RAVISH TIWARI: What is your assessment of the current economic slowdown?
I don’t think there is any reason to worry. It is a temporary slip. This has been the case across the world wherever GST has been implemented. What India has embarked on, in terms of the GST, is unparalleled in the annals of world history — a country of 1.25 billion people, where the number of traders and manufacturers, both big and small, runs into crores. We are trying to address complicated issues in an economy which still has a lot of inequality, is still relatively young and continues to be centred around public service. We are a country where one person can afford a Bentley and a BMW, and another can’t even afford a rubber chappal. In such a complex situation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, finance minister Arun Jaitley, and even politicians from other parties — this is a shared achievement of almost the entire political establishment — all have unanimously come up with a process, a format, rates, and implemented things in a defined time frame.
We are also willing to evolve as we go along, learn from experience, improve the process and, wherever required, even address concerns of rate fixation. Certainly, some issues have cropped up and these will continue to be addressed. When such a massive decision is made, there are bound to be some transitional issues which, I think, India has been able to surmount much faster than any other country. And in this quarter, the reports, as they come out, will start showing an uptick in the economy. I have absolutely no hesitation in predicting an 8% growth next year, and possibly higher in the year after.
RAVISH TIWARI: What gives you hope for 8% growth next year?
It is not about hope, it’s conviction. Also, I am very clear about our direction. When this government came to power, we had two paths before us. One was to prepare the nation and work for the prosperity of the people in the short term. It is similar to what happened in 2008-09, when the mid-term budgets were revised. When the 2008 collapse happened worldwide, India took the soft option of just quickly letting the fiscal deficit slide. Money was used to indiscriminately show growth in the short run. But it cost the country five-six years of wasted opportunity.
So, in 2008-09, the (growth) numbers were maintained, but from 2010-11, a lack of performance was visible and the economy started collapsing. Fiscal deficits went up through the roof, current account deficits were crazy, double-digit inflation, nominal growth started falling and interest rates were skyrocketing. In every respect, we inherited an economic legacy which was used to short-term band-aid solutions, there was never a long-term vision. Our government decided to prepare India, not for a four-five storey building, but for a skyscraper. Something like what China did from 1979 to 1984. They prepared an entire framework, which from 1984 onwards gave them three decades of unparalleled growth, progress and development. So, what we are now doing is to prepare India for decades of prosperity.
Nobody wants to invest in a country where there is flip-flop in policy and no stable policy framework. Nobody wants to invest in a country where corruption is reigning supreme, and after putting in money, your 2G licence is cancelled… and international investors lose billions of dollars that were honestly invested.The entire government is focused on system improvement, policy improvement and honest governance with highest levels of integrity. There is no favouritism.
COOMI KAPOOR: Questions have been raised about the railway ministry’s decision to spend large sums of money on the bullet train, at a time when the antiquated sector needs funds to implement safety measures. How do you justify that?
What is it that makes the railway system antiquated? It is the mindset of the people who are opposing the bullet train that has kept India backward. Whoever suggested there is shortage of funds for safety? There are sufficient funds, there is no shortage. We are investing `1.35 lakh crore this year in the Railways. Whatever measures are needed for safety, these will be implemented on a war footing. The last modern train technology that came to India was the Rajdhani; that was in 1969. Even then a number of people opposed it. Even the chairman of the railway board opposed it; such things keep India backward.Shinkansen (bullet train) technology was introduced in Japan 53 years ago. So as it is, we are already 53 years late in India. By the time it is set up, it will be 58 years. So it’s a shame that the political leadership, the officials and, I would say, even the thinking class of India, which includes the media, have forced the country to remain deprived.
We’ve got the money (to set up bullet trains) at a never before rate, at 1% . Never before have we got a 50-year loan with a 15-year return. We have ensured that we have technology transfer, Make In India will be promoted through this, and this is just the first railway line. The idea is to create a golden quadrilateral, like it was done for highways in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regime. Our focus is to bring this (bullet train) technology and create millions of jobs in India, both direct and indirect.
LIZ MATHEW: In the past one-two years, the Shiv Sena has been very vocal in its criticism of the BJP in Maharashtra. But recently, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said that the BJP is willing to have an alliance with the Shiv Sena in the next polls. Is the party worried about its poll prospects?
It is a matter of record that we did not get an absolute majority in Maharashtra, and so we needed somebody. We were the single largest party and we made this alliance (with the Shiv Sena). They have come into the alliance voluntarily, we had not taken them into the government when we started. They came in voluntarily and they have to choose the path they wish to follow. As far as we are concerned, we are running a good government in Maharashtra. The people of Maharashtra are happy.
LIZ MATHEW: But Fadnavis has mentioned a pre-poll alliance before the next elections.
See, as things evolve, they (the Shiv Sena) have to take a call on whether they want to ally with us; they will have to take a decision based on our manifesto and work. We have fought the gram panchayat and zila parishad elections separately. Our results were over 50% . The Shiv Sena barely got 10 to 12% . So, the people’s verdict is the final verdict. We even fought the last Vidhan Sabha elections alone, and you saw the results.
RAVISH TIWARI: There was a time when the BJP and Shiv Sena were natural allies. Now, however, that does not seem to be the case.
You should ask them about it. The Shiv Sena has to decide what its strategy is. I’m sitting in Delhi, I really don’t know what’s in the Shiv Sena’s mind. But the good part is that we are a very responsive government, and we don’t mind anybody, both within the party and outside, making comments, because we learn from it. We are open to all sorts of different opinions because we believe that the vibrant Indian democracy succeeds on its back.
RAVISH TIWARI: Recently, The Indian Express conducted an investigation on the damage caused by the transport of coal from the Mormugao Port in Goa. Is the government planning to take any action?
Certainly. We are looking into it. I take all of these reports… and I read them every morning. I take cognisance of that. (The Minister later told the Express that the Railways has started exploring a design change in its rolling stock to see if coal and other minerals can be carried in covered wagons instead of open ones to prevent coal dust from flying into the environment and also to expand the use of wagons.)
ANIL SASI: What was the thought process behind the decision to deploy the Army for constructing the foot over bridge at Elphinstone station in Mumbai? Also, is it in some ways a tacit admission that railway engineers couldn’t have done the job within the stipulated time?
Everybody knows that government processes entail a budget sanction, and then a designing and tendering process takes place. When a tendered contractor comes in, he will take his time to implement the project. Railways is a 24X7 activity and in Mumbai, there are barely two-four hours for work in the night. In this time you have to create infrastructure to serve eight million passengers every day; it has to be safe, secure, it has to be maintained and there have to be facilities as well. All this has to be created at night, not even in the day. Now, the Railways doesn’t have any workers or any contracting civil team. All of this is tendered out and contractors come in and work. They need equipment of a certain level to carry out the task in such a boxed-in space.
In such a situation, with no contract workers of our own and no implementing agency, I can at best tender it out, and then push the contractors to do things in two hours. For me, the safety of Mumbaikars is of paramount importance. I will not leave any stone unturned because I have also travelled on those tracks for eight years.
Some people may choose to criticise me for that (decision to deploy the Army), but for me it was important to get things going on mission mode. On September 29 and 30, on both days, we sat without a break. We got multidimensional teams to study every suburban station. We must have taken over a hundred policy decisions in those two days.
These decisions will impact all of India, not just Mumbai. We got the whole railway board there on September 30, which took decisions on the spot; no waiting for the bureaucracy. On October 6, Ashish Shelar, the Mumbai BJP president, met me and Nirmala Sitharaman (the defence minister) and gave the suggestion (to deploy the Army to construct the bridge). That is just what I was looking for. We got cracking and sent military teams to assess things on the ground. It is the only organisation in India which has its own workforce, which can work in extreme circumstances — late in the night, only for two hours each night — and still perform. I don’t think anyone in the world can do this in three months. I can give them the work without a tender. They have their own men. They have design engineers who are top-class, better than the best in the world and they have equipment which no other organisation has.
The Army has served India honorably, both on the borders and in civic calamities… whether it was recently for relief work during floods in Bihar and Assam. They also helped during the Commonwealth Games. Someone could have raised questions even then as to why it was important to bring in the Army then. The Commonwealth Games would’ve served how many people? Not even a million. Here I am serving 8 million passengers, day in and day out. Their safety is my prime concern.
RAVISH TIWARI: It has been a year since demonetisation. How do you look at it now?
Prime Minister Modi, from the day he has come into power, he has had a relentless agenda to attack black money and end corruption, and he has pursued it without fear or favour. Whether it was the SIT, which he formed at the first Cabinet meeting (after taking charge in 2014), to coming up with a roadmap to tackle the menace of black money…
Why, for 28 years, did no government notify the Benami act? Was it to protect certain people?
No action was taken against lakhs of shell companies for so many years. It’s not like you and I didn’t know about it. A government which has the ability to take strong decisions, which has the ability to take decisions which are uncomfortable for a lot of people… that is what PM Modi has offered people. And that is why people across the length and breadth of India have continued to give him their blessings. After all, in Uttar Pradesh, all of you (the media) had written us off. And at the time, we formed governments in four of the five states that went to polls. You may say it was an initial rush of excitement, but then in election after election… Common man is happy with this government. A few people who probably took a hit because of demonetisation are yet to get over it. They are making tall claims and statements on television. But people’s verdict will continue to show till we achieve what Amit Shahji, our national president has said — a corruption-mukt Bharat and a Congress-mukt Bharat.
RAVISH TIWARI: What are some of the economic dividends of demonetisation?
Money which had never seen banks’ doors has finally come into the system. Now, data mining is being conducted. It will trace where the money came from, who owns it. They will all be held accountable. That money will now be taxed. Earlier, it (the money) could be used for terrorist activities, for left-wing extremism. Maximum number of left-wing extremists and terrorists have surrendered in the last one year. We have got figures from Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand governments — the complete backbone of extremism has been broken after demonetisation.
Banks have received funds which will now serve the people of India. I don’t know how many lakhs of people have got Mudra loans out of that money at low costs, and have come out the clutches of moneylenders. Look at the number of people who have now come into the formal economy. The number of people filing income tax has shot up drastically. It is now being recognised worldwide that India is becoming an honest country, a country where you should invest. In some sense, India is leading the global revival, both of the economy and of the fight against corruption, the fight against climate change. The world is recognising our leadership.
RAVISH TIWARI: Questions were raised when you defended Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah, a private citizen, following a report on a news portal?
I was not defending anybody. I was an angry man that day. I was angry because everyone knows why this case was sensationalised and what the facts were and the completely malicious, damaging innuendos that were projected in that report. Secondly, I was angry because a young man, who is an engineer from NIRMA University, a prestigious university in Gujarat, is making a career of his own, and you are going after an entrepreneur and his business. If you look at it, any company, in its first year, the revenue would skyrocket. The kind of innuendos that were made in the article only to try and sensationalise facts… Now the courts will look into the matter.
AVISHEK DASTIDAR: What is your assessment of the railway ministry?
This ministry will not remain the same anymore. There is a lot happening and we are picking up pace as the days go by. I am not saying this out of arrogance, but this is the need of the hour and I am excited about the opportunity. It has tremendous potential to serve the poorest of the poor, which is why I am in the public life in the first place. If we can change the mindset of the 13 lakh people working in the Railways, they can move mountains. The challenges are immense but each challenge provides a huge opportunity and I am confident that as the days pass, you will see a new Indian Railways in line with the new India that we are working on. By 2022, you will see a new face of the Indian Railways, serving each and every passenger with the best of things, highest level of safety, and more and more comfort.