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Aatma Nirbhar Bharat- Traversing the path of Circular Economy

Aatma Nirbhar has recently become the buzzword in the lingo of many Indians. Interestingly, it is not a new concept to us, self-sufficiency or self-reliance has been the objective behind our economic policies since independence. As we closely deliberate on the self-reliance adage, it would be interesting to see how it could possibly lead to a circular economy (CE).

The term received much wider acclaim after Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted it during one of his recent Covid-19 addresses to the nation. As we closely deliberate on the self-reliance adage, it would be interesting to see how it could possibly lead to a circular economy (CE). You may be wondering, “Yet another convoluted concept, sigh!”. Don’t get disheartened so soon, Circular Economy is going to transform the way we look at growth. Let us unravel this intriguing connect between Circular Economy and Aatma Nirbhar for you.

The idea of ‘Aatma Nirbhar Bharat’ or a Self-Reliant India- constitutes five pillars. These are Economy, Infrastructure, System, Demography and Demand. The Aatma Nirbhar Bharat is realised when we have attained self-reliance in terms of all these pillars be it domestic production, infrastructure development or utilization of the workforce. With a per capita monthly income of ₹11,254, forty million living in poverty, declining growth and a post COVID society with looming threats of unemployment, India cannot overlook resilience and inclusivity while devising recovery plans. As we envisage a growth path merging robust economy, modern infrastructure, strong domestic demand, better livelihood opportunities and technological resurgence, Circular Economy (CE) could be the new paradigm offering a solution.

Circular Economy can herald a pathway strengthening domestic production with resources from the region, conscientious domestic consumption, value creation, responsible investments and prudent post-use management of goods.

Circular Economy is a regenerative economy where resources are in constant circulation. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, ‘a circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems”. At a city or regional level, CE deals with closing the loop of resources, nevertheless, at a national level, it can define frameworks for policies, strategies and their execution. CE can herald a pathway strengthening domestic production with resources from the region, conscientious domestic consumption, value creation, responsible investments and prudent post-use management of goods. Closed-loop models obliterate waste and shifts away from take-make-dispose systems where we face value erosion at several levels of production and consumption. The post-COVID society will further witness significant upheaval of local economies and technology penetration. With nations taking time to fall back to the pre-COVID level of global trade and resource transfers, a circular economy model offers a good framework for the path towards self-reliance in the coming years.

Economic growth and sustainability are often seen as dichotomous and this leads to a lot of resource conflicts. India already faces tremendous resource conflicts and stresses. According to global resource outlook 2019, ‘24 per cent of the global water stress impacts, 8 per cent of climate change impacts, 7 per cent of PM health impacts and 7 per cent of land use biodiversity impacts arise in India, but only 4 per cent of the resource-related value added is generated in India’. CE upholding growth, resilience and self-sustaining systems is hence offering a new economic paradigm. From production to waste disposal, a self-reliant economy shall have its own resources, processes and labour for meeting its needs. It doesn’t herald a closed economy, nevertheless, it calls for strong domestic creation, vibrant local markets and consumption. CE demonstrates a circular system where resources and value are in constant circulation. It highlights a model where diverse types of capital are managed in a systematic way avoiding any leakages. With available resources, we are trying to create maximum and consistent value in a circular ecosystem. The bond between the circular economy and ‘Aatma Nirbhar’ gets stronger at this juncture. Aatma Nirbhar is elevating CE to a more renowned platform inclusive of our administrative frameworks, production systems, households and markets.

The Circularity Gap Report 2020 shows that the world is currently only 8.6 % circular. When we move more towards circularity, we are transgressing the planetary boundaries less. Nevertheless, we have a long way to tread to achieve circularity and there are few factors imperative to achieving a self-reliant circular economy. These include maximising value for our resources, efficient resource utilization, and redesigning processes and policies. We put forth a RESPIRE model for achieving a self-reliant and circular model for post- COVID India. The RESPIRE intends to let the society breathe, recover and respond to the impacts of the pandemic in the post-COVID world.

This involves:

R- Regenerate: Regenerate the health of ecosystems and natural resources, use renewables, reduce fossil fuels, let nature regenerate

E- Evaluate: Evaluate our resource use, enumerate the processes and products, data to our rescue for smart solutions

S- Share: Resuscitate the sharing economy with post-Covid precautions

P- Preserve: Preserve our traditional solutions ingrained in sustainability, preserve our biological ecosystems

I- Invent: Invent solutions befitting a sustainable post-Covid knowledge society

R-Recover: Recover resources, promote resource upcycling

E- Evolve: Let our processes and products evolve, redesign and reprocess

RESPIRE can strengthen the five pillars of Self Reliance. The Regenerate principle is closely associated with prudent resource use in the economy- be it reducing fossil fuels or letting our renewable resources recover from the anthropogenic damages. Evaluate emphasises the need for accurate and precise data systems and data-centric solutions for enhancing our economic growth, employment and resource utilisation. Share principle revolves around new shared economy models in a post-COVID world. We may not be able to see Uber or Airbnb as we saw it before. The post-COVID world needs new shared economy models with advanced health and safety measures while sustaining demand as well as jobs. Preserve rests on the strength of our traditions and value systems. These can help build a self-reliant growth framework where no citizens are discriminated against. It also alludes to preserving our nature, ecosystems etc. while embracing growth. Invent highlights the significance of developing smart systems and infrastructure. Additionally, it involves inventing ways to harness the power of our young demography. If not tapped successfully and in time, it will be a bane rather than a boon. Recover principle stresses on recovering resources and ensuring self-sufficiency with our available resource pool. Finally, Evolve envisages an evolution towards new processes and products to spur the domestic production and demand while adhering to sustainable growth.

There is no more perfect time than now to imbibe the principles of CE into our lives. Considering the behavioural changes that we are adopting, be it working from home, limited dependence on household helps, avoidance of commuter traffic or making maximum use of the available resources in our kitchens, we are inadvertently embracing circularity through our actions. CE is no more stuck in transnational policy discourses or company boardrooms; it is amidst us and it is high time we integrate it to our mainstream economic decisions. As we all are eagerly awaiting a panacea for the Covid-19, in the form of a vaccine, CE is illustrating us a platform to attain the goals of self-reliance. It is not a cure-all solution but offers a new economic paradigm for sustainable economies. We must inculcate it in our governments, markets and households and tread a step closer to Aatma Nirbharata. The self-reliance we envision must be inclusive, equitable and future proof. It will turn out to be an empty promise if we jump on the old development bandwagon where the environment takes a backseat. The way forward should be a framework where circular economy principles and self-reliance go hand in hand. We shall achieve a circular and self-reliant economy when greed gives way to integrity.

About the authors

Jessica Bernard works with Sustainability and Business Responsibility team of Grant Thornton India. She is an Urban Economist based in Mumbai with experience in public sector advisory and environmental consulting. 


Piyush Dhawan is the Cofounder of the Circular Collective was awarded the prestigious German Chancellor Fellowship last year to work on the topic of Circular Economy. He has for the past decade been working with Bilaterals and Multilaterals on a range of topics including business and biodiversity, Vision 2030 for Haryana and Future of Indian Cities.   

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