In pursuit of self reliance (Atmanirvar) in India

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(A Tribute to International MSME Day 2021)

Dr. Raj Singh

Chairman, Overseas Point, Imphal

In May 2020, Oxford Hindi Dictionary assigned Atmanirvar the “Word of the year!”

The word was mentioned by the Indian government for the first time in COVID Economic Package so emphatically that it percolated through various government departments and, also, down the hierarchies of political workers in the country.

For those who do not know the meaning (like me a few months ago), Atmanirvar means “Self Reliance”, a catchword for development planners in India now.

In fact, Prime Minister Modi started using it as early as 2014. If you remember, its English translation “Self Reliance” was the favourite word for Prime Minister India Gandhi in the 1970s.

Historically, Atmanirvar is not a new initiative for India. India dreamed of self reliance in the 1940s by trying to copy economic models of the Soviets, South Korea, Taiwan, and Brazil etc. (Wiki). While countries like China, Israel, Singapore etc. started their pursuits of self reliance much later and achieved quite sooner, India seems to be still in the hot pursuit till today.

Of late, economists worldwide started believing that MSMEs (Micro, Small, Medium-sized Enterprises) holds a big promise to the Sustainable Development Goals (popularly SDGs) of developing countries. Therefore, the United Nations in 2017 designated June 27 as,” International MSME Day!” The MSMEs account for 60% of the GDP of China and 50% of that of the United States.

About 63 million Indian MSMEs employ 110 million workers and contribute 48% to Indian exports to play a big stakeholder in economy. However, the GDP contribution of Indian MSMEs stagnated around 30% for the past ten years (2011-2019) and the government is aiming at increasing it to 40% in the next few years.

India has a tall promise of hitting the 5-trillion economy by 2024-25. This may remain evasive when we do not give what MSMEs need for boosting performance.

Among the many needs, two basic ones stand out the most critical 1. Skilling of entrepreneurs and workers and 2. Digital literacy of entrepreneurs and workers.

India boasts of its youthful population and pledges to become the “Skills Capital of the World.” But the ground reality is that only 2.4% of its workers are formally trained as against 47% of China, 56% of UK and 96% of Korea. Our workers will increasingly be challenged by the new skills requirements of the Industry 4.0 we are in today (Industry 4.0 connotates the stage 4 in industrial revolution which will largely go knowledge-based and automated).

COVID pandemic has hastened our economic dependence on digital technologies and post COVID activities are predicted to retain this legacy. This means our entrepreneurs and workers will not be productive enough without digital literacy in the days ahead.

The role of MSME is unquestionably significant in Manipur where entrepreneurial movement is just setting foot and not much room for big corporate players is seen. But the remoteness of the state makes ideas wane and funds trickled when central policies/programs reach the state. This is the state where 15000 entrepreneurs, 6 lakh job seekers and annual cohorts of 20000 mature students languish for reliable trainers in employability skills, entrepreneurship skills and digital literacy locally available to help them.

A piece of indigenous handicraft is Atmanirvar for the local artisan. But it cannot be the same as other examples like Amul, Thums Up or Covaxin. Scaling up is essential in local MSME mindset in Manipur. This will come when extensive skills training and corporate work culture are caused in academic institutions and businesses in the state.

Mystics are loud in India. One mystic once said, “Indians move like a swarm of bees. You cannot trace the movement of a single bee in the swarm. But the swarm moves in a defined direction.”

I would like to use my meek voice to refute the mystic to say that we cannot afford moving slow in a swarm of confused people in this high-octane business world. We need to follow a clear path, each one of us!

India has already taken 80 years in pursuit of Self Reliance! We need to shorten it now.

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