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Opinion: A Decoding Of Modi’s ‘Self-Reliant’ 21st-Century India

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Narendra Modi’s address of May 12, 2020.

It was not a coincidence that PM Modi kept bringing the reference of the twenty first century and India’s promised rise in it during his fifth address amid the coronavirus crisis. In order to understand what actually is driving both the twenty first century and India’s aspirations, we will take a detour before coming to Narendra Modi’s address of May 12, 2020.

While everything seems to be suffering from this great pandemic, there is something that is thriving almost in a manner as if it’s not only laying but also legitimising a perfect foundation for its existence in our future. Twenty first century is indisputably the age of technology, and the global pandemic is only confirming this in very powerful ways.

The single-most powerful invention was the availability of smartphones which completely changed the way an individual interacted with their world. There seemed to a be world in hand at their command. Mobile phones didn’t just provide entertainment but also became a total interface of the real world as administrative, legal, social, political, personal and economical demands could now be met with the use of mobiles.

No longer one needed to be in line to get their official documents done or wait in queues at supermarkets to buy groceries. With social media, a new feature of this shared artefact appeared in the form of participatory cultures where public could shape opinions of legal, social, political and public kinds. It is this radical and heightened potential of individuals which the mobile phones single-handedly distributed among the masses, more than any other product imaginable.

However, the single-most important contribution we need to consider here is perhaps the way in which digital structures reimagined capital circulation and re-distribution. Much of the confidence behind Modi’s vision of “Atmanirbhar Bharat” definitely comes from the resilience of these digital structures supporting global economic exchanges even in near-breakdown situations.

This is exactly what is meant by Mr Modi’s third Pillar of Atmanirbhar Bharat: “to develop our systems which are not based on primitive structures of a bygone century but on a sophisticated network of technologically driven organisations.” These technologically-driven organisational systems are in fact what are laying legitimacy for advanced technocratic systems as we move into the twenty first century, without which any vision for self-reliance (atmanirbharta) is baseless.

It is as if these very systems are going to determine the very being of humans. Access to these systems thus becomes crucial to understand the issues of citizenship, law, state and government in this new century. Hence, as new systems and structures are being deployed, established political structures are worthwhile to consider how notions of governmentality themselves are bound to shape.

Neoliberal reforms in India had already produced a swelling middle class whose eyes shine with promises and opportunities of the new age and who are also in great numbers as users/actors embedded in these technological systems. Traditional barriers of caste, gender and religion seemed to loosen up to a certain extent for these users, and technology provided both an ease and charm for their renewed status.

The reliance on technology for promoting ease and efficiency is perfectly compatible with more authoritarian controlling characteristic of recent trends in populist democracies. Partha Chatterjee had reminded that considering the fate of populism in India that “The more authoritarian forms could deliver quicker growth but will involve high costs in terms of coercion, violence, and the stability of the state. The more democractic forms will be slow and messy but could afford greater flexibility and the possibility of course correction” (Chatterjee, 2017).

Demonetization in India sent many in queues at the bank to exchange currency notes.

Demonetization brought the authoritarian face of the BJP government way before many issues that have come lately. But as is becoming more and more clear, Demonitisation was not exactly meant to bring back black money, as was the received wisdom among the public, neither was it a way to crush minorities by squeezing out money from them as many communal sections continued to believe.

Demonetization has been among the most severely attacked policy decisions ever in BJP’s term so far, and the government could not have gone ahead without anticipating a similar outcome if the benefits were not equally substantial for the government. The most important outcome of Demonetization was the absolutely humongous rise in the users of digital banking in India.

To place things in perspectives of how important this online payment economy is, we should look at “RBI’s annual report, the number of UPI payments in 2018-19, at 535 crore, for the first time surpassed the number of debit card transactions (441 crore)… to put the growth of UPI transactions in perspective, the first half of 2019-20 has already seen a higher value of transactions completed on the platform than in the entire year of 2018-19! (Bhargava, 2017)” Similarly a report in Livemint showed that “in October 2019, transactions via the three-year old instant payments system UPI recorded a new high of 1 billion” (Nandi, 2019).

After Demonetisation, there was a dramatic shift from cash to digital transactions not only through UPI but also through card transactions. Even though it took almost three years to stabilise the currency with public, Demonetisation entrenched digital capital well. Also, the nosedive in “cash has bounced back to its former stature three years since demonetisation. In 2015–16, currency as percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) was 14 percent. The next fiscal, it dropped to 10.3, rising once again to 13.4 percent. In 2018-19, currency with public stood at Rs. 20.52 crore, 14.6 percent of GDP measured at Rs. 1.40 Lakh Crore” (Punj, 2019).

This recovery also brought in a new surge as the Hindu reports claimed “three years since demonetisation, the level of cash with the public has grown faster than the GDP growth of the country, even as digital payments—especially those on the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) platform—have seen robust growth” (Bhargava, 2017).

The robust growth of these digital payment platforms is significant to understand relations and logics of governmentality that seem to have been ushered in by the age of technology. There is in fact a deep link between technocratic and more authoritarian forms of government, as will become clear. These links can be argued to have been placed within neo-liberal capitalism driven on the charm of technological invention as was the industrial capitalism on the charm of industrialisation. But here the only interest is to understand this link through governance in India, particularly as is becoming clearer in this crisis.

Modi’s reliance on technology, particularly digital banking for which Demonetisation seems to have been actually done, thus can also ensure him with the political mechanism of delivering economic relief directly to the people. This direct relation is certainly a new charm for the Indian public. But, of course, the danger of it can be that, given the first-past-the-post system in our country, the government can selectively employ direct transfer to create a loyal vote bank.

Indian Shopkeeper Digital
Online payments are becoming more and more common.

The efficacy of legally buying and securing vote banks through direct cash transfer became so much feasible that Congress has still not done away with NYAY, which is basically the same form of direct-cash governmentality. This new form of governance has become possible only with these secure digital and technological structures which are reshaping political procedures alongside a lot more things, but keeping a vote bank loyal with direct cash transfer only may not solve all our problems.

Still better than Congress, the BJP has been able to blend its feisty populist image well with these technocratic structures of governance. This was clear in Modi’s speech when he explicitly said, addressing the people:

You have experienced that in the last six years whatever reforms have been done, it is only because of them that India is in a state where even after being in a state of crisis, India’s organisations are looking more efficient and effective. Otherwise, who would have thought that the money which the Indian government will send, that same money, all of it, will go into the pocket of our poor men and farmers directly. But this has became possible, that too when every government offices were closed, as were transport systems, Jandhan, Mobile, Aadhar, (Jam) this Trishakti, was only one reform, whose effect we have just seen.

If there was an opportunity that Corona crisis offered to prove that Modi’s Demonitisation was going to be an excellent move, it is this very moment, given that a large section of people now receives direct cash transfer. It will not only increase party loyalty, but will also broaden its confidence by luring more and more people into its direct purchasing capacity.

It is undoubtedly clear that the PM was referring to none other than the reform introduced by Demonetisation. As indicated earlier, this is in fact a new brand of governmentality combining the authoritative characters present in populism and technocratic systems, which will, in the words of Narendra Modi, “make India Self-sufficient, with bold reforms”. In this, the eye is not on democratic “incremental changes” as Partha Chatterjee highlighted but on “Quantum Jumps”.

Quantum Jumps are in fact the first pillar according to the scheme of Self-reliant India Mr Modi presented. It is in fact this infrastructure that is poised to shape India’s entry into the twenty first century. But this quantum jump will become possible only if the BJP successfully administers direct cash to the people, it will generate a huge confidence in the government.

This form of governance in which citizens have a direct benefit transfer is becoming a trait of our political order. It is also catapulted in action after Kejriwal’s successful welfare politics which also relies on direct distribution of benefits to the population. In that sense, this represents a new shift in citizenship and governance.

Once the cash reaches ordinary masses, they can rely on the technological interface to temporarily relieve themselves, whether it’s booking tickets, having food, buying medical attention, etc. Again, the BJP might not distribute money to a large section of the Indian population. Distributing enough money to keep a secure vote bank is enough to bring back the BJP in power, and the government will also keep that factor in mind. It need not distribute money to all; once money reaches only a section, it is enough to generate sufficient support in Modi’s regime.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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