On being vocal for local   

By Benjamin Lyngdoh


Today, the novel coronavirus pandemic has brought into focus the value of the local economy. It is time for ‘localness’. It is now the pool around which subsistence is to be managed. In the uncertainty of resumption of normal inter-state travel there is an opportunity for the local economy to take-off by way of resource mobilization, employment, business processes and livelihoods. Contemporarily, ‘self-reliant India’ is the new direction through emphasis on economy, infrastructure, IT governance systems, demography advantages and supply chains (demand). The thinking of the central government is that if India were locally self-reliant then the chaos of recent days would not have happened. Be that as it may, it is true that a locally self-reliant economy can mitigate the ill-effects of globalization and its negatives (like this pandemic) far better. This is because the demand-supply relationship, consumerism, gainful employment, skill-sets, etc are all robust internally. To some this might seem a ‘utopian thought’; but, it is possible. After all, necessity is the mother of invention! Hence, being vocal for local is the new way to go. However, amidst this new direction that the country is taking; where does Meghalaya fit in? Accordingly, I place the following pointers –

Firstly, any developmental process/intervention is basically a relationship between demand and supply. This happens across all nuances (economic, social, cultural, religion, political, etc). The more robust the demand-supply equation, the more self-reliant is the local economy. As such, the ‘vocal’ aspect indicates the ‘demand-orientation’ which is to be met by the ‘local’ aspect indicating the ‘supply-capabilities’. Both of them are to be present in tandem. The absence of one or the other will defeat the efforts for a locally self-reliant economy. As a starting point, for everything to work out well there is a need for consumerism of local products/services. There needs to be a demand for indigenous items on a wider scale. Where there is a choice between a localized produce and the other; the selection must obviously be the local one. This argument may seem fascist; but, it is not. The choice still rests upon the consumer; and a conscious consumer will know what is right. More importantly, this demand (vocal) must be met by localized supply. Now, this is more challenging. It is a sticky wicket.

This is because consumerism may increase in a day; but the supply to meet it takes time. For example, a child may ask for rice from his/her mother anytime; but it will take at least twenty minutes to prepare it. In addition, there is a question of being competitive as compared to other more established brands; like in case of potato chips, how do local chips compete with established brands like Lays/Uncle Chips? These are pertinent issues that would have to be addressed in this journey of being self-reliant.

Secondly, agriculture is the lifeblood of our rural areas and the backbone of Meghalaya. We may glorify the manufacturing and services sector all we like, but the undeniable truth  remains that agriculture is our strength. If our agriculture and allied activities are strong then the people will have a livelihood. It is only then that we will be able to see inclusive growth. Well, this is pretty obvious to see; after all around 70% of the population of the state depends on agriculture for their livelihood. As such, Meghalaya’s self-reliance deeply depends upon the ramping up of its agricultural sector. In addition, niche areas like animal husbandry, horticulture, floriculture, pisciculture, etc will provide the necessary push towards holistic development. Sadly, Meghalaya’s net sown area (around 10%) is far less than the north-east average (around 18%). Yes, the topography of our land is generally difficult for farming, however, our traditional practices of agriculture, Jhum cultivation, subsistence orientation, etc are equally to be blamed. Point being, Meghalaya will not achieve inclusive growth unless agriculture is made the pivot of development. In this development, ‘value addition’ is paramount. Here comes the role of food processing (and even higher up the value chain; agro-based industries). The food processing units will ensure ‘vertical integration’ of the agricultural produce thereby giving better returns to our farmers/stakeholders. Like in the case of potato chips given above; we could scale up our processing combined with branding/marketing assistance through agencies like Meghalaya Basin Development Authority (MBDA) and Meghalaya Institute of Entrepreneurship (MIE), etc.

Thirdly, there are documentations on emerging economies that portray agriculture as being unattractive and the rural areas as a bane. However, this is not true. Simple logic; if we do not do agriculture then what do we eat? In addition, ramping up on agriculture is of benefit to all. This is because it is the platform for rural tourism under the model of ecotourism/community-based tourism. The fact is elementary; there can be no rural tourism without agriculture. If that were so; then rural tourism would simply involve visitors making a round-trip of a particular village in a day. This is of no benefit to anyone and if anything it is detrimental to rural growth. What is really needed is a rural tourism package (say, 2 nights and 3 days) which ensures that tourist stay back at a particular village and enjoying its sights and sounds. In the process, they learn about the people, culture, practices, livelihoods, etc. In return, the village gets an economic benefit out of longer stays by tourists; not to forget the valuable relationships created. This can be developed as a high-end tourism brand! Well, this model of tourism development is pretty straight-forward. However, it only works if agriculture is strong. This is what Switzerland primarily does and what Punjab/Haryana currently thrives on. Amidst all this, the demand for rural tourism has to come first from the local market. Today, every Meghalayan is a client. This is where ‘being vocal for local’ really comes into play. So, let us get on with it!

Lastly, self-reliance by being vocal for local is inbuilt in the Indian ethos as represented in India’s fight for independence. Now, we are fighting for economic independence. That way this is a ‘déjà vu’ of sorts. However, in an inter-connected globalised economy self-reliance cannot be myopic. It cannot be cut-off from the outside world. In fact, it has to look externally through internal socio-economic achievements. As a case in point, locally processed potato chips can become a local fad; but beyond that, ways and means for it being exported must also be explored. As such, while focusing on the reviving of the state economy it is important to see things in the long-term. As a starting point, focus must be laid on agriculture. It has to be a primary emphasis. Beyond that, we can look at building the other service sectors. To this end, the creation of an effective business environment for the setting up of food processing and agro-based units can be highly productive in the long-term. This will rejuvenate the local economy and thereby act as a hallmark of ‘being vocal for local’.

(The Author teaches at NEHU)

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