Software engineer tries to chip away at globalisation

LN Rajaram has started a project aimed at “reversing globalisation” in India.
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Last year, software engineer LN Rajaram started Lokalex, a project aimed at “reversing globalisation” in Chennai, India. Green Left Weekly’s Mat Ward spoke to him about it.

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What’s your background?

I was born in a village in Tamil Nadu, India, in 1949, but grew up in the streets of Mumbai, the finance capital of India.

My father was in the clerical cadre of government service. He was also a FIFA [soccer] referee. We stayed in a sprawling four-story shanty building with 100 other families, 25 on each floor, a multilingual community of mill workers, small traders, cycle repair mechanics, small-time tailors and the like.

I got admission into the most coveted Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, viewed universally as a gateway to the US.

I stayed in India and joined another Ivy League institution, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. The makeover from an underdog struggling to survive the odds stacked against me to a restless intellectual who wanted to change the world was complete. I went on to get a PhD in software engineering.

Australian environmentalist and author Ted Trainer describes his concept of a “Simpler Way” as “a vision of a society based on non-affluent lifestyles within mostly small and highly self-sufficient local economies under local participatory control and not driven by market forces or the profit motive, and with no economic growth”. To what extent does your Lokalex project fit this description?

To my mind, Trainer’s “Simpler Way” is an appeal to a relatively affluent, growth-oriented society largely driven by the global economics of consumption, to tone down their affluent and somewhat wasteful lifestyles leading to self-sufficient local economies.

Lokalex, on the other hand, is a vision of survival of a hopelessly marginalised people whose traditional lifestyles within self-sufficient local economies have been assaulted for centuries.

The local economies were subverted to fuel the needs of the colonial masters, resulting in the disruption of best agricultural practices and the craftsmanship skills of the artisans.
Monetisation of locally-produced goods and services transformed communities by fuelling their aspirations, first for security and better quality of life, then for more material benefits, leading to large-scale migrations and flights of capital to urban centres.

Most of the local communities, who were too disadvantaged to take advantage of this transition, remained behind having been robbed of their communal, cultural, social and financial capital. Over the years, this has rendered them bereft of a sense of “agency”, that they can collectively take charge of their destinies.

Lokalex’s main focus is to try to instill a sense of agency in sections of the rural communities by knitting them into small groups of enterprise that would cater to the needs of their own communities.

Initial hand-holding through financial, technical and management inputs, one hopes, would lead to a level of self-confidence that would set in motion an exchange economy that would produce for local consumption and would consume to a large extent what is only produced locally.

What inspired you to start Lokalex?

My early upbringing in a very lower middle class background perhaps nurtured a mind that was both caring and angry. Higher education fortified it with a faculty for analysis and a need for experimenting.

The logical progression in this direction led me to Marx whose philosophy provided me with a great tool to try to model and understand society in a scientific way.

In 1991, India adopted the liberalisation model of the global elite and has been strongly pursuing it, strengthened by unprecedented economic growth. This has led to India slipping on several social indicators to depths below most African countries.

There have been suicides by farmers almost on an epidemic scale in the past 10 years. Access to food grains by large sections of the population is progressively decreasing. This depressing impact due to the march of globalisation is what led to the Lokalex concept.

The opportunity came when my software company, which was cruising along on a survival turnover for 20 years or more, got some good business by which a surplus could be built. I grabbed this opportunity to create a corpus for setting up Lokalex.

Lokalex was registered in February 2011 after agonising for about three months over a three-page concept note, ambitiously titled “Reversing Globalisation”.

One of the thoughts was that the “middle class” of intellectuals had traditionally empathised with the poor, though globalisation had pushed them into self-centred consumerism. One of Lokalex’s strategies is to tap the potential of middle-class professionals to provide technological and management inputs to help in its cause of getting rural community enterprises going.

Lokalex has focused on a few projects straight away:

• Harnessing women self-help groups. The groups have formed in many villages largely to take advantage of the government’s micro loan scheme that provides loans to groups of 12 to 20 women. There are about 600 such groups comprising an estimated 10,000 members. One of the obstacles to new groups getting formed and getting more credit from the banks was the maintenance of member records. Lokalex has got accounting software developed for use in the local language and is training a few of the groups in installing the software. These groups will be micro enterprises in their own right with the business of “selling” the services of the accounting software.

• Spirulina. We have initiated a project for growing spirulina, a type of algae that has great medicinal value as well as value as a food supplement.

• Digital village. We have a project for setting up a website for each village, which will be maintained and updated by a local enterprise. We will be encouraging local people to publish more local information, news, data and so on.

• Energy self-sufficiency. There are power outages in the villages ranging from three hours to three days. This causes great problems to people’s lifestyle as well as to micro enterprises. We are identifying solar products that can be assembled and made in the villages.

• Studying model villages. We have undertaken a study in three villages. This data will enable us to show to the community the benefits of producing for their own consumption, consuming only what they produce, “exporting” only the surplus and importing only what cannot be produced locally.

What hurdles have you hit?

Funds and the extent to which the current corpus can be stretched is always the big challenge. The ads and the power of brand images that entice villagers to mindlessly reject local produce and go for branded ones is another big challenge.

Another problem is to get people to think for themselves. They are ever willing to follow us and do what we tell them, rather than tell us what they want.

What are the main problems Lokalex is tackling?

Most non-profits tackle problems such as healthcare, education, human trafficking, child abuse, domestic violence and so on. I do not think any of these problems can be tackled in isolation, though incremental “relief” can be provided in a limited sense.

Lokalex focuses on empowering and getting people together to solve their own problems.
By 2020, I would like local ventures being seen as the default option for local self-sufficiency. Gandhi’s “pipe dream” of setting up “village republics” should become a reality by then.

What do you think of rich countries thinking they can carry on as normal and telling “developing” nations they must alter their ways in order to save the planet?

India must unhitch itself from this “global” bandwagon before it is too late. Once we unhitch, it is easier to do all the sensible things to cut down “growth” and focus on improved and more equitable quality of life.

One of the beneficial fallouts of globalisation is that it has brought more people from diverse cultures closer. Well-meaning peoples should take advantage of this to see how globalisation can be turned on its head for decentralised, community-level “economic” cooperation. Services could be effectively delivered over the internet.

Corporate consolidation has largely been made possible through technologies in the form of sophisticated structures in manufacturing, distribution, supply chains and information arbitrage. Perhaps the same technologies can be used judiciously to disrupt them.

As a start, a small experiment to identify how two local communities, one each in India and Australia, can cooperate for mutual benefit can be initiated. Lokalex will be happy to facilitate this.