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A Self-Reliant India

Building self-reliance needs a totally different roadmap

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for making India self-reliant echoes the calls made by prime ministers since the country achieved independence from the colonial rulers. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister after Independence, laid emphasis on making India self-reliant during the electioneering in 1957. Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succeeded him as prime minister, also worked to make India self-reliant. Above all, Mahatma Gandhi had spoken of self-reliant villages. In his May 12 address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the ‘local’ has to be ‘global’. His idea seems to be a blend of village and national self-reliance, or rather a ladder of self-reliance, with the producing and exporting village at the lowest step and the producing and exporting nation at the top. In a way, we can say that it combines Gandhian and Nehruvian ideals.

The question is: is it possible to achieve? Is it possible to build such a ladder? The answer is no. A village cannot be ‘local,’ that is, self-sufficient in everything. That is why the Gandhian dream has remained a dream. India as a country of self-reliant villages was one of the most lasting misconceptions in history. The misconception was built on the premise that every Indian village had a population of land owners who were served by artisans such as blacksmiths, weavers, washermen and ploughmen. In reality, it was never the case that a village was self-sufficient in goods and skills. The village had to depend on itinerant traders who brought salt and other goods necessary for daily life. Then there was a town where the guilds of artisans such as goldsmiths ran their shops. Neither was even a cluster of villages self-sufficient.

Self-sufficiency has eluded not only the villages or clusters of villages of India, but those of all countries. What is produced in the soil depends on the nature and quality of the soil and also the level of the knowledge of skills to exploit the natural resources. A village or a cluster of villages might have soil very suitable for growing paddy, but not for growing oranges and vice versa. It has been proven that the taste of fruits for which a region has acquired fame is unique to the region because the soil there is what gives the fruit its taste. The same taste will not be there if the fruit were grown in another type of soil. No wonder, the world has been always interdependent in terms of goods. Although it has become fashionable to think that “We are living in a global village,” the truth is the world is as interdependent as it was in the past centuries when spices were going from India to Europe and dry fruits coming to India from Central Asia.

What is possible for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to do is to make the nation, not the village, more and more self-reliant. Such self-reliance already works in a very organized way in terms of trade in agricultural and industrial goods from one part of the country to another. Modi should make India more self-reliant in agricultural and industrial goods. After coming to power in 2014, he announced an initiative Make in India, followed by Stand-up India, Skilled India and Start-up India. These initiatives lost steam after the initial euphoria. In his May 12 address to the nation Modi promised to give India a financial package of Rs 20 lakh crore for building self-reliance. Now, this gigantic figure includes the lakhs of crore of two financial packages announced by the RBI and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman earlier. The two packages were not allocated by Sitharaman and the RBI governor for ‘building self-reliance,’ so we are not clear how those packages can be meant for the mission post-facto. On May 13 Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the government will provide Rs 3 lakh crore collateral-free automatic loans for businesses, including small and medium enterprises. Sitharaman said the economic package would be released in tranches and “today’s tranche will have 14 different measures. Six of these are for MSMEs, two are for EPFO, two for NBFCs and Mutual Funds and one each for discoms, contractors, real estate and tax measures.” These are measures intended to revive a virus-battered economy, not to make India self-reliant.

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