As the country eased out of multiple lockdowns last year, the Minister was at centre of the govt’s revival plans to breathe life into the economy. He is among the most senior members of the Cabinet and one of the BJP’s key strategists.
The Union Minister talks about measures to boost electric vehicle production, assures govt support to lockdown-battered MSME sector, says the govt has taken several steps for benefit of farmers, and lays out details of a multi-modal hub in Nagpur. The session was moderated by Senior Assistant Editor Avishek G Dastidar
NITIN GADKARI: The most important development for the country is infrastructure development… In my office in Delhi, we have put up a statement by former American President John F Kennedy: ‘American roads are not good because America is rich. But America is rich because American roads are good.’ Prosperity comes from roads. India has a huge potential for infrastructure development. We have the potential of making at least 300 airports. We have already completed 100 new airports. We can launch seaplanes. The service is already available in Gujarat at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel statue (Statue of Unity in Kevadia in Narmada district) … And, we can convert our rivers, lakes and dams into water ports. This is going to encourage tourism, and will go on to provide employment….
ANANT GOENKA: When will India see large-scale production of electric vehicles (EVs)?
Already a lot of people, small companies are making e-bikes and e-scooters in Uttar Pradesh and other states in India. The crucial problem with EVs is the lithium-ion battery. Now, we are encouraging people to make in India and ‘Made in India’. The important thing is that a lot of research is going on to make aluminium-ion (batteries) and other new alternatives. I am confident that in some time we will get a lot of new alternatives, and soon EVs will be the future of the country.
Already there is a lot of sale of electric buses, like in Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur etc. They are there at airports too. Even an electric tractor is now in the process of being manufactured. One of the leading companies wants to launch an electric truck. Just 20 days ago, I launched a JCB on CNG. So, a lot of change is going on and we are a hundred per cent certain that it will be a very cost-effective import substitute, and will also be pollution-free and indigenous. We are already in the process of making (vehicle) scrapping policy. With the scrapping policy, I am confident that in the next five years India will be the number one manufacturing hub in the world.
Tesla is preparing to start operations in India by early 2021. I am sure that there are a lot of EVs which are equal to Tesla from the technology point of view. Indian manufacturers are doing a lot of research and changes. In due course, you will get electric cars which will be equal to Tesla. I am confident of that, and the cost will be very less too.
ANANT GOENKA: Lithium-ion is mostly being imported from China. Is that a concern?
Yes, there are some problems related to lithium-ion. Argentina has got huge reserves of lithium-ion. Indian players are also trying to get lithium-ion from across the world. But it is also true that the Chinese have already picked up stakes in a majority of the lithium-ion mines… But our research arm is fully competent. Take for example ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), which is using different types of batteries to send satellites. Research is going on and our people are competent and we will get the solution for that.
Sodium-ion batteries are also in the process of being made. The research is in the final stages. I am very confident about our IITs and engineers. We will get success in this field. The sodium-ion batteries are very cheap… We will be the number one manufacturers of electric bikes, scooters, tractors, trucks, and even electric construction equipment in due course.
AMITABH SINHA: While the infrastructure in India — roads, railways, Metro etc — has improved in the last three decades, we are among the last countries to have developed these. Are we now building infrastructure that is futuristic?
It is true that our railway stations are not of a global standard. But we are building a multi-modal station worth Rs 1,200 crore in Nagpur. It has been designed by an American architect. It will be among the five best railway stations in the world. So, things have begun to happen slowly.
The cost of building the Metro in Nagpur, Pune and Delhi is Rs 350 crore per kilometre. The one that I have proposed costs Rs 5 crore per kilometre (the Nagpur broad gauge Metro) … Using the existing railway stations, lines and signals, the broad-gauge, six-coach Metro will run at a speed of 160 km per hour. We have already got the permission… Of the six coaches, three will have motors, and will cost Rs 8 crore. The coaches without a motor will cost Rs 4 crore. There will be an additional coach for carrying luggage. While a luxury bus from Nagpur to Amravati takes about two-and-a-half hours, this Metro will reach in one hour and 15 minutes… It will be air-conditioned and will also have business and economy classes. It will be of a global standard. So, it’s not that the standard in India is not good…
I have prepared a new model for this project. I am holding a meeting with the Vidarbha Industries Association and the Metro team in a few days. I have also invited travel and tourism companies for the meeting. One Metro will cost Rs 36 crore. These private companies can buy one or two Metros. The Nagpur Metro will provide the driver… If this service becomes popular, people will stop using the road. This is Nagpur’s first public-private investment. The system will use the country’s existing broad gauge, and the capital cost will also be less. So, we are doing things which are of an international standard, and some of these projects are also being done for the first time in the world.
AVISHEK G DASTIDAR: Farmers have been holding protests at Delhi’s borders for over a month now. How do you think the government can resolve their issues?
Firstly, at one point we had a shortage of foodgrains in the country. Then, after the Green Revolution, we now have surplus rice. Prior to 2020’s production, we had about 280 lakh tonnes of rice in our godowns. We can give rice to the entire world. In case of corn, the MSP is Rs 1,700, when the market price is about Rs 1,100. Last year, we exported 60 lakh tonnes of sugar, providing a subsidy of Rs 600 crore. Why is it that the cost of sugar in the international market is Rs 22 per kg but we are paying Rs 34 per kg for sugarcane? Our MSP is more than the international and market prices, and that is the problem.
I have been talking about ethanol for the last 12 years. But the permission to convert foodgrains (to fuel) was not granted. We import fuel worth Rs 8 lakh crore. We can make 480 litres of ethanol from 1 tonne of rice. From 1 tonne of corn, we can make 380 litres of ethanol. The economy of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh will be transformed. And, instead of making sugar, we could make ethanol from sugarcane juice and molasses… As Transport Minister, I have launched scooters and bikes of Bajaj and TVS which run on ethanol… A lot of products are made from ethanol including bio-plastic (which is biodegradable). Ethanol is a green fuel… If we can build this economy, our farmers can earn more. It could help in reducing import (of fuel) by Rs 2 lakh crore, and pollution will also reduce. And, Rs 1 lakh crore will go to farmers… The root cause of the problem is surplus foodgrains and higher MSP than the market price.
At a pharmacy, the shopkeeper decides the price (of the products). The price of an advertisement in the newspaper is decided by the newspaper. The cost of food in a restaurant is decided by the restaurant… The airline companies and the railways decide the price of their tickets. Then why should farmers not decide the price (of their produce)? Farmers should be able to sell anywhere they want, wherever they get more money. We have not closed down any APMC.
Another important aspect is contract farming. About 10,000 farmers in the Vidarbha region don’t have capital and their land is lying barren. This is compelling them to commit suicide. If a third person tills the land, buys the seed and fertiliser, and then shares the profit, or leases the land, the farmer still gets some money… When we ride a taxi for half an hour, do we become its owner? In contract farming, no change is going to be made in the revenue record. So, the farm laws are not against farmers… We have to understand the problems faced by farmers… The government has no place to store foodgrains. Diversification of agriculture towards the energy and power sector, changing the crop pattern, increasing production of edible oils is necessary for the country.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: During certain months in the year, there is not enough water in the waterway from Varanasi to Haldia (in West Bengal). It’s a concern for ships. How do you plan to resolve this for making waterways?
…For rivers which don’t have water in March and April, we are working on water conservation projects. Such work has been done in Maharashtra. We are ensuring waterways only on two rivers, which will have water round the year… Apart from this, it is also important to develop port-related infrastructure such as godowns, cold storage facilities, railway line connectivity. Now we can send mangoes from Uttar Pradesh to the Northeast. The fly ash in Farakka (West Bengal) is exported to Bangladesh in large quantities. The aim is to develop the trade business and increase connectivity….
In the case of seaplanes, we are looking for investors. A few of them are approaching us… SpiceJet is interested in taking about 100 seaplanes.
SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: Do you think it was right to cancel the Winter Session of Parliament?
In the previous session, a few members got Covid-19, including me. So, I think it had to be postponed. Delhi has pollution as well as Covid-19. Although I am keeping well, I am afraid of Delhi pollution… In such a situation, while a Parliament session is important for democracy… We have also lost a few ministerial colleagues. Till a vaccine is out, we should be careful.
TABASSUM BARNAGARWALA: Overcrowding has been a problem on Mumbai’s local trains. Has the ongoing pandemic led to any discussion on the need for more local trains in Mumbai to ensure social distancing?
My personal view is that we must continue all services with preventive measures. We shut down shops, restaurants… On the one hand it was necessary to ensure social distancing, but now as the Minister for Minister of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME), I understand how people lost their livelihoods in the process. We now need to understand the art of living with Covid-19 — wearing masks and face shields, using sanitiser, washing hands, ensuring one metre distance from other people, sitting apart at restaurants. We need to understand these things and move forward. Shutting things down has many disadvantages.
In Mumbai, we can decide how many people will get on a train. We have good technology now, and numbers can be restricted. But everything needs to start, whether it is trains or buses, and at the same time we need to protect ourselves and others. People such as tea stall owners, barbers, gym instructors, all lost their source of income. Their livelihood is as important as taking precautions for Covid-19. I conducted 280 conferences and met 80 crore people. I learnt that the hotel industry employs 1.4 crore people as chefs and waiters. Over one crore people work in beauty parlours and hair salons. We need to protect their jobs too.
SANDEEP SINGH: To help lockdown-battered MSMEs get back on their feet, the government launched the over Rs 3 lakh crore emergency credit line guarantee scheme (ECLGS) as part of the AtmaNirbhar Bharat package in May. But till November, the sanction was short by Rs 1 lakh crore and disbursement was also below 50 per cent. The MSMEs are feeling the stress. What is the way forward?
…We had sanctioned Rs 3 lakh crore for collateral-free loans for MSMEs. Of this, Rs 2 lakh crore has been sanctioned, and disbursement stands between Rs 1.6-1.8 lakh crore… I have requested the Finance Minister to give more relaxations in the scheme. Also, we found that urban cooperative banks and Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs) have also financed MSMEs. So they too must be brought under the scheme. That will help too.
We had also given Rs 20,000 crore for distressed MSMEs. We have restructured (debts of) around six lakh MSMEs under it. We also announced a ‘fund of funds’ for MSMEs to provide equity support of Rs 50,000 crore. We are processing it. The MSMEs which have good export turnover, tax return, GST and bank records… Now if such MSMEs want to tap the capital market, we will provide them with 15 per cent equity infusion and the rest they can get from the market. So in the insurance , pension, and share economy, we have a lot of potential in comparison to other countries. And some of our MSMEs are doing very well.
Of the total exports by the country, MSMEs account for 48 per cent. Their contribution to the GDP is 30 per cent. I want the 48 per cent export figure to reach 60 per cent and GDP contribution to become 40 per cent. MSMEs have created 11 crore jobs, and in the coming time we want them to create five crore more jobs.
The market needs liquidity. I want to request the banks to adopt a liberal approach to financing people, which will increase liquidity, growth, employment, export… So we are monitoring all aspects. We have created a portal called ‘Champion’ and we are addressing all problems raised by the MSME sector on it.
SANDEEP SINGH: Will Tesla come to manufacture in India?
It’s better to talk about it when they come. India is going to be an automobile manufacturing hub in five years. The industry is worth Rs 4.5 lakh crore and gives the maximum employment… And, bio-fuel, ethanol, methanol, bio-CNG, bio-diesel, electric… research is underway on all these in India. In the coming time, all the big world brands will come here… (Tesla) will begin sales operations, not manufacturing. Once the sales increase, they will move to assembling, and then manufacturing.
VANDITA MISHRA: Do you think the farmers’ protest could have been handled in a better manner by the government. The protests began in June in Punjab and Haryana, but the government only took note once these reached the Capital. Also, has the split with the Akali Dal made the situation more difficult to handle?
We are constantly making efforts to hold talks… A lot of confusion has been created about the three farm laws. We were ready for talks then (in June) too… Even in Parliament we were open to talks with other parties, and we are ready to talk now as well. I am positive that the issue will get resolved soon through talks.
The BJP-Akali Dal alliance has been there since the Jana Sangh days. During the Emergency, leaders of both parties were in jail. We have had good relations with them, and the alliance was a symbol of Hindu-Sikh unity. It is unfortunate that they left us. All I want to say is that our government has taken many decisions in favour of farmers. We are not against them… We are increasing the MSP every year… The government is working for farmers’ benefit. Now, I am not the BJP president, so I don’t want to comment on the politics. But I want things to work out and our relations to get better soon.
MANOJ C G: Many BJP-ruled are drafting laws against love jihad. Should the State decide who one can marry or fall in love with?
There are two sides to all issues. As per my knowledge, many incidents have happened which have triggered the issue of love jihad. To maintain law and order and ensure a healthy society if a state government feels the need for such a law, there is no harm in it. It is not against any religion. Central and state governments have the right to create laws to address certain issues in society.
AVISHEK G DASTIDAR: In the MSME and the highways space, you have been making policies vis-a-vis AtmaNirbhar Bharat, to ensure that influence of Chinese players is less in the market. Can you elaborate on your policies?
I don’t want to say anything about China. We increased the import duty on incense sticks. It is a Rs 4,000 crore industry. Now it is being developed in our country. Over 25 lakh people got jobs. Sanitiser was not available, it was being sold for Rs 1,200/litre, now it is available at Rs 160/litre. We are exporting PPE kits… I told the automobile sector to not get parts from China or any other country, and develop local vendors. Give them machines, money and produce on a large scale to reduce costs…
The mindset of major industry players has changed. Technology is being upgraded, foreign investment is coming to our country, and India is being preferred in the global market. It is a golden opportunity for us.
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