Atma-nirbharta, the Local way

There is an alternate voice in this country, and in other parts of the world, which questions the assumptions and systems of modern globalised society. This voice has been speaking for a long time in favour of the local and of strengthening the local community.

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about meeting the challenges post-Corona and used the term ‘local’ repeatedly to the delight of the alternative world. Being slogan-minded, he also asked us to be ‘vocal about local’. I would like, in this blog to be vocal about local and attempt to go beyond the slogan and to also examine what local means.
We have heard the phrase self-sufficiency and self-reliance or atma-nirbharta, for a long time. Gandhiji has used it, Jawaharlal Nehru used it a lot, So did Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai used it and now Narendra Modi is using it. The words are the same yet what they mean could be quite different, so it would be helpful to go beyond the phrase and understand what local and atma-nirbhar mean in their vision. Here are a few parameters:

  1. ‘Local’ has many levels: One can visualise a self-organised sufficiency at the level of even a family or a village, or at the level of district, or the state. Or for some others, ‘local’ can actually represent the country as a whole, a type of nationalism.
    • For Gandhiji, the feeling of स्वावलंबन in every village was the key to his vision of Swadeshi. If the village or a group of villages (gram sabha) produced most of the goods of daily consumption locally, it would be largely self-sufficient. More complicated items of production could be done at small-scale factories at the district level. If every district was self-sufficient upto 80 or 90 per cent of its needs, then India as a nation would naturally become atma-nirbhar. That was his vision of the local.
    • For Jawaharlal Nehru the concept of ‘local’ did not mean small-scale production at the village level or even the district level. In fact, he was quite hateful of the village, considering it to be backward. In Nehru’s vision, local meant national. India becoming self-sufficient meant that large government-sponsored institutions had to make the nation self-reliant, or atma-nirbhar.
    • For Narendra Modi too, local means national self-reliance, there is no concept of decentralised district level, village level स्वावलंबन. The difference between him and Nehru is that Modi does not want government institutions doing production, he favours private corporations. In his vision, Indian companies should produce things and become big multi-national players in the global market – this will make India atma-nirbhar.
  2. Means & Ends: Should we achieve ‘local’ through local means or achieve local by going global?
    • Mahatma Gandhi was convinced that means and ends were related and had to be in sync, that is, one cannot achieve good ends through wrong means (e.g., health cannot be attained through means of polluting lifestyle). So for him, local means ‘small is beautiful’. Local production to him meant using local technologies, local tools, and continuing the practice of traditional local livelihoods which were intertwined with local customs and practices.
      For example, when he was offered the Wardha land by Jamnalal Bajaj and a hut was to be built there for him, Gandhiji put a condition that the hut be built with materials sourced from within a proximity of 20 kilometers, local artisans were to be used, the hut was to incorporate local technology and local design and much of the money went into local economy.
    • Jawaharlal Nehru felt just the opposite. He was enamoured of the British. He went for modern machinery and followed the techniques of western nations. From atomic energy to heavy engineering and big dams, he took western tools and methods and ideas; even his philosophy was Russian style western socialist ideology – with this, he tried to make India atma-nirbhar.
    • Morarji Desai being a follower of Gandhian principles, was caught in the middle. He wanted to favour local and agricultural enterprise but could not show the vision. So while personally spinning the charkha with dedication, he allowed foreign products and methods but put a condition that the company had to be at least 50 per cent Indian. Coca-cola and IBM left the country as a result, and his government was at least brave enough to take on the MNCs.
    • Narendra Modi seems to be a fan of latest technology – digital, internet, social media, apps etc. Like Nehru, he also looks to the west for ideas, and takes their monetary and economic policy, as also their technologies and strategies. For leadership ideas in a globalised world, Modi seems to be imitating China, wanting to become atma-nirbhar by beating the west in its capitalist game. For both Nehru and Modi, local means India becoming ‘big and powerful’.
  3. Does going ‘local’ involve only economic production? Or does local vision include local governance, local education, and local art, craft, design and technology too?
    • . For Gandhiji, atma-nirbharta was a natural result of practising Swadeshi and Swadeshi philosophy promotes a highly decentralised governance system with strong and independent local communities – an empowered gram swaraj with maximum self-governance; a total change of the British system of centralised governance.
      Swadeshi also means appropriate education to suit the local needs; Gandhiji’s concept of Buniyaadi Shiksha (or Nai Taleem) was to strengthen the local community, so that people were prosperous in the village, not forced to migrate to cities and be exploited as labourers.
    • Unfortunately, not a single Prime Minister since independence has shown a vision of strong local community. All of them have happily continued the colonial system of centralised governance with power controlled by those at the top. Our bureaucrats are also the culprits here, conspiring to not allow a devolution of power.
      On the issue of education system, Nehru and Indira gladly allowed the colonial system of education to continue – Nehru in fact is guilty of discarding Gandhiji’s vision of Buniyaadi Shiksha. Every Indian Prime Minister has blindly accepted the modern education system – not one of them has questioned the fact that it destroys the local and the authentic.
      Modi maintains the same western system of education and has shown no inclination for a local shiksha sanskaar.
  4. Does ‘local’ have any connection to ecology and environment and sustainability? Does being atma-nirbhar have any connection with nature and its balance?
    • If we implement ‘local’ as a non-centralised, small-scale production system using local raw materials, if the system aims at self-reliance at the level of the village and district, if it means maximum local consumption and minimum transportation, if it means respecting local environmental customs, then ‘local’ will be sustainable and ensure a balanced ecology.
    • If we implement ‘local’ as a system where Indian companies too have to become multinationals, if it means they have to adopt mass production techniques, if it means destroying forests and increasing pollution for industrial growth, if it means that Indian companies have to beat the west in its own game, then our environment and the earth’s ecology will be destroyed faster than we can imagine.
  5. Does ‘local’ have any connection to morality, ethics and spirituality?
    • For Gandhiji, Swadeshi meant a continuity of spiritual exploration of the community, an acceptance with gratitude of local philosophy and cultural values, while also testing them rigorously to see if they were established in Truth and to remove their faults and to perfect them.
      Efforts at personal transformation were to him an integral part of being prepared for community living.
    • Nehru and Indira represented the modern cosmopolitan mind – frame and the policies (so common among socialists of that era), who looked at our saints and gurus through the prism of western intellectual concepts of religion. Somehow, they became blind to the significance of the spiritual history and pursuit of Indian civilisation.
    • Morarji Desai spun the charkha, revered the Gita, and was outspoken about the need for spiritual development of the self and of living in simplicity. His vision did not, however, translate into political or social action.
    • Narendra Modi comes from a party which uses the words Hindu, Sanskaar, Parampara etc. frequently, but more in the western sense of nationalism and patriotism. ‘Hindu’ as an identity, but not as a civilisation and world-view. So there is no exploration of the Hindu or Indian way of economics, the Indian way of governance, the Indian way of education, or most importantly, the question of human spiritual development through our darshans. They seem keen to make India into a Hindu America.

The present Corona crisis has forced us to think about our options:There is one outcome which comes from ‘going back to normal’, where normal is defined by modern systems, global scale of operation, ambition, domination and competition.There is another outcome which comes from a radical exploration of gram vyavastha, from wisdom & simplicity, from small-scale activity, from a society of togetherness.What does ‘local’ mean to you? Which outcome of ‘local’ leads to atma-nirbharta (self-reliance)?

(first published in the blog:






One response to “Atma-nirbharta, the Local way”

  1. Raghuvir Pujara avatar

    We can achieve Aatmanirbharta I all fields of society, only when people are ready to react with dedication, devotion, simplicity in daily life till our achievement of goal.
    Second big challenge for us is fully developed villages.
    Btw article is classic.
    Hats off Sir…
    Best wishes

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