Prime Minister Narendra Modi has re-ignited the old debate on self-reliant India. However, it is essential to note that the Aatmanirbhar Bharat of Modi differs from the failed import substitution strategy of Nehruvian India, and the old Swadeshi campaign with its distrust for globalisation and big industry and corporates. It is ‘not about being closed to the world’ but merging domestic production with global supply chains following global standards.
Nevertheless, in the discussions around Aatmanirbhar Bharat, three crucial areas have been missing: health, education, and technology.
A most crucial pillar of Aatmanirbhar Bharat is technology. Modern economic growth depends on the research and development produced in society. The import of technology cannot ensure its absorption as technology is a function of the population and society. So even when we are trying to import and indigenise technology, its limit is set by the level of social development.
A large section of the Indian population is poorly educated, malnourished with a high proportion of wasted children. Creating few centres of excellence or R&D islands surrounded by the sea of impoverishment will be doomed to failure. An Aatmanirbhar Bharat must entail massive public investment in health and education. Technology is not about machines but humans, it is humans who are the carriers of technological knowledge. Therefore, any step towards self-reliance begins with an investment in human beings.
COVID-19 has revealed the extent of under-investment in the health sector over the decades. With spending of just 1.22 percent of the GDP on healthcare, the health services are woefully inadequate, and thus imposing a prohibitive cost of morbidity and mortality on the economy.
Although it will be a challenging task to increase public spending on health in a slowing economy, several significant steps have been taken by the government. The trinity of Ayushman Bharat, Swachh Bharat and Jal Jeevan Mission is a much-needed intervention in the sphere of public health. The externalities of Swachh Bharat and Jal Jeevan, and synergy between them will have a far-reaching positive impact on reducing the disease burden and improving public health. In addition to this, the recently-announced National Digital Health Mission when coupled with Aadhaar and the NPR-NRC in future, has the potential to revolutionise healthcare services.
That said, it is the primary healthcare where urgent and massive investment is needed. Without improving access to healthcare in the initial stages itself and adequate nutrition and food security, India’s demographic dividend will remain unrealised.
Similarly, the National Education Policy 2020 has recommended spending 6 percent of the GDP on education, apart from the much-needed restructuring of the education system itself. The emphasis on accessibility for the masses, increasing enrolment ratios and focus on R&D are steps in the right direction. However, India has the unenviable task of not only educating and skilling its working population, but to also prepare it for Industry 4.0. It entails complete rethinking on the mode of teaching, curriculum, and the very concept of education itself, apart from public investment in new areas such as broadband connectivity and digital access.
The Government of India has been working to increase access to learning with platforms such as SWAYAM and DIKSHA through DTH (Direct to Home) channels across the length and breadth of the country on a 24X7 basis. The partnering of Google with Jio platforms with an investment of $10 billion will soon provide India with domestically-developed 5G technology raising digital broadband access and low-cost ICT services. However, much more still needs to be done and greater involvement of the private sector to complement the increasing public investment is the way forward.
Further, technology also brings focus on the urban centres. Cities are the engines of the technological growth as it requires high population density, diversity of the population, proximity for cross-pollination of ideas, closely located educational institutes and research infrastructure. It is a well-established fact that research and development are even more concentrated than manufacturing. It means that a strategy for self-reliance must concentrate heavily on the cities.
Reform in urban governance and laws, investment in urban infrastructure and basic amenities for both ease of business and ease of living, and creation of new urban centres can build the critical economic ecosystem necessary for an Aatmanirbhar Bharat. Also, the wide gap between Tier I and Tier II and III cities needs to be narrowed by enabling the emergence of new urban centres which can become the engines of economic growth and Aatmanirbhar Bharat.
Anil Kumar is Associate Professor, and Abhinav Prakash Singh is Assistant Professor, Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi, Delhi. Views are personal.