Atmanirbhar: Missed opportunity to propel economic development

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Listening to Prime Minister Narendra Modi when, in an effort to address the economic fall-out generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, he announced the Great Indian Bailout, aka Atmanirbhar, it seemed that the BJP Government had learnt a trick or two from its politics. Alas, when the Finance Minister rolled out the details over the next five days, it seemed that Atmanirbhar was mere rhetoric and the Government was using its usual slap-dash methods to cover serious injuries with Band-Aid.

That the commentariat concluded thus may seem a tad unfair, given that the Government did announce some transformational policies such as creating the central Agricultural Products Marketing Committee (APMC) or effecting changes in the labour code. However, the overall effort, was underwhelming rather than path-breaking.

For example, a subjective analysis of the over 50 or so line items in the announcements show that less than 20 per cent of them were substantially structural in character, while the majority were in the nature of accounting disbursals, palliatives for the current situation and a bit of deft re-purposing of programmes previously announced. No wonder the commentariat reached the conclusions it did.

So, what were the missed opportunities?

Shouldn’t relief measures have been given? Given the dire straits different sections of the economy are facing, it was a no-brainer that relief is necessary and some sections of the society, particularly the socio-economically poor, had to be given hand-outs.

Two issues stand out though.

· Relief and aid are a necessity in the circumstances and are time- and situation-specific. They are not going to continue in perpetuity. Atmanirbhar, on the other hand, was touted as the promise of structural change that would have a long-term impact.

· Even in meting out relief and aid, the Government had the opportunity to establish standards applicable in any calamity. By making it situation-specific, the Government lost an opportunity to create the confidence among those impacted most significantly that it would stand by them through thick and thin. Had it done so, the relief measures could well have been seen to be a part of the package of promises, rather than accounting legerdemain.

The true path of Atmanirbhar

In his address to the nation on the eve of the announcements, the Prime Minister painted a picture of Atmanirbhar as a game-changing way of administering the country that will make the 2020s a decade when India blooms. Sadly, the package of initiatives announced following this address, flattered to deceive and did not decisively create a favourable environment for this to happen.

So, what could it have done?

First and foremost, this Government could have changed the traditional role of the Government as a gatekeeper of laws to a facilitator of aspirations. Thus, the current model of governance built around the ‘will of the majority’ to a model of governance directed towards the ‘good of the majority’. In the latter case, the Government would make the effort to understand the pulls and pushes of the different sections of society and create a structure to meet those needs.

Thus, in this model, Atmanirbhar could have been the creation of an unemployment guarantee programme that automatically came into effect during calamities such as these, for example. It could mean the creation of processes through which programmes like ‘vocal for local’ could move from mere slogans, to actual practice.

Rationalising laws, spurring innovation

Today, most Government economic policy is either a reaction to events or a book-keeping exercise presented during the annual budget. The consequence of such an approach is the plethora of laws, often conflicting with each other and/or reducing the people to supplicants seeking favours from the Government, such as tinkering with GST tax rates every quarter or the over 60,000 regulations that Indian businesses have to comply with. Again, here was an opportunity to examine these in detail and create a framework that could have made Indian business a lean-and-mean engine of economic development, rather than as a milch-cow to generate taxes and funders of elections.

A third area that Atmanirbhar could have focused on is innovation. Today, on the one hand, much of our technology comes from outside India, and, on the other, whatever we have, we hand it over to the West and buy it back from them as if we have to pay homage to the memory of the British Raj. The Covid-19 pandemic could have been a platform where traditional Indian methods of healing, like Ayurveda, could have worked hand-in-hand with allopathy to find a solution. After all, Covid-19 is an unknown entity to all, and has, so far confounded everybody.

One of the main reasons why innovation in India does not flourish is because of the lack of institutional support for it. Such institutional support comes from the Government in announcing ‘moonshot’ projects, a la DARPA or NASA. The few attempts made by India in this direction, such as C-DAC or DRDO, lack the depth and the commitment to further Indian innovation. Wouldn’t it have been a great opportunity for the Government to have created one or more national project that could be the vehicle of innovation in India? These are only three examples of what could have truly led to Atmanirbhar, there could be more.

A memo to the Government

This Government has acquired the reputation of using crises to the advantage of the country, justifiably or not. But, to use the Covid pandemic to drive through the changes the country needs, also needs the courage and the will to jettison the shibboleths of doctrinaire economics and the pinpricks of political sniping. The question, to paraphrase a popular TV anchor, is: “Does this Government have the stomach to do so? The nation wants to know”.

(A Director at Rage Communications, the writer has over 40 years of experience in analytics and marketing communications.)

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