A series of seemingly unconnected developments have brought the concept of ‘atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance to the front and centre of popular discourse in recent times. First, the Covid enforced lockdown and consequent unavailability of domestic help forced middle class India to literally get on its knees and fold its sleeves for getting the sweeping, swabbing and dishwashing done at home.
Next, PM Modi’s lockdown address of 12 May calling for a more ‘atma-nirbhar’ or self-reliant economy, further pushed this discourse. And now, the Galwan Valley face-off with China has added further momentum with social media currently inundated with memes and jokes around boycotting Chinese goods and supporting indigenous products.
One of the popular pictures in social media during this time has been of protestors trashing and stamping on `Made in China’ TVs.
While much has been written and spoken on the larger political and economic aspects of the whole atmanirbharta debate, we decided to deconstruct ‘atmanirbhar’ in a more personal context and apply a behavioral science lens to see just how likely it is that middleclass India may see any sustained shift towards such atmanirbharta in our daily lives.
The Behavioral Science lens we have used is based on research by Professor Susan Michie of UCL who developed ‘The Behavior Change Wheel’ (BCW). It has five enabling dimensions to it; motivation, ability, physical, processes and social.
Motivation: Clearly for us to become atma-nirbhar we need to have the motivation to do so. If we think that our behavior is likely to have a beneficial impact, then we are more likely to do it. There needs to be an intrinsic motivation that the change will deliver an outcome better than what we have been used to. It also needs to appeal to our sense of self identity or the kind of person we believe ourselves to be.
Here, we are faced with India as a very masculine society where overt and visual displays of success, achievement and power are coveted. It has always been a high-power distance society where-differentiation basis caste, gender, hierarchies, and affluence is deeply steeped in our cultural fabric. While there has been some blurring of these divisions in the modern era, many still remain and have a subconscious influence on the way we behave, interact and expect to be treated. At our workplace while the concept of a personal secretary who manages your life and schedule may have weakened, there still exists the office boy who must prepare your coffee or fetch your print outs from the printer, tasks which are not necessarily part of his job description. As we climb up the ladder of affluence, it is seen as natural and somewhat expected that our retinue of staff at home also rises with our climb - more household help, drivers, nannies and so on. The fact that we don’t have to do our own work and can afford to `outsource’ work is a symbol of success and status.
No wonder then that the same set of people who were posting Instagram ‘lockdown’ pictures about the joy and satisfaction they were deriving out of being self-reliant-while cleaning and cooking at home in the absence of a maid, breathlessly welcomed the same maids back with open arms as soon as the lockdowns were slightly relaxed and the novelty had passed.
Ability: Even if one had the sustained motivation to be self-reliant, we would still need to have the complementing ability to actually do what is entailed. Ability is about how well can we do the required tasks and how capable we feel about doing it. One of the biggest reasons for relapsing back into our old habits is simply that sustaining the new habit is just too difficult! It requires building and adjusting to new routines and also building a sense of capability.
Here, we need to look at our education system and the effects of a typical middle- class Indian upbringing in a bit more detail. Our upbringing and education system is even today focused on rote learning and text bookish knowledge, leaving us mostly ill-equipped for especially manual work with our hands. According to a job assessment platform Aspiring Minds, over 80 per cent of engineers in India are unemployable due to lack of practical as well as advanced digital skills. This is also one of the reasons that the DIY culture which is so popular in the West, has never really caught on in India. Brands like Ikea have had to change their DIY-focused positioning strategy for India. In India, they need to provide a team of assemblers who will come home to assemble to assemble their essentially DIY furniture- a positioning strategy very different from IKEA overseas.
Moreover, our parenting style also tends to be overprotective and doesn’t really encourage self-reliance since childhood. In most households all the child’s needs are taken care of by parents - from dropping and picking them to school, to packing their bags, to assisting them with their homework, and this continues even when the child grows into a young adult. At some level, this upbringing contributes to India not generating enough entrepreneurs. Only 11 per cent of adult population in India is engaged in any sort of 'early-stage entrepreneurial activities', and only five per cent actually go on to establish their own business, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) by the EDI institute of Vadodara, Gujarat.
Clearly both our parenting patterns and education systems need an overhaul, if we wish to develop abilities and equip people with the right lifeskills needed for a more sustained shift towards more ‘atmanirbhar’ lives.
Processing/Physical: Physical is the impact of the environment on our behavior and how conducive it is to encourage long term behavioural change. For example, even if we were to move away from our reliance on household help and move to gadgets for performing household tasks, there are several practical challenges that we would need to overcome.
Firstly, the easy availability of cheap and efficient household labour is itself the biggest impediment to becoming self-reliant at home when we weigh the pros and cons of doing everything by ourselves. Second, our homes, infrastructure and environment is not really conducive to effective usage of many labour saving home appliances. For example one of the big challenges for dishwashers is the size, space it occupies, it’s usability for Indian cooking which tends to be oily, with usage of vessels like the kadhai or cooker which do not get cleaned thoroughly in a dishwasher. The same goes for vacuum cleaners which have not tasted success in India due to sheer dustiness of our cities and our dry+wet mopping requirements.
Social: Closely linked to the first dimension of motivations is the dimension of social and cultural norms which influence our behavior in ways that can be hard to see. India has seen a significant shift in cultural values in the post-liberalisation phase since the early 1990s. When Mahatma Gandhi pushed for swadeshi and `atmanirbharta’ in the 1940’s, societal aspirations were different. Frugality, thrift, self-discipline, control were values which were cherished and would probably have better fitted the current search for `atmanirbharta’. Since Mahatma Gandhi’s time, much water has flowed and Indian society has moved away from those thrifty values to embracing a much more Westernised and hedonistic culture of indulgence, pampering and being free spirited. Consequently the inherent conflict between ‘Atmanirbhata’ expecting us to show allegiance to Indian brands (as we are seeing in the anti-China discourse today), while internally we aspire to and yearn for international brands and experiences in every sphere of our life - from international holidays to foreign make cars to even personal care products.
In sum, while it is true that the confluence of recent developments have literally pushed middle class India into simulating some aspects of becoming self-reliant – especially during the lockdown, it will be interesting to see how many of these self-reliant behaviours sustain into even the near future. There may be some encouraging green shoots of longer term behavioural change like men acknowledging the importance of being equal partners and participating more in household chores, greater awareness and use of technology that can make us more self-reliant etc. However, in the absence of genuine long term drivers and reinforcements for sustainable behavioural change, there is always the danger of returning to old behaviours once the novelty and compulsion have both worn off.
Jeevika Kapadia is research director, Ipsos UU (Qualitative), India and Ashwini Sirsikar is country service line leader, Ipsos UU (Qualitative), India