India’s true self-reliant entrepreneurs
The lockdown showed how migrant workers, let down by the State, community and market, are the nation’s most valuable resource
Atmanirbharata is India’s new economic policy. Nirbharata means reliance, and atma means the self. The Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, announced by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, following the lockdown announced on March 24, 2020, calls for India’s economic mission to be based on self-reliance. Recently, the PM extolled the virtues of the private sector over the public sector, emphasising the services it provides, the employment it generates and its contribution to reducing poverty.
Atmanirbharta rests on a particular idea of entrepreneurship. The notion of entrepreneurship goes back to classical political economy: Economists Richard Cantillon and Jean-Baptiste Say emphasised risk-taking and initiative to exploit opportunities with an eye to financial gain. The word “entrepreneur” in French means “to grab” or “take control” but it also has elements of “adventurer” in English and “self-motivated” from the Sanskrit atmaprerna.
So the classic vision of an entrepreneur is an individual actor who is able to take risks, weigh pros and cons, make quick decisions and staying afloat while riding out the highs and lows of market forces. They should be tenacious and play the long game and build businesses that not only make them richer but benefit employees and others too. In more recent times, the economist Joseph Schumpeter emphasised the need for the entrepreneur to be innovative, able to think of a new way of doing things. Today, many economists consider such innovation needs a whole micro-climate to thrive, of angel investments, bank loans, regulatory mechanisms, bankruptcy laws, and basic infrastructure.
In the PM’s vision, Atmanirbhar Bharat would be based on five pillars: Economy, infrastructure, technology, demography and demand. This seemed an acknowledgement that the self in self-reliance was not an atomised self-maximising individual, but one engaged in complex relationships, aiming to grow and fly high among the dense network of community, market and State, and given a safety net if the risk-taking failed.
On the same day that the PM promised benefits of Atmanirbharta, Vinod Kumar, a young man from Uttar Pradesh, was found walking home, a journey of 1,500 kms. He had left Mumbai to return to his village after the lockdown because, as he told journalist Barkha Dutt, if he was going to die anyway, he may as well die at home. He had a BSc degree, but finding no prospects in his state had migrated to Mumbai, where he worked as a street hawker. In other words, Vinod Kumar was an entrepreneur. But Vinod and millions of other Indians, who take risks and travel far looking for work and opportunity, are not called entrepreneurs but only the less glamorous “migrant worker”. The pandemic should force us to rethink these distinctions.
India’s migrant workers, part of the broader vast group of informal workers, are a key component in the engine that keeps India’s economy growing. They construct new buildings, repair cars, drive taxis, manufacture tools, clean homes, make products and take on almost any work that will pay a wage. They live on daily earnings, have a small stock of rations, and try and save enough to invest in a better future. They travel to India’s cities but return regularly to rural homes to help with harvests, vote and maintain social bonds. The scholar Jan Breman calls them “footloose labour”, constantly on the move in search of opportunities. And it is just as well they do, for, without them, there would be no Indian economy.
This demographic of 100 million citizens are estimated to make up about one-fifth of India’s total workforce have no security of income, employment, or benefits of paid leave or health care. Their abundant numbers make their supply seemingly inexhaustible. No wonder little thought was given how they would cope when the country was locked down at a notice of four hours. No transport, no emergency rations, not even drinking water was made available. Footloose labour was simply cut loose.
But this absence of any support from the three pillars on which our lives rest — State, community and market — revealed the real essence of India’s migrant entrepreneurs. Remarkably few blamed the government or their employers, despite the complete mismanagement of trains and transport. Instead, the risks and benefits of undertaking an arduous journey were carefully weighed and decisions, quickly and boldly taken. Their only reliable assets were their own two feet; so they took control of their situation by walking home, surviving by remarkable ingenuity in the face of the toughest odds. As their own accounts during the journey reveal, they supported each other, travelling in groups, sharing food and information, creating solidarity and their own safety nets.
Oxford Languages, in recognition of the PM’s use of the term, announced Atmanirbharta as the Hindi Word of the Year 2020 because it “validated the day-to-day achievement of the countless Indians who dealt with and survived the perils of a pandemic”. Yet recent reports of Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan announced with fanfare the arrival of Apple, Amazon and Tesla to help India’s recovery.
If there is one lesson from lockdown, it is that the entrepreneurial spirit dwells not just in corporate corridors but on the dusty roads trodden by the millions who have atmanirbharata and atmaprerna at the core of their atma. They are among our most valuable of resources and should be nourished and supported, not used and discarded at will or just paid lip service to in speeches.
Maitreesh Ghatak is professor of economics at the London School of Economics (LSE). Mukulika Banerjee is an associate professor of anthropology at LSE
The views expressed are personal