Being vocal on the right local

On May 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon Indians to be “vocal for local”. The way in which we, as citizens and professionals, interpret the local will have far-reaching effects on the country’s landscape and prosperity.

We could transform ourselves into a greener and more humane society, with access to affordable health care, functioning public schools, choices over where we work and live, and support for those who cannot work. Cities could breathe again and families could move to opportunity rather than be forced out of their homes by drought and desperation. Or, we could rapidly roll backwards, buying umbrellas with easily broken frames, toasters whose levers have to be held down, office chairs with castors that grip rather than slide, researchers who find it difficult to equip their laboratories and avoid reading research at the disciplinary frontier because they are too far from being able to produce it.

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And most importantly, there will be people with experience and skills who cannot find the capital, the designs, or the markets to use them. Thousands of them continue to return to their villages each day.

A pointer

COVID-19 has brought many countries to an unexpected fork in their development trajectories. It has made visible new facts, figures and the feelings of citizens towards these facts and figures.

In my quotidian, pre-COVID-19 life, I passed women in their colourful Rajasthani lehengas with plates of wet concrete on their heads, chatted with home and office staff about their villages and their parents, visited my tailor to find he had gone away for a wedding to Medinipur (West Bengal), waited for my carpenter to fix the door handles after he came back from dropping his wife at her parent’s house in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, and asked the security guard whether he had managed to buy his cow in Jharkhand and arrange for a new ration card for his family. I got the latest news on radio cab contracts and local politics in Bihar when I drove back from the airport with my (inevitably) Bhagalpuri taxi driver.

These everyday encounters and conversations made India what it was, they brought colour to my life and warmed my heart. I just did not see the flip side. That for all these people, their minds and hearts were elsewhere much of the time, in places they would have liked to be if they could have earned a living and educated their children. The pandemic, with its fears and lockdowns, has shown us, in painful and graphic detail, the massive numbers who would have liked to be in their ancestral homes in such circumstances. These images, of those who reached and those who did not, should guide our conception of the local.

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Village demographics have changed dramatically. Pockets of virtually empty villages in the Himalayan foothills have become re-populated and many of the poorest parts of the country have experienced the largest inflows. After the trauma of the last two months, re-united families would like to stay together. They will search for local livelihoods and they desperately need immediate and substantial social transfers. Strengthening these communities would show a real commitment to the right kind of local. This requires making our safety nets wide, accessible and fair. It involves building schools, clinics and hospitals within easy reach, and opening windows of credit to those with ideas without first asking them to label themselves as farmers or micro-entrepreneurs. If we imagine villages as consisting only of farmers and labourers, hit periodically by cyclones and drought, our support to them will not move beyond Kisan credit cards and employment guarantees. Those returning home are from many walks of life and have travelled far and wide. Development policy should help them use their skills and new perspectives to reimagine their communities while they earn a living.

How to get it right

The wrong kind of local would be to promote goods that are made in India through tariffs, quotas and new government procurement rules. We have attained global competitiveness over the last two decades in many new fields such as software development, pharmaceuticals and engineering products. All of these have flourished through international collaboration and feedback from foreign consumers. It would be short-sighted to imagine that we would reach these consumers if we restricted access to our own markets. I am reminded of a conversation with a friend a few years ago. She said she wanted to design products that were bought in the international market because they were simply the most beautiful; not because they were cheap or supported artisans. She subsequently succeeded in doing just that, and, in the process, probably taught many the elements of good design.

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Many of our sustainable energy initiatives have also depended on government action elsewhere. For example, solar energy was subsidised in Germany and in California when it was far more expensive than fossil energy, China mass produced solar panels and costs of production came down enough for other countries, including ours, to start adopting them. The pandemic should have made us aware, like never before, of our interdependencies, of the limits of our knowledge and the need for global engagement.

Sustainable and resilient communities cannot be built on a fiscal and regulatory structure that is highly centralised. The Centre would have to devolve to the States and the States to locally elected representatives. If we adequately fund, support and trust local governments and remain open to absorbing both the knowledge and products that others produce better than us, we can create a society where all, not just a few, matter. If we insist that everything can be “made in India” and close borders because a crisis sealed them temporarily, we open ourselves to mediocrity and isolation, continued mass poverty and greater vulnerability to future pandemics. We have the capacity to refocus on the right local, if only we could agree on the vision.

Rohini Somanathan is Professor, Delhi School of Economics

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 11:25:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/being-vocal-on-the-right-local/article31790400.ece

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