August 28, 2016 12:15:17 am
Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman asserts that India can buck the global economic downslide by “carefully nurturing” exports and domestic markets, pitches for lowering interest rates, and says there is an attempt to defame the BJP on Dalit issues but party enjoys their support.
A former student of JNU who was once a member of the National Commission for Women, Sitharaman joined the BJP in 2006. Made the party’s spokesperson in 2010, she made a mark with her emphatic defence of PM Modi in TV debates ahead of the 2014 general elections. In May 2014, she was appointed Minister of State (Independent Charge) for the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Sitharaman was part of the Group of Ministers that finalised the surrogacy Bill which has been cleared by the Cabinet
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: What have you done in the last one year in terms of product diversification etc to give momentum to exports?
In the last few months, and I am saying this with a sense of caution and responsibility, the fall (in exports) has been arrested. Not just arrested, in fact in June, it (the exports) was going up.
WATCH VIDEO: Idea Exchange With Nirmala Sitharaman
Of course, it is not going to be an easy climb up, there will be a certain slide up and slide down, but it (exports) will at least look up. And why do I say this? In the last two years, the steps that have been taken — service export incentives and interest subvention — both the schemes have been really vibrant in the sense that the optics are really good. When we introduced it (the schemes) last September, everybody asked me was it really going to pay off, had we calculated our risks? It took some time for the money to be passed on to the banks and the others, but you can see the effects now. The sectors which were really struggling are today able to keep themselves above the water and also perform.
We have also spent a lot of time and energy in trying to identify newer markets. They could be in Africa, they could be in Latin American countries, they could be in Nordic countries… This has helped exporters in quickly going and doing the recce and identifying newer demands, which is helpful, but also has its own risks.
Like exports were made to some African countries, but when the time for payments came, the exporters faced a situation where the foreign exchange reserve of those countries was very bad. These risks also have to be faced. So this is one side of the larger picture.
Other than that, we are having a lot of meetings through the Export Promotion Councils. Through these meetings we have been identifying specific issues that can be addressed quickly and there is relief, to some extent.
The one large message that came from all sectors of the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is about the cost of capitalism… that is certainly an issue on which I would want the Finance Ministry to talk to the banks. We would want a cut in the rate of interest and would want the credit facilities being provided to the SMEs to be looked at afresh. They cannot be treated as cameos of larger industries as they have peculiar needs and in every sector their contribution towards total exports is quite high. We need to have a more friendly approach towards SMEs and must credit them with what they need.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: In view of the overall industrial climate, July looked very gloomy. Exports dipped, FDI numbers were not so great and even capital goods imports declined steeply. What is the sense that you are getting, say from the corporate sector, about why investments are not picking up?
One message that we have received from all our interactions (with the corporate sector) is that the new investments coming from new projects, new joint partnerships, they are moving smoothly. Today it has been established that capacities which have to look for expansion or those which have to look at newer investments, all that is very smooth. Then of course there are many industries whose liquidity position has come down badly and the approach with which they can go to the banks is also restricted. This is not a good sign for Indian investors when looking at expansion. This is opposite to the picture that we are getting in FDIs. Sector-wise, if you look at the FDI flow, every sector is receiving much more than the other, and that is very encouraging.
COOMI KAPOOR: What about the economic scene in general? The world economic scenario continues to be quite gloomy. Can India buck this trend?
I think yes. If both the export and domestic markets are carefully nurtured, carefully balanced, then the industries can buck the trend.
Of course, SEZs (Special Economic Zones) come with a different set of problems. SEZs are also looking at using domestic capacities when it comes to exports. The domestic area manufacturers seem to think that there are a lot of underutilised capacities lying in the SEZs. So there is this churn that is happening, a healthy churn between what was dedicated towards the export area and what is dedicated to the domestic — both of them are trying to capitalise on existing capacities. Both of them are trying to use underutilised potential.
Definitional issues which are constricting exports or constricting supplies to the domestic markets are all now being very clearly highlighted by the industry, which means that there is clear identification that demand persists, exists and has to be served.
At one point we tried to promote only export-driven industries at the cost of perhaps domestic ones, but they are all now (changing) because ultimately we want Make In India to succeed, we want manufacturing to succeed.
So I think the clamour for utilising the underutilised potential in the SEZ, the clamour for outsourcing some of the jobs to the domestic manufacturers are all indicative of the fact that a market exists, demand exists and this is what is going to help our Indian industries buck the trend.
SANDEEP SINGH: The government is the promoter of all State-owned banks. While the deposit rates have come down significantly, the lending rates have not gone down. What would you say to that? Since you want the cost of the credit to come down, with the government being the primary promoter, it has a say somewhere, doesn’t it?
I want to say yes, but I think we are in India and here professional assessments of large institutions have to be made. We cannot deny the fact that we are sitting with huge non-performing assets (NPAs), and balance sheets are the most worrying aspect for any professional who looks at the banking sector per se. I am sure there are ways in which the government is helping them come out of the situation.
Even the PSUs (Public Sector Undertakings) will have to perform. They cannot be really toeing a line because the government has given them that. A healthy mixture of serving and steadying your business priorities at the same time will have to be the message for the banks.
ANIL SASI: If the interest rates come down, the general experience has been that it is the bigger corporates which manage to get better rates while the small and medium firms have to borrow at primary lending rates. Is that something that is being tackled by the government on the policy front?
I am tempted for the Finance Ministry to probably advise us to look at SME funding afresh. The SMEs’ requirement of cash flow, their investment capacities, their expansion capacities all spring from a completely different understanding of business. And if you look at it across the country, since they are not centered at one place, any solution that is going to be helpful for the SMEs will also help industries which are spread everywhere, industries which are largely labour-intensive, industries which generate jobs at the local level rather than get somebody from somewhere to serve them.
In the economic fabric, SMEs have a different and very significant role to play, and if that role is understood from the point of view of a banker, a lot of issues will be addressed, not just the interest rates. Interest rates are a very big issue, but more than that, the cash requirements, timely payment requirements, the kind of issues they have with exporters, benefits which never otherwise reach them as announced (are also important issues).
LIZ MATHEW: What is your take on the atrocities against Dalits in the country and your government’s response to it? Also an HRD Ministry panel has claimed that Rohith Vemula (the Hyderabad University student who committed suicide) was not a Dalit. What is your response to that?
The BJP is well received among the Dalits and tribals. Look at the Lok Sabha election numbers, we couldn’t have got those if not for the support of these communities. In states where we don’t have the numbers, even there we have ample support from the Dalits and the tribals. There are Dalit and tribal representatives in the Union Council of Ministers, and that is there for all to see. This whole campaign about Dalit-related issues, and making the entire thing a BJP versus Dalits scenario, is completely unfortunate. It (atrocities against Dalits) is not something that has happened in one or two states. Wherever it happens, it seems to be thrown at the BJP’s doors, and that is where I think it is all very unfortunate. The articulation of the problem also seems to be the same, irrespective of the situation from where it has emerged. Therefore I don’t think these instances will hurt the BJP, but the attempt to raise Dalit issues or the Dalit card against the BJP can be seen as part of defaming our party.
(On Rohith Vemula) Well, it is a committee which was appointed; I do not know exactly what the terms of references were… Was it just to determine the caste of this individual or did the panel look into various other things too. The suicide unfortunately happened, university administrations will have to be very sensitive; larger issues of how students coming from different deprived communities such as SC, ST and OBC will have to be addressed.
These issues are going to be a persistent problem when there are clashes of academic and societal differences, which come to fore in a university, which is a meeting ground. Whether Rohith Vemula was a Dalit or not does not worry me. It worries me that there is a section of students who unfortunately do not have that sensitivity extended to them by university administrations, and that is a serious and critical issue that has to be addressed.
BANIKINKAR PATTANAYAK: There are concerns that e-commerce players may not be giving discounts themselves but are asking vendors to provide them and then reimbursing the vendors for those discounts. Is this a violation of the FDI policy and, if it is, how are you going to address this?
After the small traders’ association, the Confederation of Association of Indian Traders (CAIT) and a few other groups came and met us, I called for a meeting with the Enforcement Directorate, the NITI Aayog, Consumer Affairs Department and our own Department of Industry. We went through this whole thing in detail.
The very next day, I asked the secretary, DIPP (Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion), to call in these e-commerce firms and take their view on it. They have clearly said that the discounts being offered are by the manufacturers.
Due action can be taken, but then we will have to establish this. The angle that you have mentioned is something that has to be established before we take any call on it.
COOMI KAPOOR: There have been complaints by some in the BJP that there is something wrong with the culture of JNU. You are a product of the university. Do you think that is true?
I hope nothing has changed in JNU.
COOMI KAPOOR: So are you proud of the way JNU functions?
Absolutely. But the kind of information I have received… I have not said this openly before, the freedom of speech and freedom of expression, which we hold dear, and which has guided the spirit of JNU, cannot be misused by anybody. My fear last time, when the last major issue cropped up at JNU (February 9, 2016), was knowingly or unknowingly, that platform was probably misused by anti-India forces and, because of it, JNU was in the news for all the wrong reasons. I felt very sad about it.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: When the SC upheld Section 377, which criminalises the LGBT community, last year, the Finance Minister had said that the court should reconsider the decision because it did not take into account social realities. The Cabinet has now passed the surrogacy Bill which again disallows gay couples, singles and host of others from using the surrogacy route. Do you think the government has, once again, disregarded social realities?
Social realities cannot be devoid of justice, which has to be given to the child. The conditions with which the Cabinet has approved the legislation have taken social realities (into consideration). It has taken to regulating surrogacy so that women who are lending their womb are not over-exploited.
Today, there are instances of women being forced into surrogacy as a commercial activity. It is not as if the government doesn’t want to look at it progressively, but it also wants to take responsibility for the child, who cannot be orphaned and who also can have the comfort of a home.
Of course, it (the Bill) has go to Parliament, which may want a detailed discussion on it and might choose to send it off to the standing committee, where all members can still discuss it. Potential parents or anybody else who wants to be a part of this (discussion) can also come in.
No option is being closed as of now.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Another provision in this Bill is that you allow only close relatives to be a surrogate mother. The child would grow up knowing the biological mother. Is that in the interest of the child?
Well, these are the things which have to be discussed. There is no argument on what is in the interest of the child as against the interest of the mother.
I think this is a Bill which is attempting to do some things to regulate the sector, subject of course to Parliament, which will have to go through the details. The government’s position is very clear, that we have initiated something. We are willing to have it discussed by the standing committee or in Parliament or as the case may be.
SHALINI NAIR: Why does the Bill look at a surrogate mother as a victim? What about somebody exercising their right to use this as a source of income?
We have had instances of this becoming an activity where a woman is sometimes forced to lend her womb. I think it is important to see where you want to draw the line, a thin line maybe, without denying anyone who wants to be a surrogate mother their right.
At the same time, we need to ensure that no woman is over-exploited. If making money through lending my womb alone is an argument, it has to be pitted against other realities too. I think the Bill has taken a median path in starting this discussion.
It can of course be trashed in Parliament and during the consultation process, and what emerges will be the final Bill.
Transcribed by Prashant Dixit & Rakesh Kumar Das
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