Will inclusive growth bring swaraj for hind?
It may not be quite an accident that the centenary year for Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and the anniversary assessment of the UPA government’s second year is coinciding. We hear that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants to focus on what he calls “inclusive growth” for the next four years. Something that has become a constant chant in policy statements, and in the 11th Plan rhetoric, but has eluded his grasp.
At a workshop organised by the Indian Council of Historical Research on Hind Swaraj in Delhi University on May 16, Prof. Sabyasachi Bhattacharjee and others picked and flew out of Hind Swaraj as a text and interpreted Gandhi in the context of the India of today.
Hind Swaraj, they suggested, was Gandhi’s dialogue with himself and an affirmation of what could be called India’s capabilities. Revolting against the oppression of colonialism, the exploitative nature of building up the industrial and technological strength of the West, his reaction was to show that Indian ideas in Indian conditions are necessary to relieve the masses in India from the burden of economic oppression. It was also, perhaps, one of the earliest birds to understand the nature of roving capital, and how it can exploit for self-advantage the resources of its colonies, but also how it can subordinate the mind of the colonised and gain partners amongst them.
We all know Gandhi’s basic recommendation to start with poor and his mantra on how we choose the path to shared prosperity. What was special about the informed debate by these two historians was that instead of nit-picking on some of “Gandhian dogmas”, they were looking back from India’s current situation of incredibly striking exclusion of the poor from the agenda, as well as the similarity in the co-option of the elites of the fruits of growth, as well as the subordination to the old paradigm of modernisation and “progress”.
They argued that Gandhi’s economics started from distribution and, therefore, there was no anti-machine or anti-modernity, but progress through inclusion.
Some specific policy applications that can be put on the ground even today — to make India less punishing for the poor and drawn from Gandhi’s ideas — are, for example, his idea of localising food self-sufficiency. Given that the major part of India’s labour is still in rural areas, 84 per cent of the female workforce is toiling in rural India and given that we have the germ or nucleus for Gram Swaraj in the Panchayati Raj institutions that were put in place by Rajiv Gandhi, it would not be impossible to start from the poor and follow a Gandhian programme from the village upwards.
Given that much of India’s industrial output comes from the informal economy from home-based work with no security, either economic or legal, in terms of labour laws, a strong revivalism of the hand-made products industries, as well as own enterprises, could do both — provide security as well as ensure GDP with justice. Such a thrust would require complex undoing of not only tax and credit policies, but also the trade policies and approaches to infrastructure development, as well as licensing laws to mention a few NREGA considered the flagship cannot be offered as the Gandhian solution even though it has been named after him.
NREGA really is a relief programme and has, in fact, masked the enormous destruction of creative economic livelihood programmes, based on and drawn from traditionally handed over skills that have existed in India and could continue to exist. Skills that cannot be revived if lost — such as of handloom weavers, hand-product makers, skills of other kinds, including management of water and soil — are being reduced to unskilled labour.
A strong message from the leaders, which includes a focus on insecurity of the poor, especially women, would call attention to what is not only possible, but at the same time mute the strong criticism of the policies of the last five years which have generated so much exclusion despite the XIth Plan Approach Paper talking of inclusive growth. Clear definition that inclusive means inclusion of the poor as the starting point could give power to the message of inclusive growth and a direction to the administration.
A village plan starting with the poor showing existing livelihoods through products which are unique, including growing food grains which are appropriate to the local area and enable its circulation through local market places, could mean beginning at the bottom. A strong push with backward- forward linkages to the industrial goods that the hand is producing in India, would be another cycle of growth with employment.