LIZ MATHEW: What do you plan to focus on in 2018?
Our aim was to build 40 km (of road) per day. At the end of three years, we have reached 23 km per day. By next year, I feel, we will be successful in reaching the 40 km per day target. That is my priority. We have three state-of-the-art projects, of which two are complete. The first is the tunnel between Jammu and Srinagar; the second is the longest road bridge over the Brahmaputra, which was recently inaugurated by the Prime Minister; and the third is the Eastern Peripheral Expressway which will reduce pollution and traffic of Delhi by 50%. We will inaugurate it by August 15.
Strengthening inland waterways is my dream. We are also planning on making six new major ports. In the transport sector, I want to work on introducing bio-diesel, bio-CNG (vehicles). On May 25, in Nagpur, we started 200 e-taxis, e-autorickshaws, and e-buses. They are pollution-free and cost-effective.
LIZ MATHEW: At a time when the BJP is trying to expand its footprint and strengthen its organisation in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, won’t the notification banning the sale of cattle for slaughter at animal markets affect the party’s prospects in these states?
We are not against anything. The way in which the issue is being projected by the media and some people… that is not the conviction behind the idea. We want to save the animals that are medically fit. In case there is a certificate from the doctor (confirming that the animal is unfit), then it can be taken to the slaughterhouse. We are not against it. There is a need to educate people and inform them.
LIZ MATHEW: But the notification seems to have made things difficult for the ordinary people in the industry, such as butchers etc.
In every big city there are illegal slaughterhouses. What we need are scientifically tested and technically well-equipped slaughterhouses. The government is taking action only if the animals are being taken to illegal slaughterhouses.
COOMI KAPOOR: Many people say that when you were the BJP president, there was more inner democracy in the party.
We are a democratic party in the true sense. When I was the president, and even in my political career before that, I have been known as a decision maker. When I became the president of the party I had to take the advice of many people, it was a difficult task. Our party does not belong to one family, it is not a father-son, mother-son party.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Charges are being framed against your colleague Uma Bharti in the Babri demolition case. Will she be asked to step down?
Not at all. As far as this case is concerned, I don’t want to comment on the decision of the court, but these cases were politically motivated. In due course of time, people such as (Lal Krishna) Advaniji, (Murli Manohar) Joshi and Uma Bharti will get justice. We must wait till the court takes a decision. If court decides they are guilty, then that will be a different situation. But asking for the resignation of someone based on the fact that charges are being framed in a case is not justified.
ANAND MISHRA: There is a perception now that Cabinet meetings are not as interactive as they used to be. Some people also say that Nitin Gadkari is perhaps the only autonomous minister in this government. Do you feel that lack of interaction is a problem in this government?
Ministers are free to speak, there is no issue. Many times, I speak up and even oppose the opinion of the Prime Minister… After that he is the Prime Minister and has the full authority to take a decision. There is no problem, we discuss all issues. Anyone who wants to speak up must have the confidence to do so.
Sometimes in politics there is a clash between perception and reality. There may be a perception in the minds of some people that no one is talking, people are afraid etc, but that is not the reality. If people want to talk they are free to do so.
RAKESH SINHA: Why is the national highway till Raxaul (Bihar)-Birgunj (Nepal) border not complete? It is one of the busiest stretches in the region and is in a complete shambles.
Land acquisition is the responsibility of the state. In Bihar, the land acquisition rates are one of the highest, and then the state government, unlike others, is also taking a 20 per cent levy charge. We have already given the Bihar government large sums of money, so money is not the problem. The problem is that land is not available and that is why the contractor cannot complete the work.
We are trying our level best. Our (ministry’s) secretary has met the chief secretary of Bihar to discuss the land acquisition issue. I met the deputy chief minister. We have also taken a decision that without 80% of land acquisition we cannot award roads.
RAKESH SINHA: How does Nepal signing the One Belt One Road framework agreement affect India?
I can’t comment on that, but we have a very friendly relationship with Nepal. We are helping both Nepal and Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka had said that Ram had Hanuman who built the Ram Setu to Sri Lanka, and now there is Nitin Gadkari, the new Hanuman, who has come to Sri Lanka and is building roads.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: Recently, you wrote a letter to the Uttarakhand chief minister warning against the “adverse impact” of the CBI investigation into the NH 74 land acquisition scam. You said that you have to “re-examine the usefulness of taking up projects in the state”.
Land acquisition is completely under the state government, and the compensation is decided by the state authorities; it is not related to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). The amount is deposited in the account of the collector and he disburses it. We have taken the opinion of the attorney general; our officer was not involved in handing out any compensation. We have discussed the case with the chief minister (Trivendra Singh Rawat) and chief secretary. I have suggested that they verify the case with their advocate general, take his opinion and then take a call on things.
I am not in favour of any kind of corruption, neither am I supporting anyone. If an officer is involved in corruption, either in the state or Central government, there will be stern action. But if our people aren’t involved, how can they have an FIR against them; that was my concern. (In March, CM Rawat sought a CBI probe into the alleged scam and claimed that “irregularities worth Rs 240 crore have been detected in the acquisition of farmland for the purpose of the proposed NH-74.” Later, Gadkari had written to the CM saying that a probe “would have an adverse impact on the morale of the officers.”)
The CBI can begin its investigation, I am not against it.
SUNIL JAIN: By 2019, how much of road transport is expected to move to waterways?
I don’t have an estimate now. You have to understand the road history of our country. In our country we have 52 lakh km of road length, of which only 96,000 km are national highways. 40% of the traffic of the country is on 2% of the road. So, firstly, our government has decided to increase the national highway length from 96,000 to 2 lakh km. Once that is done, 80% of the traffic of the country will be on national highways.
We are taking another decision. If the traffic is more than 10,000 PCU (Passenger Car Equivalent), we will make four link roads. If the traffic is more than 20,000 PCU, then we can make six link roads. We are also planning for 13 express highways, where we expect a speed of about 125 km per hour.
There is only one black spot on my ministry since I took charge, that accidents have increased by 4%. It is a very serious issue for me. We are identifying 786 ‘black spots’ and spending Rs 11,000 crore on improving them. We are making crash barriers, solar panel traffic signals, marking systems… By the end of five years we want to save lives of at least 50% of the people.
SHOBHANA SUBRAMANIAN: You have a very ambitious Toll-Operate-Transfer (TOT) project…
Whatever I decide to do, I complete it 100%. Today my problem is not money… my problem is with the system. LIC (Life Insurance Corporation of India) can give me Rs 8,000 crore with 7.25 interest rate. But can I spend it? The system is not moving as fast as I am expecting them to. Today, I have 104 projects ready with me, I can monetise within 24 hours. (In an attempt at monetising completed stretches of public funded national highways, the Ministry of Road, Transport and Highways plans to bid them out to private investors and mobilise additional resources for constructing new highways across the country).
SHOBHANA SUBRAMANIAN: So then, what is the problem? Why are you not giving out projects in TOT mode?
There is no expenditure. I have a budget of Rs 65,000 crore, we have already taken Rs 7,000 crore from LIC, Rs 5,000 crore from the masala bond (bonds issued outside India but denominated in Indian rupees). The money is with us. The problem is that the system needs to give out more construction contracts, otherwise I have to deposit the money with the bank. The problem is I have to take the money at 7% interest and deposit it with 6% interest…
SHOBHANA SUBRAMANIAN: So then you won’t give out projects in TOT mode?
We will do it when required. When will you sell your gold? Two days before your daughter’s wedding? Why should I sell my gold if the wedding date and the groom are not fixed. My projects are like gold projects.
LIZ MATHEW: What about the implementation of GST? How do you plan on tackling the hurdles?
When our government came to power, our revenue receipt was Rs 13 lakh crore. After three years, (Arun) Jaitleyji (Finance Minister) said that our revenue receipt will be Rs 20 lakh crore. And after two years of demonetisation and GST, the economists have said the revenue receipt will be around Rs 28-30 lakh crore. So, the government’s income is rising and this is also the beginning of the digital currency. There is more transparency now… Arun Jaitleyji, the finance secretary and the GST council are working to resolve issues. Initially, there will be trouble but by and large corruption will reduce, there will be transparency and revenues will increase.
SANDEEP SINGH: What about job creation?
We have a work order worth Rs 6 lakh crore—Rs 1.5 lakh crore work in the shipping sector and Rs 4-4.5 lakh crore in the road and transport sector. When there is an investment of Rs 1 lakh crore, 10 lakh people will get direct employment. So, if we have done work worth Rs 6 lakh crore, then we will give jobs to 60 lakh crore.
My target is that by the time we complete five years, we should have directly or indirectly created five crore jobs, adding 3% to the country’s GDP. It’s a target, not a commitment.
LIZ MATHEW: You are one of the few politicians in the BJP to have relationships across party lines. What do you make of the present relationship between the government and the Opposition?
I have restricted my role now. I work in my department from 8 in the morning to midnight. Whoever comes to me, I am extremely positive and down to earth with them. Whenever an MP from any party comes, I get whatever work that should be done, done. Like when the Motor Vehicles Act came, members of all parties would greet me before speaking. Whoever has done me wrong, I have a ‘forgive and forget’ attitude towards them. When it comes to progress, one should not indulge in politics, one should help others instead. In politics, the public will vote for those they want to vote for. We must keep on working. I am different. This is how I work. I have no worries. I have never garlanded anyone, never welcomed anyone at the airport, never put up anyone’s cutout. George Fernandes is my icon. There is no bigger person than him. I saw him from quite close in Mumbai once. Such an honest, simple person.
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: A lot of young voters expected a holistically modern government from the BJP. Today, the same voters are seeing people being killed over beef. People are not being allowed to make the films they want to… What would you like to tell those young voters?
There is a difference between modernisation and Westernisation. We are all in favour of modernisation. I come from the RSS and have a modern outlook as well. But people have made an image… Once it was perceived that only those who wear tilak and a dhoti can become the BJP president. I wear jeans. There is no need to iron it and it goes on for more than four days. I was told that I cannot become a neta till I wear kurta-pyjama. I said will wear what I want to.
The BJP is modern party and even the Sangh Parivar has a modern outlook. The problem is that a section of the media and politicians have decided to denounce them. It is the agenda of some well-read people from JNU, who have Leftist leanings, they can’t bear it… If anyone says something, we are blamed, if a film is blocked, we are blamed. What is our connection with it?
An environment is being created in the country that those who want to insult Hindutva, the Sangh, the BJP… A section of media accuses us of being anti-minority, of stopping people from eating beef. We are accused of saying things we don’t say. We support research, scientific approach… We are progressive, we are not outdated. We are rashtravadi (nationalists). We say what is gold is gold, what is old is out. I am of a progressive mindset. Sometimes the perception is different from reality.
SRIJANA MITRA DAS: But you can help change the perception as well. Nobody went to meet Mohammad Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan’s families from the government’s side.
The PM made two statements. Many incidents happen that are unfortunate but you can’t blame us for everything. If someone commits a murder in Mumbai, is the FIR lodged in Delhi? Some people in our society, of Leftist ideology, I have no fear in saying this, they raise such issues.