New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to make India more self-reliant, but if the experience over the past few years is anything to go by, it’s not going to be easy. Faced with disruptions to raw material supplies from China because of the Covid-19 pandemic and millions of job losses following a nationwide lockdown, Modi has ratcheted up calls to boost local manufacturing and reduce India’s reliance on imports. A shortage of personal protective equipment at the beginning of the outbreak increased his resolve — and within the space of just two months, India has become the world’s biggest maker of PPE kits after China. That success has only emboldened Modi as he exhorts Indians to buy local goods. A military standoff with China is now adding fuel to those calls. Following a deadly clash between soldiers from both countries along a contested Himalayan border this month, Indian political leaders have called for a boycott of Chinese goods and possible higher tariffs on products from its neighbour. Traders, who were previously reluctant to snub cheap Chinese imports, have now come up with the list of 3,000 items, including toys, watches and plastic products, that can easily be replaced by local manufacturing.
The push to cut imports this time is “more pronounced in its economic nationalism,” said Amitendu Palit, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore. “The dominant thinking is if businesses give up imports, and start making the same products at home, then they would create jobs, and generate incomes in a self-sustaining process.” Modi previously attempted to boost domestic manufacturing with his Make in India plan, but that had limited success. Under that initiative, the government pledged to cut red tape and assist companies looking to set up shop in the country. The ambition was to grow the share of manufacturing in the economy to 25% by 2020, from 15% in 2014. But strict local-content rules in that plan backfired by raising production costs for companies, while waning domestic consumption amid a protracted slowdown in the economy saw the manufacturing sector’s share remaining almost stagnant at about 15%. PM has little choice but to focus on manufacturing, given the slump in the dominant services sector — the primary driver for employment growth. With the economy on course for its first full-year contraction in four decades, authorities see industrial growth as key to creating jobs for some 1 million young people entering the workforce every month.