Union minister Chaudhary Birender Singh talks about adjusting to the ‘cadre-based BJP’ and PM Modi’s ‘different approach’, elaborates on how MGNREGA has transformed under his ministry, explains why he thinks Jats deserve reservation, and claims that some of the reports of violence during Jat stir were exaggerated.
SHALINI NAIR: Earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called MGNREGA a ‘living monument of the UPA’s failures’. While there has been a gradual acknowledgement of the scheme’s significance in the government, there are complaints on the ground about work not being generated because of delay in the release of funds by the finance ministry. Do you think that has been a big constraint?
First of all, when you say that the Prime Minister said that the MGNREGA was a UPA government failure, he is absolutely right. Of course it was a good enactment, it gave an individual the right to be employed if he wanted to. But, with the passage of time, the beneficiaries began doubting the implementation procedure and lost interest. There were a lot of complaints of irregularities, delay in payments and fake job cards.
When I joined the Cabinet in November 2014, there were two opinions. One was that the labour wage-material ratio (the percentage of expenditure on each component) should be changed from 60:40 to 51:49. The second opinion was that the scheme should be limited to certain areas (instead of the existing universal coverage).
I thought that the scheme requires a big transformation in terms of plugging the loopholes and leakages. We managed to do that in five-six months. If you see the results of the last financial year, we created a record of 235 crore person days of employment. It is the highest in five years.
When the job card creation was somehow linked to Aadhaar, that was a transformation. Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory because the matter is still pending in the Supreme Court. But we managed to do it.
We have given new confidence to the beneficiaries by increasing our payment efficiency to 67%. There has been no delay on our part. If you see this year’s budget, which is Rs 38,500 crore now, we have already released more than Rs 23,000 crore. That is 57% of the total budget.
SHALINI NAIR: But the complaint is regarding budget allocation by the finance ministry. People feel that the budget is not enough, considering it is a demand-driven scheme.
But one also needs to examine the kind of demand that is being generated. It is for the state governments to find out where the demand is. In the last two months, there has been an increase in the demand (for MGNREGA jobs) by 40%. But even if it is demand-driven, we will have to manage the funds.
SHALINI NAIR: Your ministry has mooted the proposal to reserve 50% of the seats in panchayati raj institutions for women. At the same time, the NDA government has been silent on the women’s reservation Bill.
These are different issues. The difference lies in the fact that representatives in panchayati raj are in charge of execution while the main job of MPs is to legislate. When it comes to execution, they have a different target. Those in panchayati raj institutions are representatives of the public and so we thought that women should also participate according to their strength.
MPs form the legislative body. Their main job is to legislate. When it comes to execution, they have a different target.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: What in your opinion happened during the Jat agitation in Haryana?
When you see the peasantry of Andhra Pradesh or Gujarat, there were certain communities such as the Patels in Gujarat… About 150 years ago, when there was migration out of Gujarat, businessmen were the first to leave. There was a space created and the peasantry, the Patels, they took over businesses. The situation is similar in Andhra Pradesh.
There is a similar space in Haryana. Getting a job is the primary goal because of the fragmentation of the land holdings. Jats are basically farmers and when they realised that everybody cannot be a part of DLF or Indiabulls, they began asking questions… My stand is also the same.
Gujjars and Yadavs have been given reservation. Jats, Gujjars and Yadavs have the same background, social and economic status. People feel that Jats are much ahead of Gujjars and Yadavs, but that is not true. We constitute less than 2%of the population, but in Parliament our number is about 23. This gives the wrong impression that we are well placed compared to the Yadavs and Gujjars.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: During the Jat agitation it appeared that there was no government in the state, there was complete lawlessness.
The Prakash Singh committee report (the committee was appointed by the Haryana government to probe the alleged administrative and police failures during the Jat agitation in February that claimed 30 lives) mentions that the agitation was not handled by the administration the way it should have been. The committee holds around four-five dozen policemen and other officers responsible for it.
On the other hand, certain things were blown out of proportion. If you see the number of casualties… I admit there was huge loss of property in one or two towns such as Rohtak, but there were no caste clashes.
And when there was a call to withdraw the agitation, within six hours, 80%of the agitators withdrew. But certainly, there were some genuine grievances because the community felt that they had reached a dead end.
SHALINI NAIR: You had said earlier that the Prakash Singh report was not binding on the Haryana government. Do you still hold that view?
The Prakash Singh committee report was not under any statute. The committee was formed to get some facts/data about the agitation, that is all.
AVISHEK DASTIDAR: There is an online rating of ministers going on at mygov.in, where you are not one of the top-rated ministers. Why is that and how do you view such ratings?
I don’t want to elaborate on that because there are so many factors involved, and it all depends on who is savvy. The best way to judge something is with bare eyes.
We are a ministry where everything is handed to the states, and they are the only executing agency. We believe whatever they tell us. I appointed 21 of my officers to at least get a sample survey done because they can’t see everything with their own eyes.
SHEELA BHATT: You have been with the Congress and now you are a part of the BJP-led NDA government. Many believe that there isn’t much difference between the UPA and NDA governments. What do you think?
In my one-and-half years as Cabinet minister, I have realised that Prime Minister Modi has a different approach. Modiji is a man who doesn’t work according to what is prescribed. He does things in a different way. He picks up certain things, which may not be important for any of the ministries, but he pinpoints them and says it can be sorted out like this. That is where I find the difference in working, and eventually the bureaucracy also falls in line (with the PM’s plans). That is the basic difference.
My political career spans over 44 years, and I have been with the Congress for a majority of these years. In the last five years (of UPA II), the Congress was a silent spectator to the loot of this country.
I, being very close to the Congress president (Sonia Gandhi), had been telling her repeatedly that there must be some control. She may have had the intention… but things didn’t happen.
COOMI KAPOOR: Did you find it hard to adjust in the BJP? They must have a very different style of functioning.
Yes there is (a different style). Adjusting depends on whether you want to stick to certain things which have become part of your life, not only as a politician but also things that have become a habit. But if you want to adjust to a new atmosphere and environment, you can do it. My conviction works in my favour.
COOMI KAPOOR: But what is the difference in culture?
You know that the BJP is a cadre-based party and the Congress is a movement, so there is a vast difference. Here (in the BJP) what I have seen is that a worker is more important than some of the big leaders. That is the basic difference. In the Congress, workers may not be that important.
Mere ko kayi baar bol dete hain ki ye jo sadhu mahatma hain, aise gyaan de dete hain, sadhvi aisa bol deti hai (I am asked about statements made by some saints/sadhvis). I do not react to that. I just tell them (the people who ask the questions) that this is how they have been brought up. I have been brought up in a different atmosphere and environment and my thinking is different.
SHEELA BHATT: Your government has been accused of using the alleged Robert Vadra land deals in Haryana to target the Congress. Two years have passed but nothing has come of those allegations. There is a commission but its report has not been completed.
Two years is a very short time in our judicial system. I don’t want to say anything about Vadra. Just because he is the son-in-law of the Congress president, should all the focus be on him? No. Every deal is important and needs to be probed. That is my stand. I don’t give any credence to those who only talk about Vadra. Vadra’s case is there, but this one deal is not going to settle everything.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: There is a perception about this government that the PM speaks directly to the bureaucracy, bypassing the minister in between.
One must learn from everywhere and should get everyone’s views. It is not bad at all… if you understand that certain bureaucrats can reveal certain things. The (NDA) ministers are the best of the lot as far as thoughts are concerned. To give shape to the thought one has to depend on bureaucracy. But you should be clever and intelligent enough… your perception should not be diluted by the bureaucracy. That is most important for an efficient minister.
I have a lot of things on my mind. But my thoughts need to be translated by the bureaucracy into a policy, flagship programme or a central sponsored scheme. That shows my competency.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: But how much are the ministers taken into confidence by the Prime Minister? Like, were you aware that ministers were going to be rated on mygov.in?
This is not a rating of the government. (The ratings) have been gathered from different surveys, different agencies, lot of people with lot of knowledge and expertise of certain things. It has been done in a very specific way.
AVISHEK DASTIDAR: How much do you believe in the credibility of these ratings?
I don’t believe in it. It may be a scientific survey but it can’t read a person’s mind.
SHALINI NAIR: The post of rural development secretary has been lying vacant since January after the retirement of JK Mohapatra. Why has an appointment not been made?
It has not been many months. The panchayat secretary has got additional charge of the post, because both the ministries are with me. So, it has not been that difficult for me, I haven’t felt that there is a dire need for a rural development secretary.
But I must say one thing, there should not be frequent change of officers, unless there are extraordinary reasons. Two of my joint secretaries, who are handling the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana and MGNREGA, they know every detail about the work that is being done. It is necessary for the efficient functioning of the ministry.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: The Jat agitation, it appeared, stemmed from the failure of both community and political leaders in Haryana to help their people embrace education and get out of agriculture in time. Do you think reservation is the solution to the community’s problems?
No, reservation is not the solution, but is a way to move ahead. The avenues are not limited, there are many avenues which the community has not explored. This is why they feel ‘What do we do now?’. The Jats see that the Gujjars are getting reservation… and socially we are on the same footing; and so they feel that they should be getting it too. I have been explaining to the authorities that we (Jats) constitute 1.76% of the total population of this country. If we are put in the ninth schedule, it is not going to make much noise. (The Haryana Jat quota Bill was passed in the Assembly in March 2016. The state government has requested the Centre to include the Act in the 9th Schedule, to give it immunity from judicial review.)
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: The Jat reservation issue in Haryana is bound to have political implications for the BJP in the state. The agitation seems to have divided the society on caste lines.
When the Jat agitation was on, I visited about 20 villages. I specifically asked the people what was going on. The general reply was: ‘Sahaab kuchh nahin hai, hum to waise hi hain jaise bhai rehte hain (There is no impact of the agitation, we live with each other as brothers)’. But yes, those who have politics on their mind will try to cash in on the situation. That is unfortunate.
SHALINI NAIR: Both Rajasthan and Haryana governments have this new rule about minimum educational qualifications for contesting panchayat elections. This has resulted in the exclusion of many women, minorities and Dalits from the process.
No, no, that is not the case. My concern about my state is that we still need quality education. We must come to a level where we can compete, and fair competition can only come from quality education. There are 7,000-odd panchayats and 1,000 panchayat members could not get elected from certain parts because the candidates were not eligible.
People of Haryana are aware that education is a must for their children and they are trying to provide their children with the best education. But unfortunately some areas such as Mewat, where the minority concentration is about 80-85%… they still need to improve. With time, things will change.
Transcribed by Pallavi Chattopadhyay & Pooja Khati