Self Reliance: Not Just a Political Construct Anymore

Since independence, Indian political leaders have espoused the need for “self-reliance”. Over the last five decades, we have certainly achieved this goal in areas such as the production of food grains and milk. It is clear that we have not done so in some other basic areas, including education, healthcare and energy. When the government announced “Make in India” and “Atmanirbhar”, some called it “old wine in new bottles” or “mere election slogans”. While there may be some truth in these allegations, it cannot be denied that recent developments around the world (and in our own neighbourhood) are forcing us to rethink concepts such as “national interest” and hence, “self-reliance”.

Self-Reliance Important Despite Globalization

Especially in the last two years, major events have unfolded that continue to have a significant impact on our lives and indeed, the world as we know it. The pandemic has painfully underscored global interdependence amongst countries. Whether it was PPE kits, face masks, syringes or vaccines, no one country had it all. And if they did, they chose not to share it with others. Inherent inequities in the current global healthcare and socio-economic systems led to many parts of the world remaining without access to resources that were critical to preventing infection and the spread of COVID 19. Many western countries with the financial muscle to place bulk vaccine orders in advance end up destroying millions of expired vials. What a waste! Arguably, political and governance decisions made even a couple of months before the vaccines expired could have helped to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people in less fortunate countries that were not self-reliant.

Russia’s month-long invasion of Ukraine continues even as I write this post. Many countries have united to impose a range of sanctions on Russia; many have stayed away. But in an interdependent world, the impact of such sanctions cannot be localised to just one country. India, which imports more than 85% of its crude oil requirements, has been adversely affected. Many of our young citizens who were pursuing medicine or other courses in Ukraine, have been affected. It is unclear whether they will be able to complete their education in Ukraine if the war continues, and what alternatives there may exist.

Petroleum is a natural resource and we cannot do much on the supply side if we do not have economically exploitable reserves in India (whether onshore or offshore). We have little choice but to look at alternative energy sources and manage demand- which is what we have been doing for some years now. An example is the Electric Vehicle revolution that is beginning to gather momentum. Similarly, drones have the potential to transform many fields, including agriculture, logistics, healthcare and of course, defence- but we need to develop the capacity to design and build them in India.

As the world evolves even more into a knowledge economy, innovation will be a clear source of competitive advantage. Not just through technological advancements in fields like AI/ML, IoT and quantum computing, but also through innovations in creating appropriate legal frameworks to ensure the orderly functioning of the global/national systems. This also means revamping our education system to ensure that it encourages the kind of critical thinking that’s needed in the years ahead. The New Education Policy was introduced in 2020, but many teething troubles remain; steps need to be taken quickly to resolve them if we are to benefit from this new approach to primary, secondary and higher education in our country.

Fostering Self-Reliance Involving Multiple Stakeholders

While the Founding Fathers had a certain perspective when they wrote our constitution, that worldview was limited by what they envisioned at the time. It is reasonable to say that the world has changed drastically in the last 70 years. Indeed, many of these changes could not have been imagined in the late 1940s or even in the 1990s. This is why we, as a nation, must view “self-reliance” in a different way than we have done in the past. The quasi-federal structure that we have given ourselves must not impede progress; the Central and State Governments must work together to formulate policies that complement and supplement each other and are not designed to create face-offs.

Policies and strategies alone are not enough; action is needed on the ground to convert them into actionable plans, projects and measurable goals. This needs everyone to work together. The private sector must play its part in making the necessary investments in building critical capacities and training our youth. The PLI scheme has begun to show some results, and I hope manufacturing of drones, electric vehicles and batteries based on sodium, etc. will also soon take off in a bigger way. Our citizens, too, have an important role to play. The advice to “reuse, reduce, recycle” is not just for environmental gains; it has the potential to conserve physical and financial resources that will make it easier for us to become self-reliant.

The starting point is to set aside ego and ideological differences, make the effort to understand other points of view and work together to build a self-reliant India that becomes a self-contained ecosystem that is more capable of bearing external shocks in the future. We cannot predict what these shocks might be or where they will originate, but we can be better prepared.

Image Credits: Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash 

While the Founding Fathers had a certain perspective when they wrote our constitution, that worldview was limited by what they envisioned at the time. It is reasonable to say that the world has changed drastically in the last 70 years. Indeed, many of these changes could not have been imagined in the late 1940s or even in the 1990s. This is why we, as a nation, must view “self-reliance” in a different way than we have done in the past.

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