Home > Opinion > Columns > Opinion | Corona is a great equalizer, the final choice lies with us

Swaraj", “suraaj", “rama-rajya", “self-reliance"—these words have been influencing our consciousness for more than a century. Sometimes, they were used to awaken us and, at others, the use results in controversy. Once, these words were used as a weapon to win our freedom from the British. We got the freedom, but the words never left us. Here, I want to talk about the Prime Minister’s address to the nation last Tuesday. He told us that India will emerge out of the coronavirus crisis as a self-reliant economy.

What is self-reliance? How can we achieve it? It’s also important to ask if slogans, such as self-rule and freedom, achieve the desired goal. From the rebels of Naxalbari to protestors of Shaheen Bagh, there is a long list of those who say our freedom is incomplete. But while saying this, they forget that it’s Indian democracy which gives them the right to raise such a slogan. Let me quote here a statement by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons: “I myself never believed that could be preserved after the departure of the British Raj, but the last chance has been extinguished by the government’s action. How can one suppose that the thousand-year gulf which yawns between Moslems and Hindus will be bridged in 14 months?"

The 73 years of Indian democracy have already proved him wrong. We have completed a long journey—for some it’s fabulous, for others it’s incomplete. Now, let me talk about the rise of America and the Great Depression of 1930. This crisis began in the US around the end of 1929, when production went down by 47% and GDP dipped by 30%. A large population lost jobs, and the rate of unemployment reached a horrifying 20%. Production was down by more than one third in industrialized countries like France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Netherlands, and almost everywhere. During the dark days of the crisis, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the US president. Leaders are not great by birth; their decisions at the time of crisis make them great.

Roosevelt took a number of hard decisions to stabilize agricultural production and to improve the quality of life for farmers. By 1933, one-fourth of the workforce was unemployed. By forming the Tennessee Valley Authority, Roosevelt started building dams and power stations. In 1935, he gave pension guarantee through the Social Security Act. The federal government also took the responsibility to feed the children of the unemployed. Under the public works administration, he gave direct financial help to three million people. To raise the money he increased taxes on the rich. Now, let’s look around: Many such steps are being taken in India at the moment. MGNREGA, is aimed at lending help to a number of industries, free distribution of ration and food, new life to a number of infra projects held for a long period.

Roosevelt’s efforts resulted in the rise of a new America. From there started new consumerism. These steps gave superpower status to this country. The World War II also started around this time and the US was playing a leadership role in it. Roosevelt actually was fighting two battles at once, one on the domestic front and the other at the international battlefield. Coming back to India, why can’t we become an economic superpower? We have the largest pool of graduates in our country. India still is the biggest source of brain-drain. These youth have made rich countries more prosperous through their hard work. But now, when they are under pressure to come back due to the corona-generated recession, it’s important to use this resource domestically. When Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose came back to India with new ideas, they played an important role in the freedom struggle. It’s also time to learn to use our resources, wisely. For example, India is the largest producer of cotton, our share in world production is 23%. The biggest brands in the world make clothes with it. But Indian garment is nowhere in this competition. In India, the condition of cotton farmers is frightful, they are forced to commit suicide. Besides, there are a number of sectors, such as health, tourism, digital technology, where we can set an example.

We achieved a lot during the 30 years of liberalization, but we also lost many things along the way. It’s time to regain what we lost. Corona is a great equalizer. Now, everyone under the sun has similar difficulties and opportunities. What you choose is up to you.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin

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