Sustainable Livelihoods : Background & Perspective

Several UN and world summits now accede that the achievement of sustainable livelihoods is intricately linked with the eradication of poverty. But between international and government fora where ‘sustainable livelihoods’ is the new buzzword and the situation at the grassroots is a huge gap. For a decade of structural adjustment and the development-at-any-cost doctrine have conspired to deprive millions of Indians — adivasi tribals, marginal farmers, weavers and others — of their traditional means of livelihood.

“Our forefathers,  needed only a knife and an axe to survive. With that they went into the forest, cut a few bamboos, a few branches of trees, the women collected grass and with that they built simple, beautiful houses for their families,” says Bomman, a Bettakurumba tribal whose ancestors came from the Gudalur forests of South India. “Today,” he continues, “they are paupers, dependent on the government for cheap asbestos roofs which are ovens in summer and iceboxes in winter. They took away our forests which are like our mother and father, to sell it to the timber merchants.” Bomman speaks for thousands of adivasi (tribal) people across India, who have lost their livelihoods.

In the 1990s, with liberalisation, the priorities were to make our cities look impressive and mimic the affluent West with its fast cars, superhighways, chrome and glass. The poor could move on, out of sight. As for their livelihoods, no thought was spared for that.


The concept of employment — ie having an employer, a job, a workplace and a wage — is being challenged in urban centres and it has never been a reality in most rural and indigenous communities. Rural people engage in often diverse and complex strategies best described as livelihoods.

The current debate on livelihoods has set new paradigms to keep academics and intellectuals busy. However sceptical one may be of the many new development phrases that come and go, giving funding agencies their flavour of the year, when the debate is taken on by UNDP and mandated by World Summits that have the advantage of being international heavyweights, it sets new norms that governments feel compelled to at least pay lip service to. Standards are set that governments do not necessarily measure up to, but they are useful in that government performance can be measured and found wanting, especially if the governments in question squander huge budgets on defence, space and nuclear status when they have millions of starving people below the poverty line.

We will look therefore at the facts, figures and definitions in order to understand what the livelihood debate is all about.

The 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) moved the concept towards an action agenda, especially in the context of Agenda 21, and advocated the achievement of sustainable livelihoods as a broad goal for poverty eradication focussed on the poor who live in marginalised areas.

Agenda 21 stated that sustainable livelihoods could serve as an integrating factor that allows policies to address development, sustainable resource management and poverty eradication simultaneously.

The Copenhagen World Summit for Social Development and the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) at Beijing underscored the significance of linkages between sustainability, employment, social integration, gender and poverty eradication for policy and development programming.

Despite the rhetoric, recent evidence confirms that after more than half a century of development strategies, 100 countries have experienced economic decline or stagnation, the world has become more polarised in terms of global income distribution, and 1.3 billion people are living in poverty (Singh and Lawrence 1998).

“Set in this context the Commission for Social Development, in its 35th session, addressed productive employment and sustainable livelihoods as its priority theme. Specifically, the Commission considered the centrality of employment in policy-making, as well as issues of improved access to infrastructure and productive resources, and work/employment quality. Each topic is given high priority in Chapter 3 of the Social Summit Programme of Action, and each is logically set in a framework of a cross-sectoral enabling environment for poverty eradication. At the centre of the Commission’s work is Commitment 3 of the Copenhagen Declaration ‘promoting the goal of full employment as a basic priority of our economic and social policies, and to enable all men and women to attain secure and sustainable livelihoods through freely chosen productive employment and work’.” (UN 1995).

The issue of food security is also central to sustainable livelihoods. It is now recognised that food security requires attention to a number of factors related to poverty, which affect the people’s ability to access assets, entitlements and ultimately food (WCED 1987). The issues discussed above, together with the commitments made at global UN conferences, provide a clear mandate by and for the international community for the adoption of the sustainable livelihoods concept.


Sustainable livelihoods (SL) offer both a conceptual and programming framework for poverty reduction in a sustainable manner. Conceptually, livelihoods connote the means, activities, entitlements and assets by which people make a living. Assets in this context are defined as not only natural/biological (ie land, water, common-property resources, flora, fauna), but also social (ie community, family, social networks, participation, empowerment, human knowledge and skills) and physical (ie roads, markets, clinics, schools, bridges).

The sustainability of livelihoods becomes a function of how men and women utilise asset portfolios on both a short- and long-term basis. Sustainability should be defined in a broad manner. This implies:

  • The ability to cope with and recover from shocks and stresses
  • Economic efficiency, or the use of minimal inputs to generate a given amount of outputs
  • Ecological integrity, ensuring that livelihood activities do not irreversibly degrade natural resources within a given ecosystem
  • Social equity, which suggests that promotion of livelihood opportunities for one group should not foreclose options for other groups, either now or in the future

(UNDP Concept Paper – SL).

In other words, SL is the capability of people to make a living and improve their quality of life without jeopardising the livelihood options of others, either now or in the future.

Activists and development workers on the ground state that these pronouncements do not look at the interests of the majority of poor people all around the world. This becomes clear if we examine these definitions closely.

Take the ability to cope with shocks and stresses. The slump in tea prices devastates the small farmer but MNC plantations can absorb several losses without going under. Livelihood protection needs to focus on protecting our farmers who feed the world but live in perennial fear of the weather, crop disease, markets and a host of other unpredictable variables.

The economic efficiency definition seems to imply that the poor are inefficient rather than spelling out the odds against them, the factors that keep them poor. It does not address the issue of inequity, of global exploitation of poor countries by rich countries. It is an unacceptable definition from the point of view of Third World countries.

The third definition is heavily loaded in favour of the North. It talks about ecological integrity being maintained. The North fights tooth and nail to continue a lifestyle which pollutes the earth and contributes to global warming, threatening the very existence of several small island countries. This is considered acceptable and not reversible. On the other hand poor countries are asked to desist from further exploitation of the earth’s resources. While it is necessary to keep ecological integrity in mind and not follow mindless development models, the terminology of this definition is arrogant and offensive.

The fourth definition is equally unacceptable. The progress of the poor cannot take place without displacing the rich who exploit them. For example, if Dalits are to get equality in India, they would do so only with the diminishing of the power of the upper castes. If the poor Tanzanian coffee grower wants to earn more than her 30 pounds a year, the Starbucks CEO who profits off the backs of semi-starved coffee workers in Africa and South America, should be prepared to climb down from his 1.5 million pounds a year. (Independent, 17 May 2001).

Everywhere in the world, MNC CEOs get million-dollar packages for the specialist’s job of streamlining and downsizing their companies. In effect, this means they lay off a few thousand workers. So the basic bread and butter, the dal-roti, of a poor worker goes to provide caviar for an MNC executive. Yet this is not considered obscene.

Most international definitions leave out some of the very basic causes of poverty. In the livelihood debate it’s an enormous gap.


Although the environment and ecology were not factored in at the time of Independence, because concerns about the environment were not acutely felt then, our Constitution-makers and planners had put together a fairly impressive act. The words ‘sustainable’ and ‘livelihood’ are of recent origin. But terms such as ‘the poor’, ‘food security’, ‘traditional crafts’, ‘revival of the cottage and handloom industry’, ‘co-operatives’ — all these have been incorporated in the scenario spelt out in the series of Five-Year Plans designed by the Planning Commission since the 1950s.

In the year 2001, however, the SL paradigm and its attendant jargon is being used in New Delhi by a variety of experts and planners, and by the big players such as the UNDP, DFID and the GOI. Simultaneously, we witness a contradictory set of rules set in motion; and being enforced because of the inexorable grind of a machine called Structural Adjustment, the circumstances of the IMF conditionalities, and the fashionable concept of ‘development-at-any-cost’. When policies are created, there is a huge gap between what is pronounced in documents on sustainable livelihoods at Agenda 21, UNCED and Beijing, and what happens with governments everywhere.

We have, on the one hand, the rhetoric and the jargon. On the other hand is what is actually happening at the grassroots level in the country.

To understand this we need to look at the factors that impact on livelihoods.

The majority of our population derives its livelihood from agriculture. The Gandhian focus on India’s villages had been widely accepted, in theory at least. Earlier, it was felt that we needed to address the issue of inequity, rid the nation of the huge disparity between rich zamindars (landlords) and the landless, exploited peasantry. The rhetoric at least was visible. The accepted doctrine was the land to the tiller policy, from the Bhoodan movement up to the time of Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement.

From the early-’90s, with the initiation of the SA and Economic Liberalisation Doctrine as the creed of the times, many of these policies are being thrown out without due consideration. However, the new rhetoric of moving the poor out of poverty continues to be a fashionable slogan.

In Karnataka, the Deve Gowda government, which was supposedly a pro-farmer pro-poor regime, began a move to abolish the land ceiling act, to enable MNCs to move in and acquire large tracts of land. The ceilings on land ownership were introduced to remove the bindings of the feudal pattern that used to prevail in the country. The removal of land ceiling in present-day India is tantamount to accepting that feudalism is acceptable. The new paradigm will transfer land ownership from the hands of exploitative zamindars and serve it on a platter to exploitative MNCs. The poor and marginal farmers will become landless peasants lured by the promise of growth and non-existent MNC jobs. The MNCs hold forth the promise of growth, investment, progress and prosperity. In truth, however, landless peasants are not employable by MNCs. Only a few white-collar jobs emerge from these transactions.

In opposition to the rhetoric there is also the acquisition of lands in the name of the national interest, the greater good. There are several actors involved in this scenario. On the one hand there is the government and its many functionaries. We will have the union ministries of environment and of social justice making various declamations and pleas, which go unheard and are ignored by the ministries of tourism, commerce, industry and mining.

For instance, in Goa, commerce and tourism assault the environment as beaches are encroached, water tables ignored and crass commercialism pandered to in the name of attracting dollars.

In Gujarat, the whole world has pleaded against the Narmada dam. But more people seem to relate to environmental degradation than to the fact of adivasi (tribal) livelihoods being submerged. Despite the powerful coalition of interests and groups uniting in the anti-dam movement, the development-at-any-cost lobby seems to have won the battle.

Land alienation is taking place at a phenomenal rate, totally ignoring the fact that this is in conflict with poor people’s right to livelihood. In Bihar, tribal peoples are fighting for their land which is being turned into firing ranges for the army to practice in. The argument: defence has priority.

In December 2000, at Kashipur, Orissa, three adivasis were shot dead by the police. In February 2001, at Koel Karo, Jharkhand, three more adivasis were shot dead. In April, at Mehndikheda, Madhya Pradesh, yet another four (The Hindu, May 27, 2001).

In Orissa and Bihar there have been ongoing battles against mining companies exploiting adivasis. The argument given is that national wealth has to be given priority, progress cannot be hampered. All over the country, the forests have been nationalised, but timber lobbies illegally denude the forests in collusion with corrupt forest officials. Tigers and elephants are massacred for the lucrative profits their carcasses bring. But forestdwellers are denied access to minor forest produce, though on paper it has been agreed that they have rights to these fruits of their natural habitat, their forest homes.


Within forest cultures, poor people built their homes with materials gathered from the forest. The adivasis depended on forest produce for their nutritive foods: tubers, game, fish, fruit, green leaves and berries. Their access to the forest has been arrested in the march towards ‘development’. As a people, they have moved into malnutrition because their natural forest foods are denied to them. The impact, especially on pregnant women and children, has been devastating.

Adivasis have been prime victims and have been disregarded constantly as the battle for development and progress takes its toll on them. Post-1947, when Pandit Nehru declared that dams were the temples of modern India, he opened the floodgates for the tide that was to wash these vulnerable groups into the gutter. These proud, dignified and independent people were thrown out of their forests to make way for dams, factories, mining companies and even firing ranges. Large numbers of people were displaced and moved out to make way for the Damodar Valley Corporation in the 1950s. Today they are alcoholic slumdwellers in and around the Rourkela-DVC belt. This scenario repeats itself everywhere when adivasis are driven out of their forest homes, an environment in which they have for centuries enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with nature. They simply are not able to make the transition to city slums without being destroyed totally.

The plight of Andhra Pradesh weavers, driven to suicide, has been critically analysed in Frontline magazine (April 27, 2001). Textile policies since 1985 have sought to liberalise, modernise and privatise the industry. In fact these have succeeded in marginalising over 40 lakh handloom weavers, who used to produce over 400 crore metres of cloth every year. The crisis was precipitated by a sharp increase in yarn prices, a steep hike in the power tariff, and the concessions provided for technology upgradation which bypassed the small, traditional powerlooms.

Liberalisation policies since the early-1990s have amounted to taxing the poor weavers (with higher power tariffs etc) and pampering the rich (through subsidies for powerlooms).

Farmers are in much the same condition. Prices of agricultural produce are crashing, power tariffs have been raised, subsidies to agriculturists have been reduced or removed. Yet retail prices remain high, allowing only the middlemen to make a profit.

Journalist P Sainath puts it in perspective (The Hindu, February 25, 2001) when he points out that it is not natural calamities, but the cruel, heartless policy of a decline in investment in the agricultural sector which has brought about the lowest rate of growth in post-Independence India. Fads are imposed upon the agriculturists without giving the matter serious thought. In the southern rice bowl, for example, the government encourages farmers to switch from paddy to prawn cultivation even though the latter is anti-ecological and will ruin the fertile soil. Paddy provided 150 days of work on one acre, whereas prawn cultivation needs just 40 to 50 days of work for a single person. In just one cluster of villages, over 10,000 acres have been converted from paddy to prawn farming, eliminating 1.5 lakh working days in the last year. Additionally, wells and other water sources were contaminated. Salinity plays havoc with the soil and decreased rice production meant rice mills were affected, many closing down permanently.


The scenario is grim, but not hopeless.

As always, Kerala shows the way. A group of co-operatives have banded together to fight for farmers’ livelihoods. Organic farming is catching on, a going-back to the ways of our grandparents, when all farming was organic; until the Green Revolution dismissed our farmers as illiterate, ignorant and backward, and unleashed chemical pesticides and fertilisers on Indian fields. A campaign is underway to help distressed coconut farmers to recoup their losses. People are boycotting MNC drinks like Coke and Pepsi and switching to tender coconut water instead. Amazingly, inspired by a brilliant awareness campaign, common people have begun buying coconut oil at higher prices just to help farmers. Everything need not be market-driven!

Although the onslaught of globalisation and consumerist materialism seems relentless and unstoppable, there are pockets of thinking people all over India who are swimming against the current. SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) is one of the best examples of a women’s co-operative that has played an important part in reviving traditional craft and built up an invincible network of strong, independent women in Gujarat. In Nilambur, Kerala, a young NID graduate, Jinnan, started a pottery revival movement among women whose loss of livelihood had forced them into prostitution. They are now a thriving group.

Throughout the country there are small groups and individual architects who are striving to incorporate new techniques with old wisdom, to enable the poor to preserve their building skills and the indigenous knowledge passed down through the ages.

Credit to self-help groups and small entrepreneurs has been part of the development scenario since the early-1970s. However, in its new avatar and accompanied by the fancier sobriquet of ‘micro-credit’, it has become big business. While certain groups have the skills and business acumen to utilise this facility efficiently, many groups flounder in the attempt. What have been praised are the success stories. However, not enough analysis is being done on the percentage of interest charged and the basic, inherent injustice in having poor women pay for high administration costs that go all the way up to Washington DC. Once again, the poor people’s sweat and hard work is keeping middle-class folk in cool clover. This, however, is not the favoured definition of micro-credit economics.

We need to draw inspiration from the success stories, but there is no need to be blinded by them. Lack of critical analysis often leads our theorising to miss the woods for the trees.

There is an interesting story from Colombia where indigenous people’s interests have been safeguarded along with a preservation of the Amazon rain forests. Like all genuine success stories, this one is complex, not simplistic. But the words of the project leader are profound and insightful: “The indigenous people of Colombia have struggled for the creation of a world of co-operation and solidarity. It has been their fight to save humanity from the ravages of civilisation.

If our planners kept these words framed in the offices where they formulate livelihoods strategies, we might benefit from the advice.


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