Aggressive forms of capitalism are not only snatching jobs ruthlessly but in addition are also  increasing  job related discontent, frustration and alienation. At the  same time there is growing yearning for forms of economic organizations which can provide  more satisfactory, stable, sustainable and creative livelihoods. In this context cooperatives should be getting increasing attention.

However organization of cooperatives cannot substitute for more basic work of increasing equality. If there are overall high levels of inequalities in some villages, then it is likely that cooperatives will also tend to advance more the interests of the richer sections. Despite such limitations, however, cooperatives retain their importance but their proper potential will be realized better if simultaneously other efforts to increase equality are also made.

Already co-operatives have an impressive reach, a fact not always adequately realized and appreciated. Co-operatives have been going from strength to strength in many countries. In Norway nearly 42% of citizens are members of at least one co-operative. In Canada this number is around 25%. At the level of the entire world, it has been estimated that as many as many 1 billion people are members of at least one co-operative.

Experience has shown that In some countries during periods of economic crisis, cooperatives progressed more. In Spain, for example, during a period of crisis co-operative enterprises were found to be more capable of avoiding the possibilities of collapse and there was also much mutual help among cooperatives. Earlier during some years of  economic crisis in Argentina about 200 failed industrial factories were revived by newly formed co-operatives of workers and officials.

This  has re-emphasized  some important strengths of co-operatives. These often operate on the principle of ‘one member, one vote’ and hence are inherently a more democratic form of economic organisation. Secondly, co-operatives often have close ties to local communities and plough back at least a part of their economic gains into community welfare activities. For example several farmers’ co-operatives are known to contribute a part of their profits for the welfare of the villages from which they draw their members.

However, as indicated earlier, some limitations of the co-operatives become apparent when the model is implemented in conditions of high inequalities. In India it has often been observed in villages where socio-economic inequalities are high that the upper sections dominate the co-operatives and often try to run them to suit their own interests. So the interests of weaker sections are often ignored, or at least do not get the same attention, and co-operatives tend to perpetuate or even accentuate inequalities in such cases. This has been pointed out in the context of the political powerfully sugar co-operatives in Maharashtra. Here the interests of weaker sections will be better served if the limited water supply of semi-arid areas is not spent so much on water-intensive sugarcane farming. Then they will be able to get some water for their subsistence farming of millets or other crops requiring less water. But the politically powerful co-operatives dominated by the bigger farmers try to corner the scarce water supply for water-intensive sugarcane crop.

A related problem is that politically connected powerful persons who gain dominance over co-operatives also indulge in corrupt practices, apart from denying credit and other facilities to weakest sections. Some years back I attended several public hearings of weavers In Varanasi, a leading centre of handloom silk weaving in the course of writing a book on this subject. One weaver representative after another who spoke at this hearings complained bitterly about the corruption in cooperatives which had been established in the name of benefiting them . A highly appreciated Hindi novel Jhini Jhini Beeni Chadariya ( written by Abdul Bismillah) has exposed this corruption and the manipulations of the richest persons dominating them in great detail.

So efforts to increase equality, improve democracy and transparency in the running of cooperatives and  curb corruption are important in the context of improving the functioning of cooperatives. These problems have stood in the way of realizing fuller and proper potential of cooperatives so far in several countries including India. Learning from past mistakes one hopes that in future efforts will be made not just for expanding cooperatives but also for improving them in significant ways.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man over Machine and Planet in Peril.



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