PM Narendra Modi’s clarion call for self-reliance and his appeal to Indian consumers to buy local products added punch to the prevailing anti-China sentiments due to Beijing’s role in allegedly ‘aiding’ the global spread of COVID-19. Buttressed by transport minister Nitin Gadkari’s blunt public criticism of China, the PM’s call added ammunition to the arsenal of the right-wing opposed to large-scale imports of low-cost Chinese goods. Fresh policies and bold reforms indicate India’s ambitious plan to replace Chinese goods with Indian ones. In 2019, India imported almost $75 billion worth of goods and services from China, ranging from firecrackers and cheap idols of Hindu gods to hi-tech telecom equipment, besides the role of Chinese firms in the construction of mega infrastructure projects. A case in point is electrical equipment used in the power sector. Government agencies, including state-owned power utilities, consume 95 per cent of the imported equipment. China accounts for 30 per cent of the total imports
“China sells substandard and poor quality products due to India’s outdated public procurement system,” claims Sunil Misra, director general, Indian Electrical and Electronics Manufacturers Association (IEEMA). Experts contend that imports have rendered 40 per cent of the Indian capacity redundant. It was thus an opportune time for the government to intervene, and for the PM to urge people to buy local products. Many feel this is do-able in the current circumstances. “Import substitution is possible with the right policy and infrastructure support in the engineering and electronic segment, besides consumer durables,” says Anil Bhardwaj, secretary general, Federation of Indian Micro and Small & Medium Enterprises. Mohammed Saqib, secretary general, India-China Economic and Cultural Council, adds: “There are low-hanging fruits that Indian businesses can grab in the short term.” Saqib says imports of idols of Hindu gods, candles, toys, small household goods etc—valued at $15-20 billion a year—can be easily replaced by local goods.