A team of language experts of Oxford Languages have chosen Aatmanirbharta, translating as ‘self-reliance’, as its Hindi word of 2020! The Oxford Hindi word of the year is “a word or expression that is chosen to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance”. Not that India has actually achieved the goal of self-reliance, one that it has been aspiring to ever since independence. But the phrase has been used often enough in the past few years to have deserved the choice. In fact, the current dispensation has converted Aatmanirbharta into a kind of slogan designed to further nationalistic sentiments, and if it has reached a crescendo after the India-China faceoff at the border, and calls for boycotting Chinese products, this had been the primary catalyst. Achieving self-reliance, however, involves much more than mere slogan mongering or unrealistic hype on the virtues of past indigenous practices. In the modern world it would require pragmatic and holistic essays on every front – agriculture, engineering, industrial infrastructure, defence equipment manufacture, exports, education, health, digital connectivity, et al. There is no gainsaying the fact that self-reliance is a worthy objective for every nation. But not only would it need enormous investment in research and development, it would also entail far-reaching empowerment of small and medium manufacturing sectors that are the backbone of India’s economy.
As far as progress towards self-reliance is concerned China, with an autocratic regime in control in contrast to democratic India, for obvious reasons is well ahead. Not only had that nation collected, legally or illegally, technological knowhow from advanced nations and doctored it to its own manufacturing needs, it has also embarked on large-scale R&D programmes to make the most of Chinese ingenuity. The outcome has been rapid advancement of self-reliance in every front, whether it be space exploration, arms manufacture, ability to build aircraft carriers, food production, etc. India, on the other hand, has a long way to go, as established by the reality that she was ranked 68 in the global competitiveness index by the World Economic Forum. Not that we have not had some successes; for example, the order placed with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s second LCA-Tejas for supply of 83 jets to the Indian Air Force under a Rs 48,000-crore deal was a notable milestone in indigenous production of defence equipment, a sector in which we are, unlike China, heavily dependent on foreign countries. Similarly, the pharmaceutical industry in India has made its mark on the world health scene, and has been able to rise to the occasion during a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. But a couple of swallows does not make a summer, and India will need a definitive planning strategy to be Aatmanirbharin the true sense of the term.