2020 was a year that reversed the idea of humanity being a dominant power; it was a year where neither the global economy, global conglomerates, nor global leaders could keep their stand. Instead, remarkable levels of innovation, courage, and leadership emerged in unexpected ways to respond to the socio-economic needs in such compelling and pressing times.
Incidentally, the economy of my country, India, was one of the worst affected during the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing a 23.9% drop in the Gross Domestic Product (MOSPI, 2020). This highlighted India’s weak social and economic structure. The pandemic brought forward the flaws, fragility and over-dependence on unsustainable consumption that have continued ever since it opened its market to the world in the 90s. The frantic efforts of the Indian government and global leadership reproduced the unsustainable social and economic hierarchies that were identical to the one that fed the rise of the pandemic in the first place (Singhal, 2021). However, through sparks ignited by unexpected leadership during the pandemic times, there had been a raging movement to reduce carbon footprint and to revive the economy sustainably. The unexpected leaders are the long-oppressed and silenced women of rural India. Despite worshipping many female goddesses, the predominantly patriarchal system in India discounts women’s value in society. Still, many women have taken it upon themselves to reform the old and orthodox ways of thinking with their innovations. One such woman, with whom I was fortunate to speak, is Savita.
Savita is a woman in her late twenties and a resident of a village situated on the outskirts of my hometown, Lucknow. I had met Savita at her kiosk in a fair organised as part of the Festival of Light, also called Diwali. Savita is engaged primarily with domestic duties and devotes 14-15 hours a day executing household activities while managing her two children and husband. She does all this with few breaks, leaving her with very little time and energy for self-care. Despite her hardships and limitations, Savita managed to bring together a group of 50 women in her locality to start her very own business. Her business was based on an ancient tradition that has long been extradited from our customs, as it was viewed as backward and unsanitary. It involved making idols and diyas (small light lamps) entirely out of cow dung. Since ancient times, cow dung has been considered sacred by many communities in India. It even possesses many useful properties— it can be medicinal, an excellent fertiliser, and a completely biodegradable material.
Savita’s initiative is engaging her community at a local level and creating a sustainable business model out of what is universally considered waste, thus contributing towards a more resilient economy. Typically during Diwali in my city, we see a flood of cheap imported lights, firecrackers and idols made of harmful plastics. In 2020, however, we saw a significant transition in the way Diwali was celebrated. Firstly, the imported products were almost nowhere to be seen mainly due to the restriction in global trade following COVID protocols. Secondly, these cow dung idols and diyas entirely filled the dearth of imported products and were readily accepted and bought by many. Interestingly, Savita aligned her initial naive business idea with an ongoing government campaign known as ‘Vocal for Local’ that has been rapidly progressing throughout India. Although the recently launched movement was first visualised and put forward by the Prime Minister of India, it has since been spearheaded by women like Savita from villages across the country. She secured a significant amount of support from the government and NGOs, helping her by providing capital and adequate supply chain infrastructure for marketing. By this, she was able to sell the products made by her team in a big city like Lucknow.
An old quote by Gandhi has been revived; India indeed “lives in her villages”. We see a symbiotic relationship between the ‘Vocal for Local’ campaign, which aimed to find ‘Atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance, and Savita’s leadership. Self-reliance, in terms of the people of India, means people adopting a sustainable lifestyle by consuming and propagating local products, created by young people like Savita taking initiative and showcasing that they are not only leaders of tomorrow but today as well (Singhal, 2020).
Leadership role models like Savita showcase the emergence of true self-reliance and serve as a possibility for us—the youth—to help the world progress towards a green economy, achieve the SDGs, and contribute towards a greener, more inclusive future spearheaded by unexpected leaders.
- Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation Government of India. 2020. Estimates of Gross Domestic Product for the second quarter (July-September) 2020- 2021.
- Singhal, V. 2021. Green Recovery’s Missing Piece: Engagement with Future World Leaders! https://www.thenatureofcities.com/2021/01/31/green-recoverys-missing-piece-engagement-with-future-world-leaders/
- Singhal, V. 2020. Green recovery for climate change – for and by us, the future world leaders! https://thepopmovement.org/green-recovery-for-climate-change-for-and-by- us-the-future-world-leaders/