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Post-COVID World: How Shall India Go Ahead With Its Self Reliance Vision?

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

When written in the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters: danger and opportunity. In a state of panic, we must not overlook the opportunity this crisis (coronavirus pandemic) may have presented before us.

In just a few months, the coronavirus or COVID-19 has claimed over a quarter of a million lives and disrupted economies worldwide. More than 3.9 billion people or half of the world’s population have now been asked or ordered to stay at home by their governments to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. The coronavirus is, therefore, a reality now and is not going to go away easily.

This is because no perfect solution has been found so far to end the pandemic. As long as the virus persists somewhere, there’s a chance that one infected traveler would reignite a fresh spark in countries that have already extinguished their fires. This is already happening in China, Singapore, and other Asian countries that briefly seemed to have the virus under control. Under these conditions, it appears that the world has to play a protracted game of whack-a-mole with the virus until an effective treatment regime or vaccine is developed.

Hence, we have to learn to live with COVID-19 and at the same time address the problems caused by this-virus-induced-lockdown, including a deteriorating economy. The International Monetary Fund described the current global economic decline as the worst since the Great Depression of 1930s.

Image credit: Google

Indian Economy During The Lockdown

India has been no exception to the pandemic. With a nationwide lockdown imposed since 25th March 2020, the fallout from the suspension of nearly all economic activities is expected to be massive, as experts are predicting a significant slump in India’s growth for the current fiscal. The World Bank and credit rating agencies have downgraded India’s growth for fiscal year 2021 with the lowest figure that India has seen since its economic liberalisation in 1990s.

India’s economy is expected to grow from 1.5-2.8% in the 2020-21 fiscal that started on 1st April, as noted in the South Asia Economic Focus Report of The World Bank. Within a month, unemployment rose from 6.7% in March to 15-26% as on 19th April 2020. During the lockdown, an estimated 14 crore (140 million) people lost employment. The Indian economy is expected to lose over Rs 32,000 crore ($4.5 billion) every day during the lockdown period.

In a developing country like India, MSMEs (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) are the backbone of the economy. The MSME sector contributes to 45% of India’s Total Industrial Employment, 50% of India’s Total Exports and 95% of all industrial units of the country under which more than 6,000 types of products are manufactured.

When these industries grow, the economy of the country grows as a whole and flourishes. The government has already issued an advisory asking companies not to lay off people during the lockdown period. Good companies are already following this. However, the MSME sector,  the largest employment generator after agriculture, requires help. It means the informal segment of economy is the worst-hit in this scenario, since they lack the cushion to cope with the lockdown.

More than 90% of the people in India directly or indirectly depend on the informal sector for their survival. Currently, most of them are out of employment. How long will it take to recover the economy? Nobody knows. But one thing is for sure: the coming times have to be managed carefully.

A New World Ahead For India: Self Reliance

How do we manage this grave crisis, which originated in Wuhan, the sprawling capital of central China’s Hubei province? It is an international commercial center divided by the Yangtze and Han rivers. The city contains many lakes and parks, including the expansive, picturesque East Lake, where PM Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping for a two-day informal summit in April 2018. Like its origin, the solution of the disruptive impact of coronavirus crisis also lies in China. Going back to the two components of the Chinese word for ‘crisis’: does one look at this crisis as a danger or an opportunity?

Some countries are looking at this ‘crisis’ as an opportunity to punish China for its gross negligence in handling the corona outbreak. And US President Donald Trump represents this category of countries. On a naturalistic side, he might be right. So far, there have been more than 1.4 million cases with over 80,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the US, and the pandemic has shut down huge swathes of the economy. As a result, he is seeking recovery of these damages from Beijing.

In contrast, some leaders think that one should never let a ‘serious’ crisis go waste. Here, Modi’s vision needs attention. He believes that the pandemic has thrown up new challenges that the country had never faced before, but it has also offered fresh opportunities. “The biggest message COVID-19 has given, the biggest lesson it has taught, is to become self-reliant,” Modi said while interacting with gram panchayat heads and members to mark Panchayati Raj Day on 24th April 2020. But as usual, he or his office did not spell out the agenda to be initiated to achieve it.

“The biggest message COVID-19 has given, the biggest lesson it has taught, is to become self-reliant,” Modi said while interacting with gram panchayat heads and members to mark Panchayati Raj Day on 24th April 2020.

Without entering into an ideological debate, we must think about ways to implement the concept of a ‘self-reliant economy’, since this is the only way to make India sustainable and inclusive. Unlike other economies, a self-reliant economy is one that lays down a strong economic foundation to fulfill the needs of people and the country’s economic development.

Before I discuss the selected action points to implement the vision in the field, let me talk about the need of a ‘self-reliant’ economy for India’s survival. Consider some facts: India is heavily dependent on imports from other countries, especially China. It is getting increasingly difficult to manufacture goods and machines at a competitive cost in India. “Things have come to such a pass that we now depend on China even for electric circuit boxes; not too long ago, we produced them in garages,” noted Dipankar Gupta, a renowned public intellectual.

As a result, India’s trade deficit with China has increased significantly in recent years. Bilateral trade between China and India touched $89.6 billion in 2017-18, with the trade deficit widening to $62.9 billion in China’s favour. In 2017, the volume of bilateral trade between India and China stands at $84.5 billion. India’s many manufacturing sectors have a critical dependence on Chinese imports, including drugs and auto industries. While the assembly of mobile phones in India has emerged as a bright spot for the economy, employing a sizable number of people over the past four years, India still relies on imported assembly parts from China because of the lack of an ecosystem of component manufacturers here.

In short, heavy dependence on Chinese imports has already weakened the Indian economic base; and it may now encroach upon India’s sovereignty. All these are having an impact on the level of employment. The Indian economy is facing a lot of problems, but the main problem is unemployment and under-employment.

India’s unemployment rate in October 2019 rose to 8.5%, the highest since August 2016, as per the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. The CMIE’s figures are in line with the findings of the Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted by GoI, which had estimated unemployment or jobless rate of 6.1% between July 2017 and June 2018, the worst in 45 years.

How To Move Forward With This New Vision?

To initiate the process of a ‘self-reliant’ economy, India has to focus on two of its problems: agrarian unrest and job crisis. Any durable solution to agrarian unrest requires non-farm jobs. When a sector with less than 15% of GDP supports a population three times its size, we have a convergence of rural and urban hopes: jobs. One cannot lift rural incomes without absorbing at least two-thirds of those dependent on farms in non-farm jobs.

Furthermore, the nation needs to create 10-12 million jobs every year in the coming decades to provide quality of life for its growing population. Young Indians, particularly members of the emerging middle class — a billion strong by 2034 — have rising aspirations, as per the PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Job Creation

The recent electoral mandate clearly indicates that Indians want socio-economic development, and for this, they do see hope in PM Modi’s leadership. Generating jobs is, therefore, the biggest issue that will lay the foundation for a ‘self-reliant’ economy. This would require changes in labour and land laws, cutting corporate and general taxes to the level of East Asian countries.

In addition, India has to improve the basic infrastructure with special reference to uninterrupted cheap power supply. There is a positive relationship between job creation and availability of uninterrupted cheap power supply. A review of the good quality statistical studies indicates that energy use is either the cause or the facilitator of economic growth. The literature also suggests that the relationship between energy and economic growth varies by country and within countries. Insufficient, unreliable or costly access to power can be a binding constraint to business and job creation, as noted in an evaluation study titled: ‘What are the links between power, economic growth and job creation?’

Currently, there is a growing gap between job creation and needs of our machine-powered future known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. India, therefore, has to embark upon a journey of continuous adjustments to develop, utilise, and maintain human capital.

Job creation is directly related to production of goods and services. Low productivity, however, makes Indian goods more expensive as compared to other exporting countries. Experts call it premature ‘de-industrialisation’, that is, it is becoming increasingly difficult for countries to export their way to prosperity because of a more competitive environment for manufacturing. Furthermore, we stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything that humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear, we must prepare ourselves.

Currently, there is a growing gap between job creation and needs of our machine-powered future known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. India, therefore, has to embark upon a journey of continuous adjustments to develop, utilise, and maintain human capital. Also, it should be top priority for India because of its demographic bulge, as noted in my policy monograph — Nurturing Human Development: A Strategy for New India. It proposes a strategy to unlock human potential or formation of human capital based on the capability approach; and it is christened as ‘HDPlus’ (Human Development Plus).

In short, there are many reforms that are required to achieve the goal of a ‘self-reliant’ economy. However, two reforms, as discussed above, are the need of the hour. These are:

  1. Improving basic infrastructure with special reference to uninterrupted cheap power supply, and
  2. Unlocking human potential to propel the formation of human capital.

A Progressive, More Conducive Environment

The vision of a ‘self-reliant’ economy could be ‘The Roaring Twenties’ for India. But this cannot be achieved without peace, stability and effective governance. India has to create an environment for the fundamentals of progress: infrastructure development, human capital formation, rule of law, and so on. Interestingly, it also frees up resources, both financial and human, which would otherwise be diverted to controlling violence or maintaining law and order.

Further, we have to recognise that solidarity of people is a prerequisite for development. Here, the issue of communal harmony is very important. Yet, India is increasingly divided. The country has fallen into a seemingly endless cycle of conflict and violence.

Furthermore, economic growth in India hinges on the mobility of labour, but there is little done in return for their security and well-being, as we have seen during the lockdown. An overwhelming 120 million people or more are estimated to migrate from rural areas to urban labour markets, industries and farms. There is an urgent need for a solution to transform migration into a more dignified and rewarding opportunity.

Lastly, any action agenda to achieve self-reliance must be based on a participatory dialogue between the centre and states.

No doubt, achieving the vision of a ‘self-reliant’ economy is an ultimate solution of India’s wide-ranging problems. But, in the face of COVID-19, our way out could be somewhat different since our first priority is to manage the spread of the virus.

India has been under a lockdown for the last seven weeks. It has served its purpose of initially limiting the transmission of the disease, sensitising people to the importance of social distancing, and providing time to upgrade health infrastructure. Such efforts must continue, but the time has come to lift the lockdown. The question of COVID-19 now is no longer life versus livelihood, but livelihood for lives.

Recently, PM Modi stated, while extending the lockdown by another two weeks (up to May 17), that the motto of the government earlier was “Jaan hai to jahaan hai (if there is life, there is world)”, but now, his mantra is “Jaan bhi jahaan bhi (life as well as the world)”. Hunger is the more desperate, deadly, and immediate of the two alternatives, and hence it has prevailed.

Currently, India has been managing the virus through a lockdown. It is an extreme social distancing intervention available to break the chain of transmission and prevents spread of the disease. However, it does not destroy or kill the virus but is an important measure that flattens the peak of the epidemic, slows the growth of the epi-curve and provides time to the health and social systems to mount a response,” noted Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan. “Given the diversity of a country like us, it becomes essential to use this extreme strategy judiciously,” he added.

Going Back To Work Is The Need Of The Hour

Now the question arises: What next? The total lockdown cannot be indefinite. The middle and upper class with savings can survive, but others are struggling. Many from the middle class are losing their jobs in the current scenario and struggling to survive. The government is aware and looking to get out of this situation. We can’t be locked down for such long periods. Time to get back to work with abundant precautions is the need of the hour. This could help millions amongst us from privations that the coronavirus has already brought about.

As testing goes up and economic activity opens up, India’s coronavirus numbers may somewhat rise — authorities must refrain from getting spooked by it. We can’t afford to neglect other health problems and economic issues that are currently hidden by the COVID-19 dashboard. I will say that the lockdown must be lifted and all economic activities and movement of people should be allowed with necessary precautions after 17th May, except in the hotspots.

In conclusion, the crisis has taught us a lot of things. Investment in public health and precautionary measures in personal hygiene are the obvious ones. However, there is one other big lesson. “That it sucks to be poor, particularly during a crisis. Don’t let our obsolete mindsets keep India poor. It is time we shift our national priorities from all the nonsense and focus on to one, and only one goal — making India rich,” as argued by the popular writer Chetan Bhagat. In the last 70 years, India has never tried seriously fixing its core problem: poverty. No doubt, it can be resolved through a ‘self-reliant’ economy. For this, India’s policy makers must start working on developing an agenda to implement this vision.

In sum, the vision of self-reliance and its proper implementation will not only help PM Modi politically, but will also help India emerge as a major gainer in the post-COVID world. There will be opportunities for the country, but we will end up missing them if we do things in a short-sighted or half-heartedly manner.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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