Our govt doesn’t shy away from taking tough measures to protect the vulnerable: PM Modi to Hindustan Times | india news | Hindustan Times
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Our govt doesn’t shy away from taking tough measures to protect the vulnerable: PM Modi to Hindustan Times

In an interview with Hindustan Times, PM Narendra Modi speaks about a wide range of issues, including the government’s schemes and achievements, India’s foreign policy and the political scenario in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2018 20:28 IST
HT Correspondent
Narendra Modi,foreign policy,2019 Lok Sabha elections
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India has successfully been able to ensure that rivalries between other nations do not have any impact on ties with it.(Reuters)

India’s robust foreign policy has ensured that it is the first responder to natural calamities striking its neighbours. Speaking to Hindustan Times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlines India’s changing foreign policy, the government’s schemes and achievements, and the political scenario in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Here is the full text of his interview on a wide range of issues:

The most significant thing about our foreign policy over the past four years seems to be the ability to manage relationships with countries that themselves have significant differences. For instance, we have managed to go beyond the UAE-Israel binary; have relationships with both the US and Russia; and have also worked on our relationship with China. If you were to describe our foreign policy in terms of an overarching theme and vision, how would you do that?

My government’s foreign policy has put at its centre the development of the country, well-being of Indians and shared progress and prosperity in the world.

‘Diplomacy for Development’ has contributed energetically to the agenda of India’s transformation. Intensified engagements with leading global economies and businesses have brought more than $200 billion investments in to the country over the past four years. Apart from fuelling the country’s rapid economic growth, these investments have helped establish new factories, generate additional services and create lakhs of jobs. Through our unprecedented diplomatic outreach we have formed scores of partnerships for Make in India, Skill India, Smart Cities, Digital India, Start-up India and other national programmes that will help build a New India by 2022.

I am particularly happy that foreign innovation and scientific partnerships are directly empowering our youth and boosting entrepreneurship.

Through new global energy partnerships, we are creating new and secure sources of assured supplies and reserves, despite a volatile international market. Global giants from Russia, UAE and Saudi Arabia are investing about $35 billion in the energy sector in India. At the same time, Indian companies have bagged stakes for the first time in oil fields in the Middle East and many other competitive markets in the world. Our partnerships to procure uranium from many countries will help sustain the country’s civil nuclear programme and promote science, technology and industry in India.

Our proactive foreign policy has a human face. India’s helping hands have reached tens of thousands of our citizens in distress the world over, even in severe cyclones and raging conflicts. From intense fighting in Yemen, over 4,700 Indians and over 1,900 foreigners belonging to 48 countries were evacuated. The release of over 4,000 Indian fishermen was secured from Sri Lanka and Pakistan alone. The government has actively and effectively intervened in settling issues that directly affect life and livelihood of several thousands of Indian workers, including in the Gulf countries. Today, Indians all over the world feel confident and secure that in their difficulties, they will have a friend in the form of Indian embassies.

Be it the earthquake in Nepal, floods in Sri Lanka or water crisis in Maldives, India is the first responder in natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

India’s membership of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as well as of three export control regimes — MTCR, Australia Group and Wassenaar Arrangement – has materialised after years of wait. These and the unprecedented success of India’s candidates in international bodies, such as in the International Court of Justice, are the results of resolute and focused pursuit of national interests on the global stage.

India’s growing prestige and stature have enhanced the sense of pride of Indians everywhere in the world. Their joy in associating with India and its priceless and timeless heritage is boosted manifold when thousands perform on International Day of Yoga at iconic landmarks like Eiffel Tower, when Deepawali is celebrated in the White House in Washington, the State House in Uganda, or the Australian Parliament in Canberra, and when Indian languages including Hindi and Sanskrit are honoured in far off places like Suriname, Mauritius or Thailand. My government has engaged India’s widespread and vibrant diaspora like never before, by taking initiatives such as Pravasi Bhartiya Divas to new heights and launching new programmes like ‘Know India’ for our diaspora, especially the youth.

My government has successfully brought back numerous valuable artefacts stolen from the land where they belonged. Our respect for our country’s rich heritage drives our efforts to proactively put the wisdom of ancient India for the benefit of the whole of the humankind. For example, the Indian tradition of harmonious existence with nature is the soul of our initiative to create the International Solar Alliance. Through this, we are building new partnerships to address the challenge of climate change.

Through our development partnerships from South Asia to Africa, from Southeast Asia to Latin America reverberates India’s age-old vision of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’. Our connectivity projects, such as Chabahar, are reviving trade routes to our neighbours.

India’s vision of Indo-Pacific and S.A.G.A.R. (Security And Growth For All in the Region), and our bold and strong advocacy in fora like G-20 to fight corruption, black money, cyber crimes and terrorism reflect our firm and enduring commitment to addressing modern global challenges through effective international partnerships. These initiatives have introduced a new orientation and thrust in global discourse.

India is seen as a strong votary of inclusiveness, a voice of reason and balance, and the flagbearer of a multilateralism which can effectively answer the needs of an increasingly interdependent, interlinked and multipolar world. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that India is a preferred partner and trusted friend globally, even for those countries who have mutual differences between them. This is a tribute as much to India’s eternal values and vision, as it is to our contemporary worldview and modern dynamism.

How do you manage conflicts? For instance, how do you reconcile the US to India’s arms purchases from Russia? We ask this because the US did amend its act to provide a waiver to India to do just this.

You have asked a very apt question. The developments you refer to reflects the trust in India and confidence in the policies of a strong and stable government resting on a majority of its own – something which has happened in India after three decades.

Both USA and Russia are India’s long-standing strategic partners. Our relationships with them stand on their individual merits. We have time-tested relations with Russia in all spheres. These are based on the strong foundation of friendship and goodwill at the level of peoples. Our relationship with the US has undergone a major transformation, including in spheres of defence and security cooperation. Both the countries understand our legitimate interests, including our security interests.

Our relationship with the US is poised interestingly. While we seem to have successfully negotiated the sanctions issue, the US seems insistent on the trade-related pain points being addressed, specifically medical devices (pricing), dairy (access), and IT products. These are also sensitive issues in India. What are your views on how this can be resolved?

India and the US have a strategic partnership, which is based on commitment to shared values of democracy and progress. It has deepened in an unprecedented manner in the past few years. In such a wide-ranging and growing relationship as we have with the US, new matters are bound to surface from time to time. What is important is that both countries show sensitivity to each other’s concerns and interests. This contributes to the solid foundation of our shared determination to take our strategic partnership forward in all spheres. This is the larger picture.

Today, we are engaging each other in a manner and on subjects that we had never done before. A 2+2 dialogue between our External Affairs and Defence ministers, which was agreed during my visit in 2017, is scheduled for next month. We are cooperating on designation of terrorists and our defence cooperation is on a rise.

Our bilateral trade and investment have witnessed sustained growth. The US is our largest trading partner, and also growing supplier of energy to us. Both our countries are known for innovation and entrepreneurship.

As the Indian economy grows, it will generate new demands and open new avenues for enhanced economic cooperation with our partners, including the US. Our aim should be to help the global economy attain its optimal growth. We look forward to continue to working closely with President Trump and his team to further expand economic engagement as part of our overall strategic partnership.

Pakistan’s new (to-be) Prime Minister Imran Khan has made the right noises regarding relationships with India. What will convince you that he and his government are indeed serious about this, and make you work with him on this?

I spoke to Imran Khan and congratulated him for his party emerging as the largest political party in the National Assembly of Pakistan. We hope that democracy will take deeper roots in Pakistan. Right from the beginning of its term in office, my government has prioritised our relations with our neighbours. Our vision is for peace and development of the entire neighbourhood and that underscores our ‘Neighbourhood First’ foreign policy.

Therefore, it is necessary that we have peace and security in the region. We hope that Pakistan will constructively work to build a safe, stable, secure and development oriented South Asia free of terror and violence.

What role do you see for India in Afghanistan going forward, especially because peace in that country is key to the region?

Relations between India and Afghanistan are centuries old, close and based on friendship and mutual goodwill between the peoples of the two countries. It is unfortunate that violence and terrorism have brought untold sufferings on the people of Afghanistan. We salute the courage and resolve of these remarkable people in our neighbourhood.

India has always stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghanistan in addressing the challenges it has been faced with. We have worked with commitment for capacity building, infrastructure development, connectivity and trade and investment in Afghanistan. It is with this commitment that we have scaled up our development cooperation programme in Afghanistan and reinforced connectivity projects, be it through Chabahar or in the form of Air Freight Corridor.

We will continue to strongly support in all possible ways the emergence of Afghanistan as a united, peaceful, stable nation.

From the outside, it does appear that after the low point of Doklam in India-China relations, the ties between the two countries are now perhaps at their warmest ever. How has this been achieved? What are the areas where you think the interests of India and China are aligned, and where do you think the two countries can take a leadership position at the global level?

There have been occasional incidents in the border areas due to differing perceptions about the Line of Actual Control. However, both countries have always managed to resolve these incidents peacefully through dialogue on the ground as well as through diplomatic channels. It is noteworthy that, over the last four decades, not a single bullet has been fired across the India-China border and peace and tranquillity have been maintained in border areas. This shows that we are both mature countries, capable of peacefully resolving our differences.

Both India and China are members of various multilateral mechanisms, such as East Asia Summit, Brics, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, G-20 and many others. From environment to trade to reform of institutions of global governance, there are a number of issues of global importance where India and China have a long history of cooperation and leadership.

I have met President Xi Jinping a number of times over the last four years. In recent months, we have added a new dimension to our engagement in the form of the informal summit in Wuhan in April 2018. It allowed us to interact in a very free and candid atmosphere to understand each other’s concerns without being forced into a diplomatic straightjacket. We have been meeting regularly on the sidelines of multilateral summits as well. Such frequent interactions and close communication have been very useful in building mutual trust at the leadership level and allowing it to percolate to other levels. We look forward to receiving President Xi in India in the coming year for our next informal summit.

What do you see as India’s role in the Indo-Pacific and also in the emerging Quad grouping?

I have outlined India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific in detail in my keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2018. I have given the mantra of “Five S” in Hindi as “Samman” (respect), “Samvad” (dialogue), “Sahyog” (cooperation), “Shanti” (peace), and “Samriddhi” (prosperity) in relation to our approach to the Indo-Pacific.

Our vision is a positive and inclusive vision. It is not directed against anyone, nor do we seek to dominate the region. We believe that ASEAN is central to the future of Indo-Pacific.

And to ensure shared prosperity, growth, development and security in this region, we seek to engage with all countries in the region in a dialogue to evolve a common rules-based order.

We carry forward such engagement bilaterally, multilaterally and in plurilateral settings. We have trilateral mechanisms involving a number of countries with stakes in the Indo-Pacific region. We also have a quadrilateral mechanism. All these mechanisms are aligned with our broader vision for the Indo-Pacific.

At this point, the economy appears back on track and looks set to grow in the mid-7s. What do you think is required to get it up over 8%?

We all know the condition of the economy that we inherited from the previous government. Double-digit inflation, high revenue deficit, high fiscal deficit, a poor health of banking system, stalled projects, thus overall a weak economy. We immediately took effective steps to navigate the economy back to the path of reforms. Our reforms were all encompassing and covered all major areas.

This reform process was followed up in our fiscal policies. The fiscal deficit that was 4.4% in 2013-14 has been targeted to be brought down to 3.3% in the current fiscal year 2018-19. Together with a robust monetary policy of RBI (Reserve Bank of India), the inflation rate has been brought down to 3.3% in 2017.

On the indirect tax front the GST (Goods and Services Tax) reform that was pending for a long time has been implemented by our government. We engaged with all parties and state governments and enacted the GST law. The same was implemented without any glitches to the economy and it has stabilised now. During the course of implementation in consultation with states and the industry and keeping in view the interest of consumers, we kept improving the GST regime.

For example, the limit of turnover for availing presumptive taxation for business income was increased to R2 crores; the rate of presumptive tax in respect of turnover through digital transaction was reduced from 8% to 6%; the taxation rates of many commodities were reduced. It is a matter of pride for us that while earlier there were close to 7 million registered dealers for indirect tax, with GST their number has increased by around 5 million. This also shows that given the right environment people are ready to come into the taxation regime.

There are many other reforms that our government has undertaken. We brought into action the forgotten Benami Act, we enacted new laws like Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, Fugitive Economic Offenders Act, Insurance Laws Amendment Act and Real Estate (Regulations and Development) Act, just to name a few. I can count many more such reformative steps taken by this government in the economic sector.

We also took many reform measures in the other sectors which have helped the economy to grow at a much healthier rate. I have myself, under Pragati, reviewed close to 250 projects valued at Rs 11.5 lakh crores, many of which were earlier stalled. This has given a much needed fillip to infrastructure projects in rail, road, power, shipping, and housing sectors.

We are focusing on incentivising job creation across the manufacturing and services sector; with the use of technology we are improving productivity and efficiency; we are optimising the usage of existing financial resources through arrest of leakages and timely completion of projects and programmes. We are making India competitive and at the same time reducing our dependence on imports for such items where domestic production can be done in an efficient manner. Through this, we are also promoting Make in India.

We are investing in future generations to provide better health care through Ayushman Bharat; better education and skilling; better dwelling units through Housing for All.

We all know that big cities are growth engines. We have expanded this. By improving the infrastructure in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities and providing them air-connectivity too through UDAN we are making these the new growth engines. The MUDRA loans that number more than 13 crores, the start-ups that have come up and are flourishing, are all contributing to the growth story. At the same time, they are also providing employment to the people. With all these efforts our economy is on a high growth path. It is not only we but the world and especially the IMF, World Bank and the ADB are also recognising India as a bright star as far as economic growth is concerned.

GST and IBC are two of the biggest reforms from several perspectives. What is the next big thing?

I am glad that you have counted these two reforms as “big reforms”; let me add here that we have taken a number of reform measures that have brought immense benefits to our economy. The government has taken a major decision to change its approach towards CPSEs (central public sector enterprises). The objective is to have efficient management of public assets; unlocking wealth to the shareholders and creating wealth for the public. The disinvestment strategy has undergone a major change.

The result is evident from the fact that in the last four years, the government has realised over Rs 2 lakh crore from disinvestment of Public Sector Enterprises, which comes to about Rs 48,500cr per annum. In the last year 2017-18, the government realised an all-time record amount of Rs 1 lakh crore.

Just compare this with the performance of the preceding 10 years — 2004-05 to 2013-14 — during which the cumulative collection was Rs 1.08 lakh crore. So you can see that we have realised double the amount in less than half the period. This portrays my government’s commitment on efficient management of public assets so as to optimize returns — both to government and the public.

Similarly, we have undertaken FDI reforms, bringing in more FDI in the country; insurance reforms have paved the way for more insurance companies including reinsurance companies coming into our country. Our forex reserves that were close to $320 billion in 2014 are more than $400 billion today. Financial inclusion has got a major boost during our time; direct benefit transfer has ensured stoppage of leakages and ensured that the benefits reach the targeted in a timely and transparent manner. In the next few days, we are also to launch our own Post Office Bank, which is going to be a game changer. It will bring banking at the doorstep of the person living in the remotest village.

We have undertaken major policy decisions in the health sector; Ayushman Bharat will make health facilities affordable for all, especially the poor. Similar decisions have been taken in the education sector. These are not much talked about but are harbingers of change which will transform this sector. The new IIM Act gives complete functional and financial autonomy to the IIMs. Autonomy has also been granted to the well performing universities and institutions. Our new endeavour to create institutions of eminence will also bring in major qualitative change in the higher education institutions.

We are on course to have housing for all, electricity for all, a Swachh Bharat for all, roads in far flung areas, optical fibre network and e-services in all villages, larger coverage by health care institutions, completed irrigation projects for our farmers. Our reforms are evident and ongoing in all areas. You may think of reforms as a one time, big bang. For my government, however, the reform process is a continuum. For us all the reforms undertaken and proposed are equally important.

How much pain do you see for the banking sector in terms of resolution of bad loans and NPAs?

The real reason for increase in percentage of non-performing assets (NPAs) is something that has to be understood before we talk of resolution of NPAs. During the UPA-II period, there was a huge increase in the disbursement of loans. This was due to a phenomenon known as “telephone banking”, that was a characteristic of that regime. In this telephonic instructions used to go directly to banks and loans would get sanctioned, without, in most cases, there being any due scrutiny or checking of assets etc. Data shows that the gross advances of Public Sector Banks (PSBs) increased almost threefold in six years from 2008 to 2014. The result of such random sanctioning of loans is today’s problem of NPAs.

And, more importantly, in the previous regime the quantum of these NPAs was also understated, due to which the true scale of this problem could not be known to the country.

These facts we came to know once our government came to power. Someone else in my place would have perhaps washed all this dirty linen in public for political mileage and laid bare the havoc wrecked on the economy by the previous government. However, I knew that this would raise an alarm in the economy and perhaps destabilise the situation. So, we worked steadily and firmly instead on bringing the banking system back to health. Simultaneously we also made efforts to ensure that the banks comply with all prudential norms and regulations.

The asset quality review (AQR) carried out by RBI in 2015 revealed high incidence of Non-Performing Assets. Many Stressed loans, were reclassified as NPAs. As a result of AQR initiated by RBI in 2015, gross NPAs of PSBs increased by nearly Rs 6.17 lakh crore. Significant provisioning — Rs 5.12 lakh crore — was carried out by PSBs for transparent recognition.

To address the NPA issue and for creating a clean and effective recovery system, the government enacted the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. The government also amended the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 to authorise RBI to direct banks to take recourse to the IBC route. In fact, the cases of 39 large defaulters, amounting to almost Rs 2.69 lakh crore of exposure have now been filed before the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) for resolution With this process, lenders have already received more than Rs 40,000 crores and have successfully implemented change of management with substantial improvement in operations of companies.

To further strengthen PSBs, while the Indradhanush plan had earlier envisaged infusion of Rs 70,000 crore as capital in these banks, we have also announced recapitalisation of Rs 2.11 lakh crore in October 2017. We have brought in the Fugitive Economic Offenders Law to comprehensively and conclusively deal with absconding offenders. As a result of action by both the government and RBI by recognising NPAs transparently, upfront provisioning, recapitalisation for banks, reforms for comprehensive systemic improvements in banks and cleaning up of lending and recovery systems, a clean and robust banking system has been put in place.

This improvement is reflected in the credit growth of 12.4% year-on-year (as on 20.7.2018) shown by the Scheduled Commercial Banks (SCBs).This credit growth coupled with a strong deposit base of Rs 114.38 lakh crore also reflects customer confidence and a strong fund base. Our banks are thus strongly placed to contribute towards overall economic growth.

Second follow-up: Do you think the fugitive economic offenders bill will do enough to prevent defaulters from fleeing the country?

It will be a deterrent for such economic offenders who for all these years have exploited the existing loopholes in the system and evaded justice. It brings in an all-encompassing mechanism to ensure that these offenders are themselves forced to return to the country and face the due judicial process for their offences. In fact, this law has already started to show its impact. In one case, assets with market value of more than Rs 800 crores have been attached under PMLA. In another case, assets of more than Rs 3,500 crores have been attached/seized under PMLA. This law should have been enacted much earlier had the government of the day wished to take action against such offenders.

Do you think that there is fear in the business community, which is somehow inhibiting their tendency to invest here? And do you think there is also an unfair perception that all businessmen are dishonest?

This government is fully committed to promoting ease of doing business. At the same time, my government is also committed to bringing to book unscrupulous elements. The emphasis of this government is on making the processes simple, be it incorporation of a company, or induction of a director, or payment of income tax; or payment of GST. To a large extent, the human interface in these procedures has been eliminated by a robust IT interface. The World Bank ranking on Ease of Doing Business, where India has moved from rank 142 to 100, clearly shows that we are moving towards an enabling environment for our companies. So while for the compliant and law abiding, the procedures and processes are being simplified and made transparent, for the unscrupulous, there is no escape since transparency and simplicity would not be in consonance with their ulterior motives and dishonest intentions

Further, as part of our mission against black money and corruption, my government has struck off the names of around 260,000 shell companies and 309,000 directors. We are continuing the process of striking off names of another 55,000 companies within this month and many more are likely to follow in the coming months. On the taxation front, a presumptive taxation regime for professionals whose gross receipts do not exceed Rs 50 lakh per annum has been established. The first slab of income tax up to the income of Rs 5 lakh has been reduced from 10% to 5% for non-corporate tax payers, one of the lowest entry level rates in the world. The rate of income tax for companies with a turnover up to Rs 250 crore has been reduced to 25% and this covers 99% of all companies in the country.

Similarly, for GST, we have not gone in for enforcing compliance. We have trusted the businessmen and stakeholders and they are cooperating with the government and the system. If we thought that all businessmen were dishonest we would not have relied on them in this manner.

Let me summarise by saying that these actions are being taken to protect the interest of the honest taxpayers, whether companies or traders or individuals. Those inconvenienced by these measures would obviously not belong to the above mentioned categories. As far as the outcome is concerned, we are seeing a major increase in FDI in the country. The economy is growing at a robust 7.5% plus, all macro indicators are positive, the foreign reserves are well over US $400 billion. Our economy is being termed as an elephant that’s starting to run. I believe that we are running on the right path.

The issue of jobs and jobs data has become a contentious one, with some people claiming lots of jobs have been created in the past four years and others saying not many have been. Have we generated enough jobs? And what else do you think we can do to create more jobs? While formalisation is desirable from the long-term, it does cause some pain in the short-term, and also erode some political capital. How have you been able to manage this?

Besides those doing it due to vested political interest, people saying that not many jobs have been created in the economy are basically doing so because of there being no streamlined database of jobs and employment. Naturally, in the absence of information, our opponents will exploit this situation and blame us for not creating jobs.

To overcome this, we are now trying to create data on jobs. In the first place, we have used EPFO/ESI/NPS data to give us an idea of the employment generated. If we just look at EPFO data, more than 4.5 million formal jobs were created between September 2017 to April 2018. According to our study based on EPFO data, more than 7 million jobs were created in the formal sector alone last year.

While formal enterprises are there, we all know that the informal sector constitutes around 80% of all jobs. We also know that creation of jobs in the formal sector has a spin-off effect on job creation in the informal sector. To give you an example, there are close to 300,000 village-level entrepreneurs who are running common service centres across the country and creating employment. There are more than 15,000 start-ups which the government has helped and as we all know they are job multipliers. More than 130 million loans have been given under MUDRA Scheme. Is it unfair to expect that one loan would have created a job for at least one additional person? There has been massive construction activity in last four years, be it roads, railways or housing. All this generates jobs. All reports, whether national or international, show that poverty in India is on the decline. Can we think of such a possibility without people having jobs?

The tourism sector in the country has grown by 14%. The foreign exchange earnings through tourism have registered a healthy 19% growth in 2017 over 2016. We all know that tourism provides maximum employment, both direct and indirect. When we say that tourism has been growing, are we saying that this growth is happening without any employment being generated at the ground level?

Similarly, our air traffic has shown a growth of more than 18% year on year, which is the highest in any major economy. The number of operating airports has increased by almost double. Newer aircraft are being added by airlines on a monthly basis. All this cannot happen without some increase in the number of people working on the ground. The number of mobile manufacturing units in this country has risen to 120 from a handful when my government had taken over. These alone have generated 450,000 direct and indirect jobs. It is evident that all this cannot happen without employees on the ground, and with growth in these sectors, it is equally evident that jobs too would grow.

In addition to this misinformed debate, there are also claims made by certain state governments – West Bengal says it created 6.8 million jobs and the previous Karnataka government had claimed that it had created 5.3 million jobs. Are we saying that all jobs in the country are being created only in some states and that other states and the country as a whole, are not creating jobs? This propaganda on jobs by the Opposition is nothing but a political gimmick.

Recently, there have been questions raised regarding women’s security and their empowerment. How is the government addressing this issue?

No country can progress if its women are not full partners in the development process. I think we all understand the need to change mindsets to ensure women are fully empowered -- through a secure, safe and enabling environment — to achieve their full potential, individually, economically and socially.

We understood this need to challenge and change traditional mindsets that tolerate or allow violence against women early. If you recall, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, was among the first programmes that this government launched. It addresses the issue of declining Child Sex Ratio -- violence against the girl child even before she is born -- and educating the girl child.

This is the first time in the history of independent India that we have two women in the Cabinet Committee on Security — the minister of external affairs and the minister for Defence. Women have, for the first time, been inducted as fighter pilots in combat roles in the Indian Air Force. The Government of India is pushing hard to ensure that there are more women in the police force, so that victims of gender violence can come forward and lodge complaints in a more supportive environment. Twenty-two states and Union Territories have extended 30% and more reservation to women in the police force. Mahila Police Volunteers (MPVs) act as a link between police and community and facilitate women in distress in accessing justice. More and more empowered women in non-traditional roles will act as role models and counter the mindset that objectifies women and limits their potential.

The empowerment of women is a central theme that runs through government programmes, even programmes that are not specifically titled as women’s programmes. We are consciously mainstreaming gender in our public policy. The steps taken include actions to improve the physical safety of women in public spaces, actions to enhance their ability to seek support, redressal and justice and their social and economic empowerment.

In order to assist women affected by violence, institutional support mechanisms like One-Stop Centres and women helplines have been set up in all states. These provide 24-hour emergency and non-emergency responses, including medical aid, police assistance, legal aid and counselling, psycho-social counselling and temporary shelter to women affected by violence.

The government has enacted a law to award death penalty for the rape of a minor girl -- strengthening deterrence for those committing such barbaric acts.

Concerned about barbaric acid attacks against women, the Government now provides financial assistance of R1 lakh (over and above the amount provided under the Victim Compensation Scheme) as immediate temporary relief to survivors of acid attacks. Further, acid attack is now notified as a disability under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. Over and above this, a special assistance of R5 lakh can now be provided by States/UTs for financing medical treatment of acid attack victims.

Under the Nirbhaya Fund for ensuring safety and security of women, Central Victim Compensation Fund has disbursed, for the first time, Rs 200 crore to States/UTs to support financial assistance to victims of various crimes.

An Integrated Emergency Response Management System will be completed by 2019 to provide round the clock security to women passengers at over 900 railway stations, through CCTV-based security. This measure is expected to help combat trafficking of women and children.

To create a gender-just and equal society, we need to address the attitudes of our young people -- both girls and boys. The programme ‘Gender Champion’ tries to make young boys and girls gender-sensitive and create positive social norms that value girls and their rights. As of now, 100 universities and 145 colleges are implementing this.

This government has never shied away from tough measures to protect the vulnerable. The triple talaq bill, that makes triple talaq and nikaah halala illegal, is in response to a long-standing injustice done to Muslim women in India. The anti-trafficking Bill, just passed by the Lok Sabha, attempts to address one of the most pervasive yet invisible crimes affecting the most vulnerable women and children.

According to the new Haj policy, for the first time, women above the age of 45 years can go for the pilgrimage without a ‘mehram’, or a male escort. This also is a harbinger of change, recognising women’s agency and modifying a practice that is centuries old.

Construction of toilets in millions under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, both in rural and semi-urban areas augments women safety and security, because experience has shown that women are frequently subjected to sexual violence when they go out to defecate in the open, particularly in the dark. The rural sanitation coverage has improved from 39% to 71% and 1,472 cities have become ODF. Separate toilets for girls constructed in all government schools in mission mode will help reduce dropout of girl students.

Women’s health and their economic empowerment through facilitating their entry and retention in the workforce has received special attention.

The newly amended Maternity Benefit Act statutorily increases maternity leave to 26 weeks and makes it mandatory for every establishment that has more than 50 employees (whether male or female) to offer creche facilities. This will ensure that working women are not compelled to drop out of the workforce on becoming pregnant. This will also ensure their continuation in the workforce by offering childcare and recognises that the father has an equal role in childrearing.

Under the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana, every pregnant woman and lactating mother, except those in the organised sector covered by other maternity benefits, is entitled to maternity benefit for the first child in the family. This is expected to encourage health seeking behaviour among women during pregnancy and also improve maternal and child health by incentivising early registration of pregnancy, institutional deliveries and immunization. The four phases of Mission Indradhanush have reached more than 25.3 million children and 6.8 million pregnant women with life-saving vaccines, increasing the rate of complete immunisation of pregnant women and children by five times.

Under the Ujjwala Scheme, free LPG connections have revolutionized the lives of poor women. It heralds freedom from smoky chulhas, persistent coughs and drudgery. More than 51.4 million LPG connections have been released to poor women so far.

There is a sizeable and rapid growth in financial inclusion of women, a cherished goal for decades. Under the Jan Dhan Yojana, more than 162.3 million women’s accounts have been opened – about 53% of total PMJDY accounts. The women’s share of total savings accounts increased from 28% in 2014 to 40% in 2017 (according to data from top 40 banks and RRBs). The Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana (PMMY) has provided credit to small entrepreneurs without the need for collateral or a guarantor. Under this programme, it is seen that women are taking small loans, but in much larger numbers. More than 73% of the borrowers are women and loans worth Rs 2.95 lakh crore have been sanctioned to women entrepreneurs. Under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, there is a massive increase in access to credit by women SHGs. Since its inception in 2011, Rs 71,000 crore has been extended as bank credit to women in over 30 million families. More than 73% of this credit -- Rs 51,500 crore -- was given in the last two years. Under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban), houses are allotted either in the name of the female head of the household or in the joint name of the woman and her husband, increasing the asset base of women.

I think the record clearly demonstrates this government’s consistent commitment to women’s empowerment. “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved” said Dr. BR Ambedkar. We recognise that the quest for change in mindsets and evolution of a just and equitable society, is a continuous process, and we are fully committed to it.

You have been a big advocate of simultaneous elections. Not all states support this. Do you think we will ever move to this system?

In recent months, there is an animated discussion on this subject. I welcome a nationwide debate on this important subject.

Experience tells us that frequent elections impede governance and development. Elections have become extremely expensive affairs and frequent elections impose a major burden on a country with limited financial resources. Besides the expenditure incurred by the government machinery to conduct polls, huge expenditure is incurred by the political parties. Moreover, frequent imposition of Model Code of Conduct seriously impedes the implementation of welfare and development programmes.

There is also the manpower issue. Elections involve the deployment of huge number of personnel for long periods of time. During the 2014 elections, the Election Commission had deployed about 1400 CAPF companies. Close to 10 million polling personnel were deployed in 930,000 polling stations. After the 2014 elections, 19 states have gone to polls. In these elections, besides about 6,000 CAPF companies, more than 3.2 million polling personnel were drafted for poll duty.

Because of frequent elections, a time may come when people may develop ‘election fatigue’. Voters may start losing interest in this vital democratic process, leading to drop in polling percentage. The election machinery and political parties may also develop ‘election fatigue’. Signs of such fatigue are already surfacing.

We must guard against this. We should, therefore, give a serious consideration to the idea of simultaneous polls. I am glad that the Law Commission is making efforts in this direction. There is a need to debate this issue and then come to a resolution. I am happy that the debate has started on this issue.

There are efforts to build a coalition to take on the BJP in 2019 with the only focus being anyone-but-Modi. What are your views on the chances of the coalition? Do you think politics today has become very personality-driven, and polarised? How do we get the focus back on the issues that matter?

Nobody can deny that the status of India has risen in the eyes of the world since this government came to power. It was after a long time that a performing, strong and stable government is in power at the Centre. People have seen the benefit of such a dispensation. People also have a very bitter experience of coalition governments in the past that were burdened by coalition politics of compulsions. These groups that are being formed — Mahagathbandhan or whatever they may call it — cannot create a gathbandhan of the electorate. The Indian electorate has always kept the national interest paramount and I have faith that it will not compromise its vote for such incongruent groups whose only focus is, as you say, “anyone but Modi”.

A non-ideological alliance of desperate and disparate groups is not a ‘mahagathbandhan’ but political adventurism. It is a failed idea which never succeeded in past. The people want a strong and a decisive government that is sensitive to their interests and gives them results.

The political pundits, as we all know, proved themselves completely wrong in 2014. Once again, we and the people of this country will prove them wrong. These groups and ‘mahagathbandhans’ have no development, no growth, no bright, stable future to offer to this country. Their limited vision of getting together to remove Modi is what will expose them to the discerning public. It is what will spell their doom.

What will be your platform for 2019? Which of the government’s achievements will you focus on?

My platform will be all-round development, quick development, and development for all. My achievement will be the happiness of the poor woman in a remote village in the North-east when she makes food on a gas stove given to her under the Ujjwala Scheme. My achievement will be the satisfaction she derives with the additional time available to her to engage in economically productive activities; the lights shining in a village that has got electricity after 70 years, a village which has got a road; the success of a MUDRA loanee’s enterprise; the Sukanya Samriddhi accounts opened for our little girls; a hitherto unbanked person getting not only a bank account under Jan Dhan Yojana but also getting his due benfits in that account through DBT; a Swachch Bharat; flourishing start-ups; housing for all. The list is endless and I assure you that many more are yet to be added. It is my work and the work of this government for our country that will be our greatest achievement and it will be crystal clear for all to see.

You have generally used Independence Day as a platform to launch visionary campaigns, the most notable one being Swachh Bharat. Can we expect something similar this year?

You are right. August 15 and January 26 are both important days and have been used to announce major initiatives. However, I do not subscribe to this view that this day is a platform to launch campaigns. Nothing could be farther from the truth, or more demeaning, in fact. Independence Day is a festival of our independence. It is a day to remember the people who gave their lives for our independence and to take a pledge to follow the path shown by them. To thank them and be grateful for the freedom we enjoy. And also to realise that the freedom has to be enjoyed responsibly.

When I stand at the ramparts of the Lal Quila on Independence Day, and I see my proud tricolour hoisted in front of me, the only things that remain significant are my country, the constitution that has given us this democracy and the future and welfare of my 125 crore countrymen. I simply merge into all this.

You have always portrayed yourself as an outsider in Delhi? Is that still true? After four years, have you changed Delhi or has Delhi changed you?

I leave it to your judgement. I come from a very humble background and it has been my belief that it is with the blessings of the mother earth that I have achieved what I have achieved. I want to always remain grounded to the mother earth and to my values. My strength comes from my roots. I am a ‘kaamdar’ with a humble origin, I am not a ‘naamdar’ born with a silver spoon in his mouth. My linkage to my lineage, roots and values is not something that can be changed or modified by any external influence.

What is the one thing that gives you great pride in terms of your achievements over the past four years and what is your biggest regret over this period?

I don’t count any achievement as my own achievement; it is our ‘sava sau crore desh vaasis’ (1.25 billion countrymen) who have given me this opportunity to serve them and my nation from this position. It is the efforts of my sava sau crore desh vaasis that have given wings to my efforts and vision to make this country a better place. It gives me great satisfaction when I see that today in the world arena, Indian people are getting due recognition. This achievement surpasses all.

First Published: Aug 12, 2018 20:27 IST