'Atmanirbhar India’ is more of an extension of the ‘Make in India’ campaign which was run around half a decade back by the government. Both these epithets emphasize the importance being given to make India a strong power that can stand up on its own and get integrated with the global powers on the economic front. The idea is to make India strong economically and socially. Hence it is not a case of import substitution but one for making the country a major force which is respected and relied upon to drive the world economy.
Atmanirbhar also carries with it a strong social message which has been followed up by the government with some strong economic policies that support these structures. This relates to health and education. Since India went in for economic reforms in 1991-92 the focus was on the economic sphere where a myriad of policies brought a radical change in the way in which we operated with the market forces showing the way. But these two segments were never in the forefront and the entire gamut of policies were more focused on the ‘growth’ agenda than development. This is where the present Atmanirbhar reforms make a difference. It integrates the social compulsions with the economic imperatives.
To build a strong economy it is necessary to have a well built and learned workforce. Economic reforms have built on the technology block quite successfully. However, it should be recognized that technology is an enabler and can never be the driver of growth in a labour surplus economy. Therefore, it is necessary to start the process at the initial level which is education. Here the government has come out with the New Education Policy which emerges after a hiatus of three decades (34 years to be precise) and lays the foundations of the education structure that is required to take the country forward. Primary education is lacking and the emphasis on rote learning which served its purpose years back needs to be improved upon significantly with more sophistication to make progress. The NEP does just that. While the restructuring of the school system is welcome, the policy could have addressed the issue of having a uniform curriculum across the country, which would have provided a level playing field for all.
The government has also realized the importance of digital learning and through sheer serendipity has been emphasized at the time of the lockdown when the entire country was in the mode of operating from home. Digital education has the power to disseminate finer learning across the country and physical presence is less relevant. The ‘One nation, One platform’ scheme of Diksha would add value by bringing all children to one level by 2025 which was not possible otherwise. This should help in preventing the dropout rate for children especially at the secondary school level where it is as high as 1/3 in some states like Assam and Bihar.
The challenge, however, would be to create commensurate jobs for everyone as they reach the age of maturity and this is where the focus on different sectors which were part of the Atmanirbhar Bharat package will provide for. Today the literacy levels in the country or the percentage of children with school or college education does not map with their employability as very often the level of learning is rudimentary. The reforms witnessed in agriculture, irrigation, public sector, mining, infrastructure, etc. would bring about higher growth to finally offer employment opportunities to an educated class. The government through the NEP has hence quite rightly also spoken of vocational training so that there is practical skill development which takes place for these children.
Along with education, the government has also focused a lot on health which is essential to ensure that the former goal can be achieved. The Indian record on health, especially at the children level, has not been good with malnutrition being a malaise leading to stunted growth which comes in the way of prospects. It has been estimated that 38% of children below five years of age are stunted. The same holds for rudimentary diseases like dysentery, typhoid, diphtheria, etc. which leads to a relatively high mortality rate in children. This has to be addressed and while the responsibility is on both the central and state governments, it is quite in order that Atmanirbhar programme has targeted health as a goal. The investment in public health will be increased along with investment in grass root health institutions of urban and rural areas. The National Digital Health Blueprint will be implemented, which aims at creating an ecosystem to support universal health coverage in an efficient, inclusive, safe, and timely manner using digital technology.
Therefore, by linking education and health with economic growth a virtuous link has been strengthened. If implemented universally across all states in the country, the foundations of the preconditions for growth would have been cemented. This must be a continuous process and would require dedicated effort especially at the village level to ensure that these two social goals are met. There is evidence to show that several schemes like building toilets, providing work under NREGA, direct benefit transfer, PM Health scheme, mid-day meal schemes etc. have worked very well in some states. This must be made universal as at the end of the day a healthier and better educated society will add to the prosperity of the state.
(Madan Sabnavis is a Chief Economist, CARE Ratings. All views mentioned here are personal.)