, or the course and state of a river, or adversely affects the flora and fauna, as its poor planning or implementation could have disastrous covid – like effects? Demanding this in public hearings, making our feedback heard on the publicly available records of such EIAs, must be an activity, that we all must devote some of our pro bono time for. We are now paying for decades of neglect, as we see a pathogen make an animal-to-human leap and hold the entire planet hostage!

Water is Life – The first rural to urban migrations happened because of droughts in villages and the farmer’s inability to sustain from the produce of his land. We are now witnessing a unique, forced urban to rural migration. One that reinforced the brutal reality of the city’s and the state’s heartless nature. One would guess, that in their present state of mind, the migrant workers may prefer to stay back in their villages. Many of them may prefer to give their own “Do Bigha Zamin” a second chance. Or to live what was Gandhi’s most important vision – to rebuild and preserve the Indian village culture.

This “second wave of rural evolution” will need our support, if we believe in its socio-economic future. One may have to address the twin needs of “reviving water bodies” and moving to “natural farming”. The two are interlinked. The former mitigates the most important barrier to sustainable living. The latter, with its focus on “no till, no chemicals, indigenous crops, native seeds” paves the way for a closed loop type sustainable farm-based existence. While the State gears up to this reality, we must ensure that the work of people like Narsanna Koppula, Rajendra Singh, Bharat Mansata, Bunker Roy, Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Paani Foundation, P Sainath and scores of others – who are trying to get “sustainable rural livelihoods” the attention it deserves - get our support and resources.

One of the best parts of Slow Living is watching plants grow. A few pots in an urban house, or a backyard patch in a rural or semi-urban home, is all one needs. The joy of seeing something create itself, flourish and bloom, and birds and bees inviting themselves to form a habitat, is a joy that is easy and relatively inexpensive to cultivate. Handling the dirt, or the soil, puts us in direct contact with the cycle of life. Watching dry leaves, fallen twigs, vegetable waste, decompose and form an aromatic Humus, that helps retain moisture and facilitates soil organisms to become active – is like watching the Dance of Life.

Rescuing an animal and preferably befriending it makes the tryst with Nature complete. An abandoned cat, dog, an injured bird who gets our compassion becomes a source of joyful companionship that has immeasurable value.

If one is blessed with privilege, are there ways to make it work towards Slow Living? Indeed, there are. One of Gandhi’s methods illustrates this. Dr K A Hamied, the founder of Cipla, reminisces about the very early days of his struggling company in his autobiography, A Life to Remember, “Mahatmaji asked if I could take him for a drive. When the news about this appeared in the papers, I was known all over Bombay. I then understood the motive behind Mahatma Gandhi’s going with me for a drive. It was to give me a lift and make me known in the public life of Bombay. It was a great characteristic of Mahatma Gandhi to pick up men and push them up in public life to become, in course of time, leaders of the nation”.

If one has privilege and if one dreams of a different world, then one must use it to back those deserving men and women with lesser means who are also striving to make a positive impactful change. One must make the privilege count in a purposeful manner. Struggling but deserving artists, performers, artisans, agents of social change, entrepreneurs with unique, socially relevant business models must get our enthusiastic support to help pivot them. To get them the resources and attention that can catapult them into realizing their potential and creating impact

Can businesses be a useful platform for doing good and bringing about powerful social change? Marc Benioff, founder of the American Technology behemoth, may have pushed the envelope the farthest. He advocates that Giving Back must be in the DNA of any modern business. He follows the 1-1-1 principle, which entails giving away 1% equity, 1% product and 1% employee hours each year to causes that the company and its employees hold dear. The positive impact of such corporate behavior on customer loyalty and employee engagement is a matter of considerable study. It’s possible that the 5th industrial revolution may be led by such companies.

One of the great poets and musicians of our times, Bob Dylan, wrote:
Gonna change my way of thinking,
Make myself a different set of rules.
Gonna put my good foot forward,
And stop being influenced by fools


Slow Living sounds utopian. It need not be so. A few weeks of “pause” has given us space to heal. It may help us cope with the anticipated 40-50% unemployment in the next few months. And the collective rage that may bring. Let’s take our good feet forward.

Cover Photograph: Illustration Derek Monteiro

Chandru Chawla has spent over two decades as a senior leader in the corporate sector.

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