Introduction

The essays in this series are the outcome of a study on cooperative business enterprises. Below, we try to describe the purpose of the study so as to provide a sense of the inspiration that guides these essays

Despite undeniable progress and success of poverty eradication measures across many areas of this planet, large sections of the global population live in abysmal poverty. Moreover, during the last few decades, inequality on the whole has increased. No wonder, these themes are recurrently present in development discourse. Increasingly, the following questions are becoming relevant and are being asked: Can cooperative enterprises (whatever the official form—cooperatives, SHGs, producer companies, etc.) work as sustainable and efficient platforms of income generation? For the enormous number of job seekers in populous countries, can cooperatives offer viable opportunities of livelihood? How far can such cooperative enterprises help to sustainably reduce vulnerabilities in terms of education, health or other essential social services?

Cooperatives have a long and variegated history across different locales and climes. Why then these questions about their efficiency, viability, or sustainability? The reasons are not far to seek. The present research focuses on cooperative economic effort in India. Such effort in India has a long history. It had its roots in pre-colonial times, acquired a modern legal form in the colonial period, and became an integral part of development policy in independent India. The country has an astonishing number of cooperative members and similarly astonishing number of cooperatives spread all over the country. Yet, reports indicate that a large numbers of cooperatives lie dormant with inactive members. Many growing up in urban and peri-urban areas in the eighties in India would today probably acknowledge the gradual decline of the neighbourhood cooperative consumer stores with the arrival of the more attractive super markets. However, such stories of rise and decline vary among states, regions, and economic sectors. As in the case of private companies or firms, some cooperatives succeed while others fail. This phenomenon of comparative success gives rise to a series of questions, such as:

What makes certain regions have better cooperative performance in comparison with others? Why, in the same region and locale, do some cooperatives succeed while others fail? Do certain products, say sugar or milk, provide better scope for cooperative success than other products, say, like silk or jute? Do cultural traditions matter? What is the role of leadership and managerial excellence? Do government policies make a difference, and if yes, then how? Can the very poor organize themselves in cooperatives? How necessary are individuals or NGOs from outside the community for organizing or leading cooperatives? How can cooperatives combine organizational democracy with disciplined performance and prompt decision-making? Can cooperatives among the very poor take advantage of digital solutions and the latest technological advancements? Do cooperatives have a special duty to choose environment-friendly pathways? Are there economic benefits for cooperatives choosing such pathways?

The essays presented in this series reflect a preliminary stage of trying to address many such questions. In the preliminary phase, answers to these questions have been sought not only by interrogating the considerable literature on cooperatives but by interrogating active cooperators in various parts of India.

The answers are deemed to provide the elements of a strategy, which will find use in the next step of an experimental research. Initially, the idea was to put together the study and its findings in the form of a paper publication. Later, the idea emerged to first present them as separate articles in a digital medium. The articles are conceived as drafts to be shared with persons who have offered their time, attention, and insights during the study and to those friends, colleagues and experts who have shown interest and encouragement during the study. To us, it makes sound sense to receive feedbacks and comments while we continue to present the essays on our website at intervals, learning from the feedback, and gradually moving towards formulating a strategy for the ensuing stage—some sort of a cooperative mode of hunting a strategy for sustainability of small and mediums cooperative enterprises in India.

Sujoy Chatterjee
Bonn, October 2016