One of the earliest proponents of the Swadeshi movement in modern India was Bhartendu Harishchandra. In his widely-celebrated 1884 speech “Bharatvarsh ki unnati kaise ho sakti hai (how can India make progress)”, Bhartendu rebuked his countrymen for their dependence on foreign-made products. “As a thousand streams of the Ganga flow into the ocean, so, the wealth produced in our country flows in a thousand ways to England, France, Germany and America,” he pointed out. Under the colonial rule, Indians couldn’t manufacture even a small item like a matchbox. They had to import combs from France, ready-made clothes from England and lamps from Germany. An eminent social reformer, playwright and the father of modern Hindi literature, Bhartendu reckoned that the key to the country’s prosperity lay in promoting Indian products and languages.
The economic exploitation of India owing to the drain of wealth and emphasis on the production of goods locally were recurring tropes in Bhartendu’s works and in those of Dadabhai Naoroji and RC Dutt, too. Naoroji had discussed this in his paper England’s Debt to India in 1867 before the East India Association in London. Naoroji in his book Poverty and un-British Rule in India (1901) and Dutt in The Economic History of India (1902) argued that the unchecked transfer of Indian resources to Britain was a major cause of poverty in India. What Bhartendu, Naoroji and Dutt were concerned about continues to haunt us even after Independence. It has persisted despite the espousal of swadeshi by Mahatma Gandhi and several other luminaries and the present Government’s initiative of ‘Make in India.’
The ongoing economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the spectre of economic mayhem in the country as the fiscal situation was in the doldrums even before it got a broadside hit by the lockdowns. In a bid to raise demand and subsequently the economy, we need to manufacture and consume locally. It impelled Prime Minister Narendra Modi to appeal to all citizens to go “vocal for local” and buy and endorse products made in the country. In his speech, Modi underlined the significance of local traders, craftsmen and brands. Close on the heels of Modi’s call for self-reliance, the Home Ministry announced that only ‘Made in India’ products would be sold in all Central Armed Police Forces canteens from June 1. But the question arises, do we always need the external threats of colonialism, war, famine, fiscal deficit, an empty exchequer and now a pandemic, to renew our resolve of strengthening and adopting swadeshi as a way of life? It is understandable that in modern times no country can afford to remain completely self-reliant. With the onset of the deadly virus, even the developed nations began to scramble for foreign-made ventilators, masks and kits. However, when we see horrors of a dystopian film coming alive in mask-clad people and PPE-clad healthcare workers, we know that the old rules won’t apply anymore.
When we notice China supplying faulty PPE and test kits to several countries, including India, we reckon that in the times of a global crisis we are left to fend for ourselves. As we observe millions of jobless workers struggling to return to their villages in States like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the painful realisation dawns upon us that the city cannot sustain them in trying times. But unfortunately, the health infrastructure in villages and the small towns they have returned to is already in shambles. There is an acute shortage of basic health facilities let alone ventilators and kits. For instance, years of misrule and mismanagement have made Bihar one of the worst performers on the health index. While the national average of a number of beds available in Government hospitals is 0.55 per 1,000 population, Bihar is the worst off, with just 0.11 beds. The Chief Minister of Bihar had 15 years to turn the fortunes of an ailing State around. But, except for imposing prohibition and improving law and order, and the quality of roads, the performance of the Bihar Government in sectors such as health, education and employment has been dismal. It has wasted a golden chance to tap its vast human resources, strengthen the agrarian sector and establish agriculture-based industries in rural areas on a massive scale. This could have at least given employment and much-needed dignity to millions of labourers and small farmers who are forced to migrate to cities.
Calamities provide an opportunity to reflect, retrospect and address the existing lacunae. We still don’t have an adequate answer to our overdependence on China for procuring Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients to make medicines. We must learn from our past mistakes and revisit the earliest proponents of swadeshi, including Bhartendu and Mahatma Gandhi to build a new, self-reliant India. There is a strong cultural and economic similarity between their vision and that of the ruling political dispensation. Bhartendu advised young students to become self-reliant, to focus on education and skill development instead of running after scholarships and jobs. His vision of economic nationalism is interlinked with socio-religious harmony and moral regeneration of a decadent and complacent society under colonial misrule. The Mahatma, too, was a proponent of the values of dignity of labour and organic economic growth. Let us delve deep into our roots and make India a manufacturing hub. Let us be Indian, buy Indian. (MR, Inputs: Agencies).