How India can truly become Aatmanirbhar Bharat

If we are aiming for a genuinely Aatmanirbhar Bharat, then just long-term measures aren't going to pass muster. We need short-term measures to deal with economic grief.

 |  12-minute read |   02-06-2020
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When faced with a radical crisis, when the old way of being in the world, of interacting with each other and with the realm of nature doesn't work anymore, when survival is threatened by seemingly insurmountable problems, an individual life-form — or a species — will either die or become extinct or rise above the limitations of its condition through an evolutionary leap. These words by Eckhart Tolle ring true at present.

Now that Covid-19's grievous statistics have hit home, India needs to beat the limitations and take a leap.

Amounting to 10 per cent of India's GDP in 2019-20, Prime Minister's 'Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan' was announced with total spending of Rs 20 lakh crore. The amount is enormous. And so is the mission. But the Self-Reliant India Mission isn't new. Its roots can be traced back to Mahatma Gandhi's Swadeshi movement. In fact, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, almost every Indian Prime Minister has dreamt of a self-reliant India.

PM Modi's economic stimulus package is one of the largest of its kind announced by nations across the world. Hundreds of millions believe in him and feel that this stimulus package can do tremendous good to the slowing Indian economy. But I can't overlook the fact that although the economic support is huge, it fails to deliver immediate relief. Rather than just long-term benefits of easing credit facilities and moratoriums on loans, the Indian economy needs short-term economic relief as well, and that should be in the form of a direct cash infusion.

main_modi_reuters_060220010342.jpgPM Modi's economic stimulus package is one of the largest of its kind announced by nations across the world. (Photo: Reuters)

Let's draw an analogy where we look at things with a wretched nation's perspective. When a patient is on the ventilator, he needs a lifesaving drug to survive. Not an eight-day long antibiotic course. While loan support can give the much-needed cushion to the coronavirus-stricken businesses, it won't help with consumer spending. And that's what the economy needs to recuperate from the aftermaths of coronavirus. We must not forget that the current crisis has exerted considerable influence on every section of the society. Not just India's poor, but middle class and the lower middle class are also distressed. There has been an unprecedented wave of layoffs, salary cuts and loss of businesses. But the concerns of people from the middle socioeconomic strata are seemingly screaming into the void.

In the pandemic, if we aim for a genuinely Aatmanirbhar Bharat, then just long-term measures aren't going to pass muster. We need short-term measures to deal with the rising economic grief. That said, here's what else the government needs to do in its remaining tenure to write India's success story in one of the biggest economic downturns ever:

Aatmanirbhar Jobs

For a country that was already dealing with a shaky job market, Covid-19 has given a deadly blow to India's unemployment rate. Estimates from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy reveal that over 122 million Indians lost jobs in April 2020. While 75 per cent of these workers were small traders and wage-labourers, the catastrophe has impacted every section of the working class.

main_unemployment1_r_060220010519.jpgIt is estimated that over 122 million Indians lost jobs in April 2020. (Photo: Reuters)

India, thus, needs to be Aatmanirbhar with more job creation. Immediate bailout and assistance to at-risk sectors are imperative as they could avoid pushing hundreds of millions of Indians into poverty. Reviving the rural economy with setting up industrial clusters in the rural areas could be a significant step too. It will not only create more jobs in needy areas, but will also address rural migration.

Aatmanirbhar Make in India and Make for India

Today, India needs PM's ambitious project Make in India with greater reason.

main_make-in-india_r_060220010639.jpgMake in India and Make for India should go hand in hand. (Photo: Reuters)

Besides investing in the country's manufacturing sector to make local brands global, this is the perfect opportunity to attract higher FDI as more businesses move out of China and seek alternative investment opportunities. And once aboard, these foreign players should be coerced to manufacture domestically. Make in India and Make for India, thus, should go hand in hand. But to draw global firms, the Indian government must take initiatives to relax bureaucratic red tape, encourage import substitution, and offer direct tax benefit in SEZs besides reducing production, power, and logistics costs.

Aatmanirbhar Healthcare

Covid-19 has exposed India's dilapidated public health network. With a government spending of just 1.6 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) and total healthcare spending (out-of-pocket and public) of 3.6 per cent of GDP, this industry reeks of chronic underfunding. To make the public healthcare system robust, we need a government expenditure of at least five per cent of the country's GDP. After all, we can't take away the fact that India needed one of the most stringent lockdowns worldwide because our health network is inefficient and underregulated. With a scarcity of hospitals, beds, clinics and ventilators, the government just bought some time to regulate things on the health front.

main_healthcare-indi_060220010817.jpgIndia required a strict lockdown because our health network is inefficient and underregulated. (Photo: Reuters)

Similarly, India's Research & Development (R&D) scenario is perturbing too. With an expenditure of 0.7 per cent of GDP, the country's R&D sector is worryingly underinvested. Research and Development form the backbone of innovation, and no country can be on the path of economic recovery unless it funds more R&D and innovation in healthcare. With an alarming Covid-19 upward trajectory, the government needs to re-establish the healthcare system at the earliest. And its focus should be on health infrastructure, healthcare R&D and pharmaceutical production.

We must also invest in universal health coverage. The Modi government has already been propagating Ayurveda's use and has even set up the AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) Ministry. However, more measures are required to take the Indian traditional medicinal system to a global level.

Aatmanirbhar Agriculture

With an agriculture-driven economy, where almost half of its population is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture and allied industries, India needs to be self-reliant and self-sustainable in this sector. Agriculture, which accounts for 17 per cent of the GDP, could soften the blow on India's shrinking economy if it gets due consideration of the government. For one, we need to increase the adoption and usage of technology in the agriculture space.

main_agriculture_reu_060220010953.jpgIndia needs drastic improvement in agricultural research. (Photo: Reuters)

Just like research in healthcare, we need a drastic improvement in agricultural research too. Note that India spends only 0.3-0.4 per cent of its agricultural GDP on research. This must be increased to at least one per cent to bring in strategic and technological initiatives in the long run. Transport optimisation, elimination of intermediaries, crop diversification and setting up an agri-business bank could be some other immediate steps that can strengthen Indian agriculture space.

Aatmanirbhar Infrastructure

Ever since the Modi government took charge, infrastructure has been one of the government's top priorities. With significant developments in highway and road construction and with the National Smart Cities Mission, India has been on the right track. But to help global companies make a beeline to India, we need world-class infrastructure. And we need it at a faster rate.

main_roads_reuters_060220011321.jpgEver since the Modi government took charge, infrastructure has been one of the government's top priorities. (Photo: Reuters)

From investing extensively in roads, highways, metros, railways, and bridges, to building plug-and-play facilities, infrastructure requires a significant boost in India. Rural areas, too, demand the government's well-deserved attention in the form of better roads, broadband communication, educational and recreational infrastructure. Plus, by improving rural infrastructure, the government can decongest megacities and curtail rural migration as well.

Aatmanirbhar Defence

On May 2 and 3, we lost a colonel and a major in the Indian Army among five security personnel in an encounter in north Kashmir's Handwara. We need to step up our military now more than ever, no matter what the opponent voices may say. When it comes to protecting India's borders, we must not fail. And given the recent escalations at the border in North Sikkim and eastern regions of Ladakh, India needs multiple level growth in the defence sector. History teaches us to prepare for the worst. As a geographically vulnerable country sharing its land borders with countries like China and Pakistan, India needs to be self-reliant in the defence sector too. 

main_indian-army_reu_060220011535.jpgIf India aspires to become an Asian giant, it must have a robust military policy. (Photo: Reuters)

Remember, as India moves to the next step of progress, Pakistan will not leave any opportunity to attack India. And we must not forget that almost every Pakistani attack on India has a backing of Pakistan's all-weather ally — China. So, if India has to become an Asian giant, it must have a robust military policy. The government is treading on the right path with its aim to catalyse domestic defence sector manufacturing. But building a defence ecosystem needs high-scale technological advancement. We must also provide a level playing field to the private industry for developing defence technologies that aren't just indigenous, but also meet the quality requirements of modern armed forces.

Aatmanirbhar Education

To revive an economy that's bestrewn with the shattered dreams of millions, we certainly need a self-reliant education sector. It's about time India ramped up its public expenditure on education and had its due focus on skill development.

main_iima_reuters_060220011931.jpgDespite having prestigious educational institutions like IIMs and IITs, India has been finding it hard to drive the value in the job market it once did. (Photo: Reuters)

It is a source of regret that a country with prestigious educational institutions — with the likes of IIMs and IITs — has been finding it hard to drive the value in the job market it once did. This brand dilution can only be subsided with a massive increase in the quality of education. It's only mass quality public education, supported by qualified teachers, that can eliminate the inadequacy of human capital. India needs a solid educational policy that can fortify the ecosystem in our institutions. The basis of this system should be scientific and spiritual education — something that we need to fight the existing moral degradation occurring in our society.

Aatmanirbhar Reforms

Land reforms: Drastic changes in land reforms are upon us, and we need to make the most of this time. To begin with, the government needs to debottleneck land acquisition procedures. Further, greater transparency in the antiquated land records system should be brought, and tenancy should be made more straightforward.

Labour reforms: India's labour laws are overly complicated. We, as a country, need to break free from bureaucratic control and corruption at all levels. The government should attend to workers' rights and demands and take care of aspects like wage security, health, safety and social security of workers. Particular attention should be given to all the migrant workers, and a mechanism should be set up to provide them with work as per their skill set, to mitigate the consequences of Covid-19.

Legal reforms: The Indian legal system remained chained by feudal orders for so long that major legal reforms were inevitable. The government should make the legal system fair to the weak and the marginalised. Justice delivery should be sped up by bringing in advanced technology. To make India a viable investment destination for companies exiting China, the Indian judicial process should be revised and expedited to benefit not just individuals seeking justice, but also MSMEs and foreign investors, who often find themselves stuck in legal contracts for years.

Aatmanirbhar NRC, UCC and Population Control

The BJP's ideological agenda, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), may have been argued as discriminatory by the Opposition and a particular section of the society; however, the current scenario shows that we need to implement it without any further delay. As a developing country with minimal resources, we need to protect our borders to ensure that all the resources are spent on the country's legal citizens. And just like any other government, the Indian government shouldn't shy away from prioritising its citizens over illegal immigrants. Not anymore.

We should also quickly move towards the drafting of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) to secure gender justice, equality and dignity of women. The country-wide application of UCC will ensure that various personal laws are eliminated and the concept of 'one nation, one law' is followed.

Next, India strictly needs a population control policy at the earliest. A very high population rate (like India's) causes excessive stress on the nation's limited resources. Covid-19 has already confirmed that we don't have the medical wherewithal to support such a huge population. Thus, population stabilisation should be in the spotlight, and the government should table a population control bill in the upcoming session of the Parliament.

Aatmanirbhar Nature

The Covid-19 lockdown is healing the planet, they say. Air and water quality levels are improving, and the planet has been going through some essential environmental changes. India must seize this opportunity to create more awareness about climate change and pollution control.

main_india-pollution_060220012326.jpgIndia must create more awareness on pollution control. (Photo: Reuters)

Energy efficiency should be improved, and awareness on tree plantation and green growth should be spread. It is time we paused to acknowledge the selflessness of Mother Nature. And we must do our best to keep it booming.

Emerge stronger from the pandemic

With a bold fiscal stimulus programme, India has high chances to grow than sink.

We don't have a perfect system, I agree. Several reforms are overdue. A multitude of bottlenecks handicap business productivity. And outdated laws come in the way of the economy's progress. Still, India can transform itself into the Asian giant it always wanted to be. The goal of all the legislative efforts should be to utilise the country's assets well enough to realise millions of expectations in the new economy post Covid-19.

As India is gradually emerging from months of economic hibernation, we must not cave in to the duplicities. We need to rise above anachronistic ideologies, inefficiency, and petty politics. A self-reliant India sparks demand for change. With a greater emphasis on healthcare, agriculture, infrastructure, defence, and reforms, the idea of Aatmanirbhar Bharat can be translated into reality.

We just need to make this happen.

Also read: Why Aatmanirbhar Bharat is not about Swadeshi vs Videshi

Writer

Sadhavi Khosla Sadhavi Khosla @sadhavi

Entrepreneur, blogger and political analyst based in Gurgaon.

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