Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his wonted panglossian optimism have led the nation to the new hashtags of ‘Vocal for local’. It was in May 2020 that he lauded the contribution of the ‘local’ during the challenging times of the pandemic. “Local is not just our need; it is our responsibility as well”, the PM addressed the nation. Emphasising on an ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’, or self-reliant India, his government has insisted that products not just be made in India, but also for promoting local brands, manufacturing, and supply chains. It is indeed essential for our economy that local brands have a global presence. Still, the mantra of ‘vocal for local’ and ‘local for global’ needs to be considered beyond its charming cadence.

Invisible value chains

Vocalising for the ‘local’ is not an avant-garde concept for the Indian economy. We adopted the Swadeshi back in 1905 to instill the spirit of nationalism in the people. But the realities have changed since then. We live in an age of economic globalisation and international trade and the world is more connected than it might seem. You are probably driving a car whose steel is produced in China, styling has been done in South Korea, and has been manufactured in Germany. A globally competitive product depends, undeniably, on such value chains. The ‘vocal for global’ is an incredibly great idea and might be an effective strategy to boost some sectors of the economy but it is certainly not the best for others. In fact, to expect the ‘locals’ to create globally competitive products while keeping them away from globally competitive resources and skills, and without developing globally competitive synergies is unfair.

Cloaking Protectionism

Our PM has been a champion of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (The world is one family). On many occasions and at various international platforms, he has arraigned rising trade protectionism and paid the highest regard to multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The domestic scenes, however, lay out another story. His government accepted during the budget 2018 that there has been a ‘calibrated departure’ from the traditional policy of cutting tariff rates. Nirmala Sitharaman later continued to raise tariffs in order to protect the ‘local’, not realising that many of the imported products serve as inputs for the domestic manufacturers and such a move has increased the cost for the domestic industry. The recent revision in the FDI policy to discourage Chinese investment in India also seems to be inconsistent with WTO’s obligations. India also bowed out from joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. It is naive to assume that such oversimplified economic logic can survive this day.

Inherent Biases

We are a part of a free market economy- a system of competition with little or no government interference. Consumers must be empowered to make informed choices based on criteria such as prices, quality, and availability. If it is about choosing the domestic products, people should see merit in buying them and not forced or dictated by an artificial air of nationalism. For instance, one might be encouraged to buy a pack of Amul ice-cream or butter because of the superlative quality but not forced to fly Air India if there are better choices a click away. It is a sad story that the poor culture of narcissism has new forms of expressions- social media, user-generated content platforms and alike which have been misused and where the loudest influencer wins! The spirit of ‘vocal for local’ lies in its use as an instrument for social sustainability. There is no virtue in disregarding ‘others’ which have made their name in the market based on performance. The new culture of self-reliance, self-sufficiency must be built on the optimistic message of the theme.

The expectations

As responsible citizenry, we need to acknowledge that our understanding of the local will have wider implications on the country’s landscape. Amidst insecurities of the post-COVID world, people would desperately seek local livelihoods and social transfers. It is true that we have earned global competitiveness in the last two decades especially in the field of software development, and pharmaceuticals. But to underestimate the importance of international collaborations and support from consumers across the globe would be an undesirable mistake. The pandemic has certainly made us more aware of our interdependencies as a global community and we mustn’t lose the insight. Further, the government needs to do more than create a stir for the ‘local’. Beyond easy access to capital, entrepreneurs must be provided with strong industry-academia linkages to help them with data and market research. For building resilient and sustainable communities, we need a ground of decentralized fiscal and regulatory structures. Local governments need to be trusted, supported and funded appropriately.

Way forward

It is a no brainer that local needs to be appreciated. But to an extent. ‘Be Indian, buy Indian’ is enticing but smells of hypocrisy and non-viability. Bare and blind insistence that everything be ‘made in India’ is not going to let us far. What is more sustainable and worthy is a beautiful balance between global and local production as well as consumption. It is a ripe time to rekindle ‘small is beautiful’ economic models. Most of the consumer products can be built in smaller units and customized according to community needs. Such models put craft, relationship, and environment at the core of their working and can stand against the ‘gigantism’ culture. Let’s go back to the human-scale!

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