Rasheeda Bhagat

Pandemic provides a chance to change tack

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on September 07, 2020

Social business is the key, says Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, who wants profits ploughed back to help a larger section of people

Even as I was grappling with the question why there was such a clamour to return to the pre-Covid-19 world, not a pretty one by any standards, and wondering if it was crazy to think so, there came a forceful endorsement, cogently reasoned and well-articulated, by Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus.

Addressing a Rotary Club of Madras webinar, he likened our status prior to the corona pandemic to travel in a high-speed train that was fast hurtling towards disaster, what with global warming at alarming levels, concentration of the world’s wealth in too few hands and galloping unemployment. He feels the corona pandemic has halted this journey and given us the “fantastic opportunity” to disembark, reflect and change track to take our world to a much better destination where there is better equity, social justice and a greener, cleaner planet.

With our GDP contracting by an unprecedented 23.9 per cent the last quarter, and the pandemic devastating business and industry, particularly sectors like aviation, tourism and hospitality, which are bound to take years to get back on their feet, Yunus’s concept of social business makes immense sense. In such business ventures, investors opt not to get a dividend or financial returns, but the profit is ploughed back into helping more entrepreneurs.

Vaccine for common good

During heated debates during the corona pandemic, Yunus, considered the father of microfinance, who proved to the world that the poor are bankable, has also been batting for not allowing patenting of the Covid-19 vaccine, and making it “vaccine for common good”.

Take the case of polio; when Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine, it was not patented and was freely available. When asked in an interview about his decision, he famously said: “Would you patent the sun?”

This strikes a chord because there is growing concern that when an effective vaccine does come, it will be the richer countries of the world, and the richer people in others, who will first get access, leaving the poor and the marginalised to battle with the pandemic till the vaccine finally reaches them.

Another exciting and thought-provoking question that Yunus raised pertained to migrant workers in India and millions of others, loosely bundled into the “informal sector”.

There is a lot of merit in his argument that the millions of migrant workers, who were stranded in India by the sudden lockdown in March, were subjected to such despair and humiliation because they belong to the “informal sector” for which there is no governmental responsibility.

He argued that these migrant workers, who sell their wares on the streets or bring a special set of skills to various sectors, should be classified micro-entrepreneurs. Just like there’s a Ministry of Labour for the formal sector, why not create a ministry for micro-entrepreneurs to take care of those relegated to the informal sector.

“If that is done, you’ll need to take a whole lot of rules, policies and action, because as long as you call it the informal sector, you have no responsibility, and they are on their own. But why should they be on their own? They are the base of the pyramid that forms the entire entrepreneurial sector.”

Estimating that 65-70 per cent of India’s population falls into the informal sector, he said they take care of themselves, survive on their own and for their financial needs depends on loan sharks, tiny or big, who take away a big chunk of their earnings from the immense hard work that they do.

“So why don’t we create a financial system for them? Earlier it used to be said that we can’t have banking for poor people. We have now proved it that it can be done, both in Bangladesh, India and elsewhere. And yet it is not within the reach of millions.”

Look at the immense possibilities and opportunities that something as hated as the coronavirus is presenting us. Already, jobs are being lost in tens of thousands and the pain will only increase as the days roll by during this pandemic. If only nexus between big business and governments can develop a few cracks, if only a formalised department or ministry and financial system can be developed for our “micro-entrepreneurs” with rules and regulations framed to protect them and save them from the clutches of money lenders, if only job seekers can become entrepreneurs who will be helped by our banking system, that stands so bruised by the flight of both capital and big borrowers… we’d be living in a different world.

Even if the government takes baby steps in this direction, it will offer a ray of hope to our marginalised millions, who are fast losing faith in the system, the government’s sincere intentions to help them, and despairing of the bleaker future that stares them in the face.

Published on September 07, 2020

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