No appeasement; no denial; budget a pillar of growth: Sitharaman | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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No appeasement; no denial; budget a pillar of growth: Sitharaman

Feb 02, 2024 06:48 AM IST

In an interview with Doordarshan, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman talks about the budget’s attempts to present people with uniform opportunities with a focus on welfare. Edited excerpts:

The entire budget-making process is connected with the development of the country, and you have provided a road map for ‘Developed India’. With this ocean of ideas, after the brainstorming led by you and your team since October, which gems have emerged from it that are now before the country? I want to say that this brainstorming did not start from October 8. It started even before that, when the honourable Prime Minister addressed the nation. In this golden period, to take India towards Viksit Bharat 2047, we have thought in great detail about what steps should be taken. Therefore, you can see that in India, we are recognising only four castes — regarding development, if we fulfil the aspirations of women, the poor, farmers, and youth, they will progress, and because of their progress, the country will also progress… We are paying attention to infrastructure without waiting for private investment, but I am happy to say that investment from the private sector is also scaling up now. Therefore, you can see that we are continuing... and for the rapid development of our country, we also need to encourage innovation, which we have declared the amount for and have also arranged for. We will elaborate on this in detail in the July budget.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman addresses a press conference in Delhi on Thursday. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)
Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman addresses a press conference in Delhi on Thursday. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

Congratulations on your sixth budget. A very clear strand in this is little or no populism whatsoever. So what is the thought that went behind taking such a bold move ahead of a general election? I’m happy you asked this question. Two things. The honourable Prime Minister kept saying that our performance over the last 10 years — which is what our honourable President said in her speech in the opening session for the current year — is “10 years of substantial systemic reforms, 10 years of taking the route of empowering people and not going by entitlement”. That is why when houses reach people, electricity reaches people, you also have money coming through Direct Benefit Transfer; you financially empower them. You also make sure that opportunities are given to them. So the mantras that we used — ‘sabka saath sabka vikaas’, looking at making sure that you don’t differentiate between beneficiaries on any other score — ensure there is actual development reaching the ground. There’s no appeasement of sorts, there’s no differentiating people. There is no denying people. Everybody gets everything that bracket of people should get. No caste, no religion is brought in. As a result you find, in the last 10 years, we’ve actually laid the foundation for people to think in terms of meeting their aspirations.

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In this, the one particular aspect, which I would think is a necessary corollary of all that we’ve done, is the development of the east. I want to make it clear here — I am not combining east with northeast. The northeast emphasis will continue the way it has continued over the last 10 years. But if 60% of all the aspirational districts in India are in the east — which is West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh — we want to give maximum attention to make them not just come at par, but to become engines. The power of pulling the new India, aspirational India. So the vote on account budget was not seen as an instrument to tell people, ‘we can do this, we can do that’, without having performed in the last 10 years. We didn’t want any populism coming here. We knew our track record will explain it. Yesterday, honourable Prime Minister, said, “Disha Nirdeshakbaatein ayengi” (long-term directional provisions). We wanted to put that in: What are the directions? Who is the target audience? How will we meet the targets? And what are the targets? That’s what we’ve given an indication of.

Over the 10 years, you have given basics such as banking, electricity, cooking gas and so on. So you effectively created 500 million-plus new stakeholders in the Indian economy. How do you see this playing out for the economy and society going forward?That will be the trigger point for consumption in the future. Consumption not just of basic necessities, consumption not just of food products — consumption also of services; consumption of education. Not as corporate education, but seeking skills, seeking knowledge, seeking opportunity. It is for this that the innovation fund has been set up and a large corpus is being given over the five years and also making sure that some of the PM-SHRI schools will be endowed enough to give them opportunities. I spoke about how many young people want to become doctors, how much such infrastructure is lying with various other departments remaining unused. We want to get the synergy of all of them, establish more such institutions and give them the opportunity for it. So that is where that extra attention is being given.

One aspect of the budget is the fiscal math. You have not only stayed on the commitment on the fiscal glide, but you have improved on it. So the gross borrowings are obviously down, which means RBI (Reserve Bank of India) gets more room for manoeuvre in its monetary policy. So this, plus the fact that over the last 10 years we have seen that RBI and the finance ministry are always on the same page, especially in the Covid phase — can you comment on this? I wouldn’t say especially in the Covid phase, and even afterwards. That kind of discussion, giving and taking inputs with RBI, has been a continuous process. I do it even today. We continuously interact with one another and see where best we can bring in synergy. That is one thing. Second, the emphasis that we are laying on being fiscally prudent without affecting our schemes, without denying funds anywhere, and actually by avoiding wastage. That is why we repeatedly talk about DBT and what actually it is given as saving. 2.6 lakh crore would have gone to waste and no one would have known where it has gone, because it was going to unborn children, going to dead people, going to people who don’t exist in the village, and so on. So when you brought in technology and synchronised it with biometric validation, you were able to save money. So your prudence is not on just cutting expenditure, but improving revenue and avoiding wastage of taxpayers’ money. That is why today we’ve bettered on our fiscal deficit numbers this year and for the next year as well.

The PM has congratulated you and the entire team and said that it’s not just an interim budget but also an innovative and inclusive budget, along with confidence in consistency. But is it a conscious decision that you are focusing on women empowerment? On January 26, we saw women in key positions, and the budget also has a significant focus — whether it is the “Lakhpati Didi” or others.It is absolutely a powerful tool, and for a long time, it’s been a category that has been waiting. You see, it’s not just about the Women’s Bill — the Women’s Reservation Bill is certainly a top achievement. However, from 2014 till today, and I would say even before that when the Prime Minister was the chief minister in Gujarat, work was done for women’s empowerment. In defence, women can enter at every rank now. They are getting a permanent commission; recruitment for women is happening in military schools and the National Defence Academy. In every field, provisions are being made for women. Despite being in the space industry for a long time, their recognition and appreciation is happening now as much as I haven’t heard before. In Isro, you have seen women and their representation on Republic Day. The Prime Minister takes this very seriously, and in every programme of his, you will see that whatever steps need to be taken for women’s empowerment, he takes them.

In the run-up to the budget first, RBI revised growth trends upwards pretty sharply then the CSO (Central Statistics Office) came out with an even higher estimate. My question is, are you looking at a new trend rate of growth for the Indian economy as opposed to the previous rates?It will be too early for me to say that. However, I’m seeing that kind of buoyancy. I’m seeing that kind of energy coming out of every sector. Earlier you would find that in manufacturing — whether in motorbikes or cars or passenger vehicles or whatever — if you had a trend coming, you couldn’t say that of any other sector and you couldn’t say that of services. But today, the way in which the Indian economy is positioned, largely because of the drive that the Indian public is showing, you find every sector is revving to move fast. So it is safe for you to assume that it is not going to be confined to one or two sectors. But the pattern with which growth is happening is every segment is contributing to it. There is no one segment that is going to pull it down because of peculiar situations for them. Peculiar situations are being overcome because of the aspirations and the drive and the positivity which is there in the economy.

For the first time, income tax collections are exceeding corporate tax collections. Second, when you put out earlier estimates, we saw that among the slabs, there is a wealth effect which is operational. So is this exactly what you’re talking about, that the growing aspirations are now manifesting even in income streams? Partly, yes. It is also in that newer areas of activity, where people earlier wouldn’t want to tread, are now opening up opportunities. Space is a classic example. India’s space industry has been there for a long time, doing well for a long time. It’s not as if they have succeeded only now, but the energy with which it is growing and the components that can be given by private participation — startups contributing to the space sector are giving them that multiplier that they wouldn’t have had earlier. As a result, what is happening is that the contribution to GDP is coming from areas that earlier did not even exist. And that is contributing. I took the example of space. I took the example of startups who are equally contributing and therefore giving us an accumulation. That is applicable to many other sectors as well.

You referred in the speech to the sunrise sector. The question on everyone’s mind is about the announcement of the new fund of 1 lakh crore you have provisioned. Just as interest-free loans are given abroad for research & development, you have shown great innovation in R&D. How will it work, who will it benefit?We are providing a large amount of money interest-free, and it will be cheaper through the corpus. It can be one of the government companies and some special purpose vehicles (SPVs) will be created for it. They will receive money from us continuously for the next two to three years. I have announced the amount, and along with that, they will also seek private participation. If it is not there, for identified projects, assistance will also be provided in the private sector. When money comes cheaply, they also get the opportunity to provide business cheaply. So yes, I believe it is a major step forward. Within the next five years, there will be many small innovations, big innovations. The multiplier for contribution towards development. In all of these, there will be a direct impact, and when an object benefits due to innovation, the entire sector immediately grows. Just like in the payment system — after bringing in the Indian digital payment system — see the power, how many payments are happening from small villages.

You also identified DPI (Digital Public Infrastructure) as a factor of production. If you combine it with all the basics that have been provided, the physical infrastructure, is India now looking to harvest its digital dividends?Undoubtedly, because now India Stack as a whole — whether some people may want it or not — some countries need it, we are willing to extend that help. Private players in this sector are also finding newer marketplaces where they can go and sell it, or make money out of it, or provide that technology for one or the other exchange of goods, or it can be for whatever a private person would want to do. So India created public infrastructure, made it available for private parties, and made it available for small-medium businesses who all want to get onto that and benefit. So the Indian economy got attraction, but those who contribute now by building on public infrastructure also stand to benefit.

In your speech you talked of societal changes, setting up a committee to look at population growth, fast population growth, and demographic changes. What is the thought behind it? Is there any timeline for it?I’ve also said it in a different context. That there are three Ds about which we are talking — demography, democracy and diversity. All three of them are characteristically India’s advantage. So now that this advantage exists, are we able to make a long-term plan for it? Are we able to really leverage it? What is the kind of consideration that we should have in our mind? How are we going to be able to, at least in the “Kartavya Kaal”, use that advantage for our benefit? So for this, a comprehensive understanding is required. We need to have some group taking all these considerations into their minds and sit and draft something up for the government because it’s not going to be in bits that we can attend to this, and say that it is an opportunity. We need to have some skilling done here, and some work done there.

On January 22, on the day of Ram Mandir consecration ceremony, we saw the culmination of an 11-day period in which the PM followed a strict regimen ahead of the Pran Pratishtha. You have also used terms such as Sarv Vyapi and Sarv Sparshi. What are people’s duties during this duty period, or Kartavya Kaal? what is your message? Because it is very important that everyone contributes for Viksit Bharat.Absolutely right, everyone’s contribution is necessary, otherwise, we will not reach the destination of 2047. India should walk on the right path this time, and everyone should be taken along. For that, whatever programmes we need to do, we are committed to them. This is sarvavyapi (omnipresent)and sarvasparshee (all-pervasive)development and it is also an ideology of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). Everyone in the BJP knows that the party should be comprehensive and all-inclusive…and whatever programme we are doing by the government, we are doing it for sarvangeen (all-round)development. This is our mantra, our basic principle.

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