As completion of one year of the Modi government’s second term coincided with the country engaged in battling the coronavirus outbreak and subsequently the migrants crisis, Piyush Goyal, Minister of Railways, Commerce and Industry, spoke to Ravish Tiwari and Avishek G Dastidar on what the government has done so far and what lies ahead.
This one year in power ends on a jarring note. The economy is at its worst in 11 years, and then the pandemic and migrants crisis. How do you square this with when the government took over?
I think a number of very significant achievements have taken place during the last one year, from removal of Article 35A… Article 370… right up to our Citizenship Amendment Bill by which millions of people… not getting benefit of being a citizen of India despite being persecuted on religious basis in our neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan… they were given respect and they were given citizenship… Be it our effort to bring the triple talaq Bill and give the status and dignity to women who are divorced without due process and without benefits, or be it the unauthorised colony of Delhi. Incidentally in the same period the Honourable Supreme Court gave their verdict on the long-pending dispute of Ram Janmabhoomi. So truly, what we wanted to prove for years, right from the time of Sardar Patel… “One Nation One Constitution”, “Ek Bharat Sreshtha Bharat” became a reality after nearly 72 years of Independence.
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In fact, Mahatma Gandhi had this dream of the nation being one and believed that the Hindus and Sikhs of Pakistan who do not wish to live there can come to India and it is the duty of the government of India to ensure a normal life for them. Similarly, Manmohan Singhji is on record, the chief minister of Rajasthan has been on record for giving respect and citizenship to the Hindus and Sikhs (from these countries). We are for all the minorities who relocated from these three countries that share a land border with us. Because they were being persecuted on religious grounds, therefore the minorities of any religion deserved it from there.
So, in some sense, issues which were troubling the nation, long-pending problems, have got resolved in this one year.
Despite the global economy being stressed, global value chains coming under severe pressure, trade wars among countries and continents, despite the uncertainties which characterised the whole year in terms of economic growth, international trade, India was able to find a reasonable path, but for the coronavirus which literally from January started showing the impact on the economy. January, international travel started suffering, gradually shutting down in many places, and in March of course the economy suffered the first pangs of the lockdown. Obviously the year has been full of trial and tribulation but I have the confidence that with the collective efforts of 130 core Indians, with the confidence that all of us have in our own ability, to be a self-sufficient nation, an independent nation which can meet its own needs, whether it’s in food grain or any other product, a nation which will compete with the rest of the world on equal terms, a nation which is full of skilled youth, we can produce high quality products that can meet the needs of the world. We have the confidence that we will emerge stronger in the post-Covid world, we will overcome the difficulties of this period and make sure that we do not let the morale of the people of India or overall self-confidence break down. We will ensure that going forward India makes extraordinary effort and every Indian is a part of that extraordinary effort to bring the country to greater and greater heights. We believe even now we will achieve a $5 trillion economy, maybe slightly delayed but we have the courage of conviction that we will not let Covid affect our resolve to be a strong nation. In fact, even in the fight against this pandemic, India’s efforts led by Prime Minister Modi have been appreciated across the world. The fact that it took a lockdown decision when we had only about 500 cases to break the coronavirus chain as well as prepare the nation’s health and other infrastructure to be able to face the challenges of Covid-19, and I am confident under the leadership of PM Modi India has a bright future ahead.
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All the achievements you referred to are political in nature. But the economy was on a sliding path when you returned to power, the immediate priority should have been the economy but the economy doesn’t seem to be your priority.
Not at all. In economy, a number of strong and decisive actions have been taken. After all we reduced income tax for new manufacturing to 17 per cent, half the current rate. We gave a strong message that we are among the lowest taxing countries for new manufacturing anywhere in our region. We did the bank merger and bank recapitalisation at never before levels. Highest ever FDI. It grew 18 per cent even last year and current year trends are also very positive. Despite coronavirus, the world recognises that the market of 130 crore aspiring Indians holds great potential for business. The fact that our Jal Jeevan Mission has taken off, the fact that the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi has been made universal for all farmers, the fact that we are investing 1 lakh crore in farm gate infrastructure, Rs 10,000 crore in micro food enterprises, Rs 20,000 crore in fishermen projects, animal husbandry infrastructure is given Rs 15,000 crore. Our agricultural reforms announced as part of Atmanirbhar Bharat hold lot of potential. All the various initiatives we have done to support MSMEs, street vendors, farmers with a special credit facility of 2 lakh crore, free foodgrains for migrants, increased allocation for our MNREGA programme, coupled with consistent effort for ease of doing business which has been improving year on year. Our effort to increase MSP for our farmers every subsequent season, the motor vehicles amendment Act which will lead to lower road accidents. The fact that we have moved into BS-VI vehicles which will reduce pollution, the fact that we introduced one nation, one fastag to ease congestion at tolls, there are important initiatives to strengthen the laws for punishment for sexual offences against children, the decision to appoint a Chief of Defence staff which was pending for years, the huge initiatives taken for the Northeast, the Bru, Tang and the Bodo settlement… I can keep listing out the achievements. There is no shortage, both economic and political. The amount of decision taken to unlock the potential in the mining sector, oil and gas sector, in the new way to promote the aluminium sector, our efforts to bring down the costs of interest and inflation so that the middle class doesn’t have to suffer inflation. They are uninterrupted, and in almost every cabinet meeting, newer and better initiatives are being taken to promote different sectors of industry… all of which will culminate in greater employment opportunities, greater demand in the ecosystem and a great trust in the system post Covid-19.
After transporting 54 lakh migrants by trains to their homes, do you think the enduring images of this exercise remain passengers agitating over delayed trains, dead bodies of migrants on platforms, or the whole controversy over fares? Could you have done things differently or better?
You must appreciate running trains on a regular timetable is what the Railways have always done and are best at. The entire passenger traffic was… foodgrain supply, fertilizer, coal, all of this has continued. So we have moved 159.85 million tonnes of freight in the last two months… almost 70 per cent plus of the normal freight. We have ensured that throughout the country we have not heard a single complaint of foodgrain shortage, fertilizer shortage or power shortage. Imagine if coal hadn’t reached, all of us would be without power and correspondingly without water. But Railways, despite the outbreak, kept working 24 hours, and not one person complained.
And when we saw that migrants were not willing to stay in the camps — they should have because containment and lockdown is about staying where you are — but we realised that people were moving out of camps and facing inconvenience. On May 1, we started the Shramik Specials… till the 19th there was not a single incidence of any problem. Then trains were to run from one station to one destination. The state government was to provide the meal at the starting point, Railways was to provide meal and water at one point in between, and the destination state was to provide meals to the medical checking, take them to their villages for quarantine as per their protocol. Nineteen days most trains ran before time in a very organised manner. Despite the fact that trains would start late and mess up arrangements. And bear in mind that all trains were universally going to UP, Bihar and the eastern parts of the country. That direction is also where maximum foodgrains, fertilizers and coal goes. If you spread out the trains all over India, obviously you get a larger capacity. But unidirectional the capacity gets constrained. And we were handling the unidirectional freight trains and other trains very well.
But then the destination states started demanding more stoppages. They didn’t have the capacity to handle one stop. Sending states could not bring passengers at one station. Collectively from 20th to 24th, and we also stopped taking consent of receiving states. It was becoming a bottleneck. Migrants would come to the station and could not be transported because the receiving state would not allow. I used to get calls from different states that three to four states in eastern India were not accepting migrants like UP or Bihar was. UP and Bihar accepted everybody who came. When some states did not show (willingness) we were forced to remove consent. With the combination of removing consent and adding stoppages between 20th and 24th, an average 256 trains ran every day between. May 1-19, 93 trains per day, 20th-24th, 256 rains per day, and as the demand has reduced 25th to 28th 196 trains, 29th and 30th only 101 trains… today also we expect about 70-74 trains. There is no more demand. On 24th we asked states how many trains they need, they said total 923. On 28th May the total demand was only 449 trains. Even then we have told states we will continue to provide as many trains as they want. And I am happy to share with you, not once have we refused any state. And I say this with authority and conviction that any comments made by anybody, that they demanded and we did not give, were baseless. We readied 145 trains. Railway people were awake the whole night to organise the trains. But I am sorry to say they used only 74. Now after all those trains could have served the migrants somewhere else. Look at the wastage. Next day only 22 trains were used. Trains were all organised but could not be run for lack of passengers. Once they brought 20,000 people to Bandra. We said don’t worry, we will put both trains in Bandra and move everybody. No passenger came as per the list. And UP and Bihar were quite unhappy.
The talk about trains getting lost is complete falsehood and baseless. Obviously no train gets lost. When congestion on these routes became too much, we diverted only 71 trains. We have run 4,040 trains. I monitor them thrice a day. And the sad part is after notifying trains, more than 250 trains were not used by states — more than 100 trains for Maharashtra alone. Still we never complained. Unnecessary controversy has been created; allegations have been made on the Railways. These 71 trains were also diverted as passenger convenience because the route was congested, it was taking time to board and deboard. Almost two-thirds of the trains were starting at the originating stations with a gap of 10 hours. And in the next 14 hours, one-third trains (would start). Obviously there would be congestion. There are times when no departure happened and then there are times when all trains leave almost together, it leads to a skewed system. Despite all this, trains would reach before time. From 19th to 24th there was congestion, so we diverted some trains but they reached their correct destinations. Nobody got lost. Unless some states said they wanted the train to Varanasi and not Gorakhpur. For some trains it was said that Gorakhpur was already overloaded, they don’t have doctors and buses, so we would stop the trains in Varanasi. We accommodated every state’s request. States gave 54 lakh meals at the originating station. We gave 1.19 crore meals and more than 1.5 crore bottles of packaged water.
The government has a huge budget, Rs 1.7 lakh crore of Garib Kalyan Yojana was announced in lockdown. Could you not have paid for the fares of the Shramiks? And is there anything on the table on compensating for the deaths, through ex-gratia, since you were ferrying them?
The (Shramik) trains are returning empty. Already every train runs, we suffer a loss of 43 per cent. There is extra cost of posting RPF and serving food in every train, which normally we don’t have to do. Altogether for every Rs 100 spent, the fares are recovering less than Rs 15. But it’s not about that. You announce that free trains are starting from tomorrow, from May 1. Could you have kept order (kya aap vyavastha rakh sakte they)? Everybody would have arrived at the station wanting to go that day.
We gave tickets to states to distribute to passengers and bring them for boarding. Whether they collect it from passengers, pay themselves or get paid by receiving states was the responsibility of state governments. Some states paid themselves, in some cases receiving states paid. Some states said bring the workers in and we will quarantine them and return their fare with additional money before sending them to homes after quarantine. UP is providing additional kits, Odisha is paying Rs 2,000 in cash to returning workers. Bihar has paid Rs 500 over and above the fare. But it is very easy to create baseless controversy. Everybody likes to write and read sensational news. But if someone had given it a thought, they would have realised that this arrangement was done after a lot of careful consideration. States were also explained that with this arrangement, the exercise will run in a balanced and organised manner. So till 19th, things ran in an organised manner, with no overcrowding. It happened a couple of times in Maharashtra because West Bengal government was not agreeing to take trains. There was discomfort for a few days because of overload, consent had to be removed because some states were not taking trains, then the super cyclone Amphan came, so trains could not go to Odisha and West Bengal. The problem came only for 71 trains which were diverted, but food was provided therein too. There may have been some delays in arranging food as it was lockdown everywhere and diversions were last-minute decisions because of congestion on tracks. Delays may have happened, but no one has died for want of food or water. We have our fullest sympathies. We feel very sorry and we are concerned.
As far as compensation goes, its process-driven. All the stories of trains reaching in seven days and nine days were baseless.
About the Rs 20 lakh crore package, instead of what is needed immediately, you are talking about long term measures.
Look at the Rs 20 lakh crore package. It has long term measures. But, majority of it is for immediate action. RBI liquidity measure is available today. There may not have been offtake. As the unlockdown happens, economy will restart and the limits will be used. Power demand is by and large revived… We are in touch with all industry associations. Naturally the demand from the population of 130 crore will increase. I feel it is a great opportunity for domestic as well as international industry. Atmanirbhar Bharat is not about closing the economy, it is about opening the economy. Through Make in India, India can become a global power through economies of scale as well as quality. I feel we will stop many unnecessary imports.
The tool you have to do all this is import tariffs. Are you looking for that metric? What happens to WTO talks? You walked out of the RCEP, you have not finalised the trade deal with the US. There seems to be no visibility on this.
Was it not the right decision to walk out of RCEP? If India’s domestic industry does not get enough potential and the Indian market opens up for China, we have FTA with other countries, ASEAN, Japan, Korea—it is a separate matter that the FTA with Korea is fully one-sided. It is yet another failure of the Congress and UPA government that they signed such an FTA. But we have to respect it. But an FTA with China is only possible when Indian industry gets sufficient safeguards… what will happen to our farmers? The micro and small industry? What will happen to our domestic manufacturing industry? So considering all this, we have kept many demands from time to time in the past five-six years. But when we felt that the guiding principles with which RCEP was started was not able to give protection to India, we decided we cannot be part of RCEP.
The trade deal with the US is almost done. We had even announced in a joint statement, but then Covid happened. There is lockdown here and also in Washington DC. So there has been some delay… Once their lockdown opens and our unlock happens, we will restart the talks. Even with European Union… we have kept things ready… I had started the talks but then their Commission was not set up in December, so we could not have spoken till December. After that we spoke in Davos in January and February. The talks were about to progress when Covid happened.
But do you have any visibility on when the trade agreements will happen?
USA’s trade minister came to India on February 24 or 25. I started talks with him. But in a few days the Covid crisis happened. FTA is not something to be done in a hurry. It takes years, after weighing each aspect and gauging their results, and careful tightrope walking, to sign an FTA.
Are you being careful or scared?
We are being careful. The Modi government does not get scared of anything. That is something you have perhaps experienced enough in six years. But the Modi government gives the welfare of people and the welfare of country the highest priority. And this is his decisive leadership which the people of India have admired. The people have re-elected him after five years with a bigger mandate because they like such decisive, sensitive leadership, which cares for the country’s 130 crore people.
Barring the Garib Kalyan Yojana, giving Rs 500 to women and the Rs 40,000 crore in MNREGA, PM Kisan, everything in the Rs 20 lakh crore package is given to industry and that is on the supply side. What is there on the demand side in the short term to give confidence to suppliers to restart their industrial activities?
This is your misconception that the package is industry-centric. Rather, what you are complaining, that industry should be given more. I read your paper every day. You have said that this package is more poor-centric and MSME-centric. That industry has not been given anything, this is something I have read in your paper. Anyway, we have kept everyone in mind, the 130 crore Indians, middle class, the small labourer… Ultimately, when economy runs, everybody gets purchasing power. And purchasing power leads to spending. What is economy? It is investment and demand, isn’t it? Whatever supply comes, that is for investment and creates direct demand. And then there is consumption. Investment plus consumer demand is what the supplier is looking. All the decisions we took were so transformational because… they make the country self-reliant. Short term, long term and medium term, we have thought of all three. This is the specialty of our package. We don’t have the prosperity of Europe and America, like per capita income of $50,000, or a $20 trillion economy. India does not have that headroom. But India has taken care of its microeconomic fundamentals as well. It has taken care of all classes and at the same time planned to make the country prosperous. That’s the specialty of our package. And the way the country saw the Prime Minister’s leadership in the fight against corona… despite having 17 per cent of the world’s population, it has only 2.8 per cent of Covid cases globally. The deaths in India due to Covid have been only 1.3 per cent of the deaths in the world. I think the timely and strict lockdown, breaking the spread of the virus through containment, and then slowly easing the lockdown and making people internalise things like social distancing… if we had not carried out Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan five years ago, people would have still had to go for open defecation, they would have still spit on the roads. But we successfully made 11 crore toilets, we prioritised cleanliness so people stopped the habit of spitting on roads. We enhanced health infrastructure. Earlier, only a few thousand PPEs were being made in India, but now over 3 lakh PPEs are manufactured every day. We made 1 crore PPEs so that we became self-reliant, because no country was giving us PPEs. There used to be a thousand tests, now a lakh tests happen. Be it masks and sanitisers, we are becoming Atmanirbhar in everything. India has made itself strong as per the requirement of Covid. We have contained the coronavirus by breaking the chain of transmission. At the same time, by giving the Rs 20 lakh crore package, the Prime Minister has secured the future of a self-reliant India.
How has Covid impacted your big-ticket reform plans for Railways and what is the financial impact of this outbreak?
It is premature calculating the financial impact because nobody in the world is able to predict the way Covid will play out. When the best of economies are seeing a resurgence or second wave, we will have to wait and watch before we can do our financial calculations. Railways has a fixed cost… therefore there is a certain stress which is associated with this period of fighting the Covid crisis. As regards reform measures in the Railways, they will all happen. Obviously the focus in this period has been the moving of foodgrains, fertilizer, coal and shramiks to their destinations, now gradual normalcy. So clearly in this period this has been our main focus. But we are working simultaneously, through separate teams, on many of the initiatives which we had started before and some more initiatives which I have added during the Covid period. I realised that I have to add more initiatives, more smart and efficient ways of working to make up for the losses of this period. And going forward, become self-sufficient also.
Since you said it is too early to calculate the financial impact of the crisis… there is a huge uncertainty in the economic landscape and this will have a crippling effect on the economy. When everybody is shooting in the dark, how do you restore confidence in the economy?
I assure you nobody is shooting in the dark. Every single aspect, whether it is freight in railway or Shramik trains, we monitor thrice a day. We have already reached 70 per cent of our normal freight. For foodgrains, we almost did 185 per cent in this period. Steel is coming back into freight. Now cement plants will start. Of course, there are uncertainties everywhere. But people are also planning the future in a calibrated way. So is the Railways. We are eng
aging with all stakeholders every day. I have 12-14 hours, I am on video-conferencing. You can check from the marketplace… There has been so much engagement. And I am not alone, every minister is doing this. In 24 hours, we have separate VCs for Railways, Commerce and Industry. Control centres of commerce and industry were operational for 40 days during the lockdown. Railways is continuing even now. Senior officers would man the control centres 24 hours. Any problem would be solved in hours. Similar control centres were there in the home ministry and other ministries.
I can assure you, this government never rests. It is a government that works with enthusiasm. There has been not a single day during the lockdown when ministers have not worked. They worked from home in the beginning and then, when permitted, from office.
Regarding the new public sector enterprises policy, which are the strategic sectors you are considering for letting a few state-owned companies in?
Discussions are on, and whenever there is a decision we will definitely inform you. But the Prime Minister has kept a position before the country for the roadmap of the future. And it is essential that when you start work based on a roadmap, then you definitely reach your desired destination. Even if there is a roadblock on the roadmap, we are prepared to tackle them.