Migrants and the ‘Atma-nirbhar’ Mirage

There is a controversy that has already erupted about the real size of the10 percent of the GDP package announced for creating an ‘Atma-nirbhar’ Bharat (Self Reliant India) by the Prime Minister and explained bilingually in detail, by turns, by the eminent Finance Minister and the Minister of State for Finance over a five day follow-through media briefings.  Some sections of the print and electronic media that have, mercifully, retained the courage to critique and ask questions have elaborated on the shortcomings of the ‘so called’ 20-2020 package and call it in ‘eye-wash’.


Seemingly, there is not much in the package except for the fact that people who can brave the financial and psychological trauma that the pandemic has created would have access to bank loans to revive their businesses and venture entrepreneurship.  The liberal loan schemes are expected to make India ‘Atma-nirbhar’ – whatever that means.  Despite all the explanation given by the PM and his highly competent Finance Ministers, this scheme, in all likelihood, would only act as a speed breaker, in the long run, for the already slow moving growth vehicle on the road that has been laid to provide opportunities associated with being a part of the global economy.


This is, however, an issue that should be left to the wisdom of experts and lesser mortals like the author can only see and point out some obvious anomalies in the way political and ideological thought is translated into policies.  We are a member of the WTO and have an FDI Policy that states the “objective of the Government of India is to attract and promote foreign direct investment in order to supplement domestic capital, technology and skills, for accelerated economic growth” and a Trade Policy that states “the vision behind the policy continues to be focused on making India a significant participant in world trade and on enabling the country to assume a position of leadership in international trade” and at the same time we have unleashed the seemingly politically motivated agenda for an ‘Atma-nirbhar’ India.  It would be naive to assume that being ‘Atma-nirbhar’ does nor mean compromising, to some extent, the ambition of being a global player.  These two national level objectives cannot be compartmentalized and considered mutually exclusive.  While self reliance can be achieved in pursuit of becoming a large global player, pursuing self reliance as a ‘package’ supported mega economic objective would only inhibit the ability of the stakeholders to dream and think big – global scale.  There is no denying that the MSME sector needs to be given the extra fillip to cater to the domestic demand but not with the belief of creating an ‘Atma-nirbhar’ India but with the vision of creating the capability of this sector of being able to scale up to global standards in size and processes deployed.  Self reliance and its catchy Hindi translation define a boundary that can inhibit both perspective as well as growth.


What timing!  When the country – in fact the whole world – is struggling to brave and survive the Covid-19 pandemic, we come up with a package that is expected to change the entire direction of our economy.  The timing seems to be grossly ill-conceived.  But, the political strategists know it better than anyone else.  It is quite possible that the political think-tank within the ruling party would have thought that the suffering Indian poor class is gullible and can be sold a dream that would more than make up for the agony that it is going through and, at the same time, would even facilitate retaining its political loyalty.


The issue at hand is the misery that the migrants had to go through since the lockdown was announced.  Managing a country as large and diverse like India can be a nightmare for anyone, including PM Modi.  Despite the huge and unprecedented reputation (Modi Hai To Mumkin Hai) that he has created – as a result of his sloganeering and demagoguery – he has on this occasion not been able to meet the expectations of the people.  Even people who are objective and politically neutral or even mildly right aligned seem to feel let down by the lack of empathy and managerial conviction shown by the PM and his team.  It is inconceivable that the State machinery is not equipped or capable of ensuring that people reach their homes in a state of mind in which they are convinced that they need to, and should, go back to their workplaces after the lockdown is lifted.


If people have to walk alone and in herds, bare feet or with a flattened water bottle tied to their feet for weeks to reach their homes (which they had left to avoid penury) – to avoid hunger and the possible lonely Covid-19 quarantine and even death, what would be left in them to decipher and encash on the life-changing opportunity that is claimed to be served to them by the mother of all packages that aims at transforming India.  The irony is that the educated middle class believes that providing alms is not a solution and that these kind of human tragedies are the price that we have to pay for making an ‘Atma-nirbhar’ India in future.  If alms are not a solution to the problem of the lacs of people who have hit the roads knowing fully well that they could die of hunger or exhaustion in their pursuit of reaching their homes, then the loan schemes announced by the Government as a part of the package to promote entrepreneurship is nothing short of expecting a polio struck incapacitated  person to become a general category Marathon runner.  People who are hungry need food.  People walking back home in the summer heat need transport.  An expectation and demand of this kind from the people who are the prime movers of the Indian economy is not an expectation of alms.  In fact, migrants who have the courage to take the journey back home on foot without food in their bags and money in their pockets are heroes in their own right and people should consider it to be an honour if they get an opportunity to feed and support them.  It is a right that these migrants have and the government that has been formed with a huge mandate cannot absolve itself of the responsibility of providing transport and food in transit, and through the lockdown period, for them.


This is a huge price that we are paying for becoming self reliant. In the first place is there a correlation between the suffering that the migrants went through, and are still going through, and our not being supposedly self reliant?  If we were to promote local production and stop importing or substantially restricted imports from China, Europe, America and other countries, would the plight of the poor class improve in the near future.  Would the government of the day and its economic advisers guarantee that?  Have the State employed and sponsored economists carried out any empirical research to establish that if we were to adopt a policy of self reliance, the quality of life for the people at the base of the pyramid would improve.  In fact, before doing that, would they mind doing a study to establish the impact and the advantages – both in terms of saving of foreign exchange and the increase in employment – that the prestigious and the hugely advertised “Make in India” program has yielded.


Even an undergraduate student of Marketing in a B-Grade institution would tell us that in the hierarchy of activities that ought to be carried out for product launches, communication is the last thing that is done.  To wordsmith catchy slogans can be a capability that could get a person a job of a copy-writer in an advertising agency but, certainly, cannot be the USP of the PM of the country and it should, by no means, be used to reverse engineer a mega economic resurgence package.


The only thing that can get a migrant back to work is if things would turn worse in the villages and one is left with no choice but to get back to the ‘devil’ after having experienced the problems of the ‘deep sea’.  The kind of indifference that the Central and the State Governments and various political parties have shown for the migrant workers is appalling and generates very little reason for these people to come back to work.  The loss to the manufacturing sector would be humongous if these migrant workers are not given the confidence that things would improve for them if and when they get back to their jobs.  The foundations of an Atma-nirbhar’ India cannot be built on the suffering of this class of people that works all the 365 days of the year without any job security for the ruthless employer or labour contractor to keep their bodies and souls together and carry some money and stories home to support their families and keep them happy.


Obviously, the policy makers and its implementers are not supposed to be driven by emotions and have compassionate empathy for these people who are walking on roads and railway tracks to get back home.  But, it is expected that the people who are supposed to be managing State affairs should have some cognitive empathy to be able to accurately evaluate and understand the emotional state of the concerned people and devise and implement plans for corrective action.  Inadequate and lethargic intervention of the State even after the misery of the migrants was highlighted does not reflect the commitment of the Government to one of the first slogans that the PM had given – Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas.


One last word.  Managing the economy of a nation as complex as India is an extremely challenging task.  It requires a concerted effort on the part of a diverse set of specialists to engage with each other and the stakeholders to come up with various policy options to choose from and which fall within the stated political belief of the party in power.  In the present times, this process is seen to be carried out by a class of people that is intellectually bankrupt,  professionally incompetent and insecure and are more concerned about protecting their jobs than their conviction.  To make things worse, the concept of the Council of Ministers with the PM being the first among equals is something that ministers would not even like to think about lest they lose their jobs.

The PM could be the most well meaning person that Indian politics has ever seen and he could be the most articulate PM amongst the 14 Prime Ministers that we have had or even the most erudite amongst all of them but, the fact remains that economic policy management requires a professional class and comprehensive understanding of social sciences in general and economics in particular and which he, unfortunately, does not possess.  This is good enough reason for him to build a strong team of professionals and engage with them to come up with schemes for economic transformation that are sustainable and which ensure a decent socio-economic return on investment.  The PM should have used his huge managerial skills, which no one can doubt, in doing something simple, mundane and which would have a huge social impact – transporting migrant workers to their homes.


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