Home / Opinion / Columns /  Lessons from a self-reliant enterprise of face masks

I have unwittingly become a fashion designer, albeit of a very unoriginal kind. The twin influences of the covid consumption collapse and Atmanirbhar Bharat seemed to coalesce while I was speaking to a tailor, who had just opened before the lockdown, 200 metres from my front gate in Bengaluru. I had asked him if he would mend a white applique shirt that was fraying from its collar to its cuffs. His reply was simple: “Just bring me the work. I am happy to do it." He had diversified into masks while he waited for business to pick up. This is how I became a mask designer. I sourced grey, red and black ikat handloom fabric from a store nearby. My friends and neighbours seem delighted to wear them.

Like many people, I have been a dye-hard devotee of Indian hand-made fabric for years. I even made seat covers for a Honda Brio I owned of black and grey Andhra ikat. Such whimsical shopping now counts as a pleasurable national service—for those lucky enough to be employed and have money to spend. The prime minister’s call in May for a self-reliant India also made sense in a way that demonetisation never has.

On the first day after the lockdown lifted, I went shopping. Trouble is, packing to move homes last year convinced me that I probably own more Anokhi block-printed shirts than… well, Anokhi. Delighted to be allowed out, I declared I was off to the four-storeyed Angadi saree shop 500 metres away. My part-time helper is disarmingly direct. “Don’t buy me the type you like," she said, leaving me deflated.

As I entered the store, through what I mistook for a security scanner, a mist of disinfectant stung my eyes. I stumbled past the revelatory cotton Kanjeevaram temple sarees and splashy Chettinad cottons to a counter selling the nylon my helper Mangala deems more practical. Inevitably, I couldn’t resist a gold and parrot green Chettinad for a friend’s 80-something mother.

For a consumer, “Be vocal for local" is akin to learning ABC compared with the five ‘I’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled at a Confederation of Indian Industry event in June—intent, investment, inclusion, innovation, and—now what was it, infrastructure? But, I may have adopted his maxim too literally by combining it with Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno’s idea of the 15-minute city: We walk or bicycle for all our necessities within 15 minutes of our homes. Guided by Moreno, the mayor of Paris is making key areas inaccessible to cars. My office commute involves moving from a 1950s Kolkata fold-up writing table in the living room, which I use while conducting interviews, to a 21st century standing desk on the balcony. Since only two Ubers I have taken recently had a plastic screen to protect both driver and passenger, I am now borrowing a neighbour’s car twice a week. For sport, I have just joined the Topspin Tennis Academy because tennis is a sport characterized by social distancing. It is a 20-minute drive, but feels akin to a Spartan, semi-rural retreat for tennis obsessives. At home, my wine purchases have long been skewed towards Indian wines rather than often low-quality phoren stuff sold in India after 150% duty is levied on it. Now, instead of Sula from Nasik, I buy Big Banyan white wines and Grover Zampa reds to be vocal for… Bengaluru.

The attraction of what is nearby applies even to donating money. Three Bengaluru executives set up KVN Foundation, a massive migrant meals charity across five cities, within days of the lockdown in late March. They found that if donations were earmarked to feed migrants in, say, Chennai, local contributions increased dramatically. In the absence of income support programmes from India’s cash-strapped government, my pragmatic elder brother devised his own for the electrician and plumber who help at a couple of flats he owns, paying them for work they might have done had a lockdown not been in place. I followed suit by sending my former driver—from the time I lived in Delhi five years ago—the equivalent of his monthly salary. Now an Uber driver, he had seen his income collapse. In a country without safety nets, we must find small ways to weave them.

My career as a designer of handloom masks has proved short-lived. A friend gifted me more elegant ikat masks that look like something a dashing cowboy would wear. Improbably, they are sold on the website Nykaa, whose cosmetics would make a swadeshi economist seethe. As the economist David Ricardo argued, being self-reliant doesn’t add up if somebody else makes something better and cheaper than you do. Two hundred years ago, he famously said that it was better for Portugal to sell wine to Britain and buy cloth from its mills, and vice versa. We must try not to be reliant on China as consumers, and as a nation not to depend on it for strategic goods. But, for factory owners who need imported inputs and machinery from international supply chains to remain globally competitive, Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage remains sound. And, I’ve learnt that it makes more sense to scribble at that writing desk than design masks that don’t always fit well.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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