Since last year, the phrase ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ has been bouncing across the airwaves relentlessly. In the recently presented Budget too, unsurprisingly, it sprang up every now and then, as a sort of mantra. Replying to the tumultuous debate on the Budget on February 13, the finance minister again asserted that the Budget was for building this ‘self-reliant India’.
Which reminds one of this famous conversation between Alice and the arrogant Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carrol’s ‘Through the Looking Glass:’
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
Self-reliance is not a new coinage, especially not for Indians. You may remember that it used to mean a country that is self-sufficient in food, in industrial production, in its defence, in its scientific quests, and indeed in various other spheres of collective life. It had evolved when India was trying to find its feet as an emerging, newly liberated country, trying not to get ensnared in imperial camps.
But, like so many other things in this present era, it has been used to often describe the very opposite. While sycophantic satraps have carried it to ludicrous extremes, carrying on about making this or that state or even this or that village ‘Atmanirbhar’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his loyal Cabinet colleagues are labelling everything from selling off natural resources and government-owned enterprises to corporatising agriculture to scrapping labour laws as part of the ‘Atmanirbhar’ drive.
That’s why Humpty Dumpty’s fateful words popped up. ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ means what the Master wants it to mean – and woe to anybody who thinks otherwise. Still, it is instructive to look at what all has been called a part of this drive to self-reliance.
Features of New Self-Reliance
Let us start with the most obvious. In the course of his six years’ rule, Prime Minister Modi has eased foreign direct investment (FDI) in: defence, civil aviation, railways, coal, mining, media, education, insurance, e-commerce, retail, and a slew of other areas of the economy. But, some will argue, doesn’t foreign investment provide much needed resources for situations where there is no money? If that was the case then why allow foreign investment in coal. After all, Coal India, the public sector giant that produces most of India’s coal, was doing very well, being among the top 10 coal production companies in the world. Yet, allowing FDI in coal mining is virtually selling off India’s coal reserves to predatory mining giants, who would siphon away vast profits. Does this make India more self-reliant or less? Ask the Modi government.
Then there is the wholesale privatisation of public sector, announced with gusto in this Budget, to much jubilation among the corporate bigwigs. It was announced that all the public sector enterprises barring a few will be privatised to smaller or greater extent. All the profit-making public sector enterprises together made a net profit of Rs.1.7 lakh crore and paid a dividend of Rs.77,000 crore to the government last year. With this move of privatisation, it’s goodbye to all this. Will this make India self-reliant, losing so much of public resources, not to forget the thousands that will be thrown out of jobs? Ask the Modi government.
Another feature of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ is that those who used to pull the strings from behind the screens have now been anointed the new gods of superpower India. These are none other than our country’s corporate barons. Repeatedly, they have been described as “wealth creators” and the very essence of the great entrepreneurial spirit of India. To encourage them, to protect them is also part of the ‘Atmanirbhar’ mission. How does the government help them?
Besides offering them industrial assets at throwaway prices, the corporate world has had its tax cut down drastically in 2019. Base corporate tax rate was slashed to 22% from 30%, and to 15% from 25% for new manufacturing companies, giving a bonanza of an estimated Rs,1.45 lakh crore.
This one single act has endeared the present government forever to the corporate sections. Remember that the top 1% richest persons in India – all from this very same corporate sliver of society – already own more wealth than the country’s entire annual budget, and more than what 95 crore Indians own.
How does this help self-reliance? It will help the corporate sector for sure – they are laughing their way to the banks. But does it make the country stronger if crores of Indians are mired in poverty, and the government has squandered away its resources (raised from taxes) on just 1% of the population? Who knows?
Gifts for the people
In order to supposedly build ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, the Modi government has made three far-reaching changes in the existing legal and statutory framework of the country. These have all been dubbed as meant for the prosperity and betterment of poor people. In this Humpty Dumpty world of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ that, of course means the opposite – they will destroy the lives of farmers, workers and small enterprises.
The big-ticket change in the country’s taxation system was the bringing in of Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2017. It single-handedly turned the tables on micro-, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) leading to an enormous and debilitating loss for all of them. The corporate sector was thrilled – they took the changes on board and even benefitted from them. The mortal blow to the MSME sector also helped the corporate sector because they could finish off any pesky competition from the small fry. This change also destroyed the federal relationship by starving the States of resources that they generated from their own taxes. The Central government was supposed to compensate for this loss but it has dragged its feet throughout, forcing the States to become more indebted. The ‘One Nation-One Tax’ dream is yet another cog in the wheel of a dominant Central government tightly controlling the purse strings and making states beggars.
The second big change was the scrapping of 29 labour laws and their replacement by four labour codes. In this process of “reform”, the Modi government effectively introduced complete freedom to hire and fire, allowed contractual appointments (for fixed durations), weakened the wage fixation mechanism, diluted the enforcement mechanism and gave concessions for violations by employers.
The codes, along with changes in other laws that make it more difficult to form trade unions, have reduced India’s vast industrial workforce to virtual slavery, with increased working hours, lower wages, less job security, weakened social security and weakened bargaining power. How this helps in building a strong ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ only the Modi government knows.
The third big change was last year when the Modi government, in the cover of the pandemic, got three farm-related laws passed, which together will destroy the existing autonomy of the farmer, and give dominant power to corporate houses to determine what will be sowed and harvested, what price it will be sold at, how it will be traded and at what price will the consumer get it. By passing these laws, the government has also taken a step towards dismantling the public procurement and distribution of foodgrains that is the lifeline for this country’s poorer people. This will destroy India’s self- sufficiency in food and ultimately make it dependent on foodgrain imports. Is this a vision of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’?
There are a thousand other ways in which India’s self-reliance – as it was – has been eroded and damaged by this government. But remember – this is the new ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ where words only mean what the Master wants them to mean.