She is widely reputed to be the gatekeeper to British prime minister Gordon Brown, to whom she was adviser for eight years when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Now international development minister, the feisty Baroness Shriti Vadera spoke to Lalita Panicker while on a visit to the Capital on what she thought were the challenges before India.
Do you feel that the controversy stirred up by Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the issue of restricting immigrants to Britain could impact negatively here?
It is not a new controversy. We have discussed the points-based system as one we require for skills-based immigration. Yes, it involves Indians who though 2% of the population contribute 5% of GDP. There is no question of discrimination. There is nothing wrong with the principle of Britain for the British and the prime minister is very transparent on this and everything else. Indians, as you know, are better qualified than other immigrant communities.
On your first visit as Minister, what have been your impressions of the new India?
Quite extraordinary. The growth rate, innovation and entrepreneurship of the people, it’s fantastic. But, also noticeable are the malnutrition levels. I went to Bihar because Development of International Development (DFID) is thinking of a programme there. The statistics there are very challenging but I am impressed at how they have been able to revive the health system to some extent in a span of two years.
Do you think economic reforms can really address the needs of the poor?
It’s all about inclusive growth. Economic reforms have to include job creation, agricultural sector reform and gender equality. We need to address the issue of food security: India has a situation where 40% of food rots while people are in dire need of it.
You are a votary of micro-credit, but there is criticism that it perpetuates the debt-trap for poor women. Do you agree?
I am a firm believer in micro-credit as a tool for poverty reduction. It also fosters gender equity. Let us not forget that 50% of people here live on less than $2 a day. They are really vulnerable. Repayment is not a problem, default rates are very low among women. DFID has a micro-credit programme on rural livelihood in Andhra Pradesh. It did so well that the state government rolled it out all over. We are now talking to the Ministry of Rural Affairs to replicate it nationally. DFID is India’s largest bilateral donor. We want to see value added to the money given. We are targeting being transformative with the best practices that we have.
What are the constraints of working in India? Is public-private partnership the way to go?
Infrastructure is a huge constraint. I am not such a great private-public partnership advocate. It is not difficult to find partners to build airports or ports. We need is partners to fight malnutrition, be involved in education, urban renewal.
Many comparisons are made between Indian and Chinese models of growth? Which do you think is sustainable in the long-run?
It’s all about choices that governments make. I admire India for its spirit of enterpreneurship, its risk-taking abilities. On the other hand, this can’t be at the cost of inclusive growth. What is worrying, is the levels of malnutrition. This will have an impact on future growth.
Since you are reputed to be very close to the prime minister, what do you advise him about the future course with India?
He wants a partnership based on India’s rightful place in the sun. Of course, I don’t need to advise him on the things he feels strongly about like a more stable inclusive world, poverty eradication and opportunities for everyone. These are the cornerstones of his idea of the relationship with India.