Union minister for MSME, road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari talks to Bhavna Vij-Aurora about the way forward to revive the economy post-COVID-19. Excerpts from the interview:
PM Narendra Modi has announced a Rs 20 lakh crore economic package to help India become self-reliant post-COVID-19. Is it as per your expectations?
We have got more than our expectations, especially with regard to MSMEs. I thank the PM for this historic package. More than 11 crore workers employed in small, cottage and rural industries have been given relief. The MSMEs will not only survive, but continue to grow. Their contribution to the country’s economy is 29 per cent, and it will increase in the years to come. I have interacted with more than 4 crore stakeholders in the past 20 days. It has helped me understand their ground-level problems better. Based on our discussions and their written representations, we identified the problems and made recommendations to the finance minister and the PM. The package will give the much-needed push, creating an atmosphere of positivity and confidence.
What are their main concerns?
People are worried about their future. In a situation like this, it is the duty of all stakeholders—leaders, ministers, media—to encourage people and inculcate confidence. In the game of life, sometimes you get success and sometimes defeat. It is in times like these that you have to fight and win.
People are fighting two wars—one against the coronavirus and the other for their survival.
This coronavirus is an artificial virus, prepared in the laboratory. That’s why we don’t even have any vaccine or a perfect detection system. But in due course, I feel, we will have a vaccine.
So, we have to create confidence in the minds of the people to fight with the virus and fight the economic war. There are serious problems that vary from state to state, region to region, industry to industry. Maximum problems are related to banks, some are related to payments, some to expansion, to adopting new technology…. Now, migrant labour is also one of the problems. We are discussing with all stakeholders—Assocham, CII, plastic association, chemical association, chambers of commerce—and trying to resolve their problems.
Are you convinced that it is a man-made virus?
As far as my knowledge is concerned, it is not a natural virus. It was prepared in the laboratory. That is the reason our medical experts and scientists don’t have any solution yet. There is no answer anywhere in the world—from the US to China. Everyone is doing research and finding out ways to fight it.
We are trying to ease the lockdown and open up industries, but the migrants are going back home. How will you open up without labour?
Industry is not 100 per cent dependent on migrant labour, which mainly comes from Bihar, UP, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh due to lack of employment in their area, and goes to Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Now industry is open, but migrant workers are not ready to reside there. They want to go back to their homes. This mentality is due to fear and lack of confidence. However, after some small-scale industries reopened, a lot of people want to return. We have started work on the national highways and there is 75-80 per cent traffic on the road. The work has to start, but the entire world has to understand the new art of living by taking coronavirus into consideration. Mandatory use of masks, maintaining more than a metre’s distance between two persons, handwashing and sanitising have to be followed stringently.
So we have to learn to live with coronavirus….
Yes, because we don’t know any date on which we will be free from this and it is unpredictable. We have to learn how to fight corona and live with it at the same time.
Investment in infrastructure is critical to revive the economy. How will you get funds for the big projects?
We need more liquidity in the market. Without liquidity, the business cycle cannot run. It is time for the country to invest the most in infrastructure—road projects, shipping, ports, inland waterways, railways, aviation, power. In road projects, we are successfully using private-public investment. In my last tenure, with three ministries—water resources, roads, shipping and ports—we awarded works worth more than Rs 17 lakh crore. Sagarmala project alone was worth Rs 16 lakh crore. Most part of the project is already completed. Now in the road sector, we are going for Bharatmala, and we are trying to get funds from various sources, including FDI, pension funds, insurance funds, World Bank and ADB. We have already maintained road construction at the level of 30 km per day and, in next two years, we have fixed our target—it’s a target, not a commitment, that we will start works on projects worth more than Rs 15 lakh core. For this, we need foreign investment for the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI).
Do you think other countries, also battling coronavirus, will be willing to invest?
Of course. There is a lot of surplus in the Japanese and the US economy. Even South Korea has surplus. And now the majority of investors want to invest in a secure way. NHAI has AAA rating; it’s a world standard company and people have faith in it. We have assets and our present income at the end of the year will come to Rs 40,000 crore. By building logistics parks, roadside amenities, bus ports and green express highways, our target is to increase the income to more than Rs 1 lakh crore. We can monetise on the basis and get the money. Even Indian banks and agencies like LIC are interested to invest in NHAI. So we do not have a problem of resources at present.
With China under fire from the world for its handling of coronavirus, do you think that’s a business opportunity for India?
Hundred per cent. It’s a blessing in disguise. The Japanese prime minister has made a statement offering incentives to his people who have invested in China to shift out. The entire world is wary of China and this is a golden opportunity for India. Our MSMEs can upgrade the technology and increase export potential. They can attract foreign investment too. We are specially concentrating on this issue and interacting with ambassadors of various countries, asking them how we can help them in setting up industries in different parts of India. The state governments are also ready now, and many of them are changing their laws. The total atmosphere is very favourable for investment and if we get some foreign investment at this time, it is going to increase our exports, reduce our imports and create more employment potential.
As part of the central team, you are overseeing coronavirus management in some districts of Maharashtra. Why is the fight so difficult there, especially in Mumbai?
Mumbai is the commercial capital of India and a lot of people come from abroad. Also, the Nizamuddin incident complicated the situation in Mumbai. The Maharashtra government is trying its best. This is not the time for politics. We are also supporting them. Together we are trying to see how we can stop the spread of coronavirus. But it is a difficult task as the situation is very bad. In due course, I am confident that we will be able to stop it.
MSMEs generate huge employment. How are you planning to deal with job losses?
There is a committee working on it. We are trying our best to resolve the issue. Japan has sanctioned 12 per cent of their GDP for fighting against coronavirus. The US has sanctioned two trillion dollars. You cannot compare our economy to theirs. The state governments don’t have money to pay next month’s salaries. Industry doesn’t have money to pay labour. The banking system is also under stress. Bharat sarkar is also facing problems as we have already reduced our revenue. All stakeholders need to come together, think together and work together. There needs to be coordination, cooperation and communication to march ahead.
A positive outcome of the lockdown is that pollution levels have gone down.…
Also, more than 1,50,000 people die in road accidents every year in India. This number has reduced. So economy, ethics and ecology, these are the important things. Economy and ecology need to go together. I have talking about biofuels for the past 10-12 years. Today everyone has accepted it. So ethanol, methanol, bio-diesel, bio-CNG, electric and hydrogen fuel cell is the future.