Why India Can’t Be Atmanirbhar

Asmita Kuvalekar

Government Law College, Mumbai

On May 12, in a televised address as popular as ever, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his Atmanirbhar economic relief scheme. It was a 20 lakh crore initiative brought amidst the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. The target demographic for the relief as well its catchy moniker was affected Indians, physically or intellectually.  

Now, 20 lakh crore in terms of India’s GDP for the year 2019-2020 is almost 10% of the whole; a substantial move to help the needy. But with the celebration came a wave of sharp criticism, the latter disguised as memes and Twitter jokes. The Sanskrit root of Atmanirbhar can be broken down into two parts: Atma means ‘self’ and Nirbhar means ‘reliant’. A self-reliant India: a clever ruse given that at the same time, border tensions between India and China were evolving rapidly. As expected, PM Modi’s parlour trick worked and the sentiment caught on quickly. Suddenly, everyone with a Chinese smartphone wanted to be self-reliant by proxy! The smarter ones only used the hashtag but there were others who committed fully to the cause. From breaking their own television sets to swearing to never use Chinese manufactured goods ever again and posting the videos online for becoming instant viral hits, Indians did it all. 

Unfortunately, in the hullaballoo, a complete shift in public attention was achieved. No one wanted to speak about the less popular subjects anymore. Not the glaring economic and defense issues and especially not the flaws of the relief package. But flaws there are many. In this article, I will focus on why India can’t become a manufacturing hub just yet. In other words, why India can’t be as self-reliant as it wishes to be. 

For starters, China has been the world’s leading goods exporter since 2009. No overnight boost in manufacturing could possibly cover that distance so as to level with China’s progress before outdoing it. Moreover, India is not as technologically developed. Neither is it structurally stable to bear the weight of pan-India production. What this means is that we don’t have enough resources or support material to create a lucrative line of exports. 70% of our population lives in rural areas where electricity is low or non-existent, illiteracy rate is high and vocational education is looked down upon. Factories run slowly, units are understaffed and underpaid and mass production as a whole is a cumbersome process. 

We also import massive quantities of oil, mechanical parts, cotton etc. to make various products and the import cost affects the final pricing of items. 16% of our total imports come from China itself! Add to that the fact that Indian markets are inundated with cheaper, Chinese options and you have the perfect Catch-22. 

Thus, not only is India struggling to make goods cheap, we are also behind on the logistical infrastructure that our competitors have. One of the ways this situation can be remedied is pumping more public finances into the local handloom or artisanal industries. Encouraging youngsters to take up vocational professions, providing free/affordable training as well as inviting more foreign investment in these unique and culturally valuable goods will prove profitable in the long run. 

But August saw a shocking turn in government policy. The Centre scrapped the All India Handloom Board, Handicrafts Board as well as the Powerloom Board and this time there were no hashtags, no viral hits, not even a meme. 

So with decisions like these that hit at the very heart of India’s ability to stand out in the global arena, it is difficult to see how Modi’s Atmanirbhar Abhiyan can actually succeed beyond mere lip service. After all, self-reliance comes from action: not speech, and certainly not performative patriotism.

Asmita Kuvalekar is an alumnus of Government Law College, Mumbai.

Photo Credits: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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